Trump is swimming against the tide of history. Let’s rally behind the real leaders

In withdrawing from the Paris agreement, Donald Trump is breaking with a tradition of political leadership and the best of humanity. But others are surging forward, writes Green Party co-leader James Shaw.

At the height of the Cold War, President John F Kennedy proclaimed that all of us should have “the right to live out our lives without fear of devastation; the right to breathe air as nature provided it; the right of future generations to a healthy existence.”

When Barack Obama, Xi Jinping and Angela Merkel joined with world leaders to sign the Paris Agreement in December 2015, they lived up to Kennedy’s proclamation. They showed the best of political leadership and the best of humanity, committing their countries – our world’s largest economies and most significant contributors to climate change – to take action to ensure a stable climate for future generations.

This week, President Trump stepped in the opposite direction. Though we have known for a while that it was coming, the announcement that the US is taking steps to formally withdraw from the Paris Agreement will be heartbreaking for the millions of people whose lives tenuously depend on a stable climate and steady sea levels. 

But I am not heartbroken. I know that while President Trump is stepping back, others are surging forward. The global tide of political momentum cannot be stopped. It is driven by young people taking to the streets to demand action. It is driven by organisations investing in rapid changes to the way they do business. And it is driven by political leadership across every continent, striving to do more and do it faster to reduce emissions.

This momentum cannot be stopped, even in Trump’s America, at city and state level. Despite climate denialism at the top, at the grass-roots Americans are acting. New York City, for example, will require that new buildings have solar panels to generate clean energy or roof gardens to grow local food and cool the city. California’s ambitious attempts to reduce carbon emissions are seeing it sued by Trump’s backward-looking federal government. Several US states are doing as New Zealand has done and moving to ban new offshore fossil fuel exploration.

Despite Trump’s rhetoric, the US is actually reducing its emissions. From the Midwest farms to Puerto Rico, Americans understand the seriousness of avoiding a climate crisis. I have faith that many will continue to take action in their own lives, in their communities, and in their cities and states to reduce their contributions to climate change.

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In the meantime, the rest of the world will get on with things. At COP 25 in Spain later this year, we will continue negotiating the Paris Agreement “rulebook” – the guidelines that will make the Paris Agreement work. We will get on with switching our transport fleets to clean fuels, and replacing coal and gas with renewable sources to generate electricity. For New Zealand, we will continue research and development to help produce food in more environmentally sustainable ways. 

We will share knowledge between communities and nations, building a web of partnerships to ensure a stable climate for future generations. We have the tools we need to avoid a climate crisis, now we must learn from each other how best to use them, and move fast.

President Trump is choosing to cede America’s position as a global leader. But we do not need to rally behind a Kennedy or a Churchill: in fact, if we are to rally behind anyone it should be Greta Thunberg and the young people who take to the streets to demand more of their political leaders or the holders of indigenous knowledge from who we can learn much about how to practice kaitiakitanga. The 21st century will be defined by leaders who rise to the scale of the climate change challenge. Those who choose to step aside will be left behind, not least by the people they purport to represent.

James Shaw is the co-leader of the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand.


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