I will always remember Friday, September 22. It was the day the Trump administration announced they would withdraw from the Paris climate accord, and I saw the glimmer of hope in the eyes of the international community. I had just co-founded a new organization called The Climate Reality Project and had traveled to the G20 to talk to other leaders about the need to act on climate change and to organize global leaders to respond to the dangers that are already upon us. On that day, I saw the renewed hope that comes when we see such political will to do what is right in the face of such overwhelming evidence of how bad things are becoming. So when it came time to get ready for the G20, it didn’t seem like the most logical thing to think about, but it would have helped with the planning of COP23 had world leaders been talking to each other in a much more proactive way as I was doing. Instead, they seemed focused on securing political talking points, which ultimately painted a very dark, dangerous picture.
I don’t know how the climate negotiations turned out for the Paris agreement. I cannot be sure, but I can tell you this. It is possible that if leaders had been asking questions instead of offering vague promises they could have worked more effectively to negotiate provisions to slow the rate of climate change. I think they also might have gotten to the end of the negotiation more quickly because they were working to reach agreements. They worked from an abundance of good intention and likely believed that stopping the earth from warming by 2 degrees Celsius would be an important place to start. And, though I’m sure they did that, to have failed to start with a measurable position in advance of the talks that embodied those goals because they were not planning on actually meeting them is to me the best example of self-delusion, of leaders who showered their efforts on political objectives instead of taking action. After all, if you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s a lot easier to say you’re going to do it than actually doing it.
What I see at the G20 as I think back on this event is that the leaders were all angry at a particular person – President Trump. I mean all of them. The rest of them were worried about being criticized for their inability to make up their minds, and their decisions were all being evaluated by their peers as they figured out what to do. That is the language of politics and we have witnessed so much of it in the past two years. As a result, leaders came with many counter arguments to justify Trump’s decision. They saw Trump as a macho villain who stood to gain nothing except for personal glory by abandoning the climate deal, but they also saw him as a shrewd negotiator who could have found a way to salvage the agreement through backroom negotiations. Trump came into the G20 believing his position and ready to leave quickly, and yet I wonder how many leaders who knew his behavior before, during and after that summit even tried to understand his reasoning.
On Monday, after the summit, a Bloomberg survey of G20 nations revealed that only 10 of the members were still committed to the Paris agreement. The others – Argentina, China, Germany, Indonesia, Italy, Mexico, Poland, Russia, South Africa and South Korea – said they would take a wait-and-see approach to whether or not they were committed to the agreement. And in a stark sign of how little other nations care about climate issues, most expected that Trump would pull out by the end of the year.
I could write much more about how this summit failed to bring leaders together to stand for justice. But I think this article is more about the individuals who failed. People in so many places who see climate change as a threat to their future but did not take leadership roles to get the job done. President Trump, although he gave his own personal speech prior to his exit from the G20, he lacked the political will to make it happen. He was surrounded by robots when it came to whether or not the world really was standing up to him. If the leaders of the world all looked at one another with the same suspicion towards him, it is possible they could have saved us some time and energy.
PAPA ARMIAM, Climate Reality Project