John Oliver on the Paris Agreement


Last week, the United States pulled out of the climate change focused Paris Agreement. John Oliver talks why, how, and what may happen now.

If you are a human being with regular access to the news, then you’ve almost certainly heard the United States has stepped away from the Paris Agreement. This historic agreement, which is part of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), is a big deal. Nearly every country in the world, apart from Nicaragua, Syria, and now the United States, is a signatory of the Agreement.

As part of the Agreement, nations set their own goals for reducing carbon emissions and avoiding a global temperature rise of more than two degrees Celsius. If temperatures rise to about this level, we’ll almost certainly see more intense heat waves and droughts. This will then lead to serious changes in our food supply, which is to say that much of the world could expect to grapple with famine and war as a result.

This is not to say that the Paris Agreement was perfect. Some critics argued that it did not have any real power. Participation in this agreement was voluntary and did not include the threat of actual sanctions.

In fact, as John Oliver reminded viewers later in the show, the only punitive action the UNFCCC could take was to shame a country. Alas, said Oliver, “this president is immune to the very concept of that”.

But this was still a major step. Nearly every country in the world agreed to this, including major polluters like India and China. It was one of the first truly worldwide steps to fight back against human-caused climate change.

Why leave the Paris Agreement?

So, why would Trump want to step back from such a major deal? The reasons are occasionally confusing and, more often than not, based in paranoia rather than reality. For one, in his speech announcing the withdrawal, Trump claimed that it put the United States at a “very big economic disadvantage”.

He cited the people celebrating the agreement, saying that they were excited at the prospect of an economically crippled U.S. Certainly, it was not because we had taken a major step from the brink of climate disaster or anything. Of course, if this was really a blow to the U.S. economy, it is puzzling as to why major corporations, including the 25 that appealed to Trump in a New York Times ad, would argue for the Paris Agreement.

Oliver then pointed out the two major climate change deniers who advise Trump – Scott Pruitt and Steve Bannon. Pruitt, who has sued the Environmental Protection Agency during his time as an attorney, now heads the very same agency.

Trump’s other misguided views include his apparent belief that the agreement meant the U.S. would be forced to shut down coal-fired power plants. However, the Paris Agreement doesn’t actually contain the word “coal”. And, again, each country set its own terms anyway.

He also found fault with the Green Climate Fund, which finances projects in developing nations to reduce the impact of climate change. Trump thinks that this means the U.S. will have to hand over tens of billions of dollars, even though there is no enforcement mechanism in the Agreement. Also, the U.S. committed to three billion dollars, not $10 billion. And, when compared to our GDP, the U.S. contribution to the Green Climate Fund actually ranks 32nd, not first.

Why is this a big deal?

So, if this is all voluntary anyway, what’s the harm in leaving? For one, said Oliver, this seriously hurts the standing of the United States. And while that may seem to be a superficial thing, a damaged national “brand” can have serious consequences. American businesses may find that they have trouble working in international fields. American workers can lose out on the growing opportunities within renewable energy.

If the United States fails to encourage renewable energy ventures within its borders, it could very well pass up some serious economic gains later on. There’s little chance that green energy is going to be fading into history any time soon. If the United States is digging in its heels, then other countries can reap the financial and social benefits.

China, for instance, has already committed more than $361 billion on renewable energy industries by 2020. This could create more than 13 million new jobs for Chinese workers. French president Emmanuel Macron even directly appealed to Americans disappointed by Trump’s announcement. Macron said that “they will find in France a second homeland”.

If this is getting especially grim, take a moment to enjoy Oliver’s combination of a Macron-inspired “Be Our Guest” tribute, complete with a squeaky gavel.

What you can do

While moving to France sounds almost appealing (if you forget about their own far-right political troubles), that is impractical for many Americans. It’s certainly unattractive if you want to fight for change in your own community. So, what’s a climate-conscious American to do?

First of all – and this will sound like a broken record for years to come – you have to call your representatives. If you don’t know already, find out who represents you in Congress. Then, do a little research and learn about their position on climate change. Give them a call. You can either express your thanks or encourage them to change their point of view before your vote in the next election.

Some state and local governments have done well by affirming their support for the Paris Agreement. Other politicians, however, have some pretty strange ideas about climate change.

As showcased by Oliver, Senator James Inhofe (R-Pennsylvania) even believes that climate change could be caused by human body heat. The idea of Sen. Inhofe casting a real vote against climate change legislation should be downright frightening.

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There may be a small, small silver lining, though. “Trump may have inadvertently done us a tiny favor this week” , said Oliver. He may have brought the abstract of climate change into focus in a very real and immediate way.

For many people, it could be that climate change is no longer a vague, faraway image of a polar bear on a melting iceberg. Instead, it is now something that can have very real and very dangerous effects in their own lives.