Early June, US President Donald Trump pointed out to his listeners, ‘I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.’ The reference to Paris was to the 2016 International Climate treaty from which he was announcing a withdrawal. The comparison to Pittsburgh is interesting. Trump, in his election campaign, made a strong pitch about bringing back jobs to the American heartland, particularly industries that had been hit by jobs moving abroad.
However, another set of industries that were affected due to regulations dealing with pollution and global warming are also in that region. A lot of Trump’s support came from the coal regions of West Virginia, affected by pollution control regulations.
Pittsburgh was once known as the steel city due to the steel manufacturers in the area and you can imagine the pollution there 40 years ago. But a lot has changed in Pittsburgh since then. The city is now a centre for healthcare, technology companies, medical research and so on. It employs more people in renewable energy than in the ‘dirty’ business of iron and steel making. The city’s three rivers are clean enough to attract tourists.
So Trump got it wrong when he mentioned Pittsburgh. He probably thought it rhymes with Paris. But let us look at the bigger picture of what drove Trump to withdraw from the Paris treaty.
Countries that try and engage actively in the global sphere find that they have to make compromises from their original positions, both to look better on a global plane, and because they learn more about what is happening in the rest of the world and they need to shift from their national positions. This can be called the first order effect of engagement. In return, they sometimes try to get something in return to justify their shift. When they get back home, they may find their compatriots not entirely convinced. They then try to delay implementation in areas that hurt domestic constituencies, or provide domestic protections to alleviate the impact. This is the second order effect.
We have seen this happen when countries take part in WTO agreements. We even saw it previously when the US President Clinton signed on to the 1992 Kyoto Protocol about reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But the second order effect kicked in, the US senate refused to ratify the agreement and President Bush withdrew US participation. Trump is now stumbling about thinking his withdrawal from the agreement will help the jobs in some of those industries although many US CEOs have themselves seen the writing on the wall and are falling in line with strategies to reduce their environmental impact.
Bangladesh is at the other end of the spectrum from the US on per capita GDP but is connected to the US through global warming. Over the years, Bangladesh has gotten good at protecting its people from cyclone devastation but it will not be able to withstand the effects of rising sea levels if a major polluter like the US does not reduce its impact on the climate. The US already spends almost 50 per cent of its aid of $200 million (about ₹1,300 crore) to Bangladesh on health related issues.
Incidentally, Pittsburgh’s mayor announced that the city will continue to make efforts in the spirit of the Paris climate treaty. One of their goals is to be 100 per cent powered by renewable energy by 2035.
The writer is a professor at Suffolk University, Boston