Trump, Food, And The Fate Of A Toothless Climate Accord

Typically—via tweet—Donald Trump indicated he will likely pull the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Accords. (We’ll know one way or another at 3PM EDT today.) Prepare for a polar-cap shattering chorus of Democrats bewailing the fate of an “historic” agreement, and lambasting Trump for his ignorance, arrogance, and lack of multilateral sensibility.

All of this is well-deserved, and leaving the Paris Accords is definitely not a good thing, and swims against the multi-trillion dollar tide of the renewable fuels industry. But—like many issues—beyond twitter-rage, the Democrats and mainstream environmentalists will have a hard time rallying the base on this one. Why?

Because it’s hard to rush to the defense of a glass half empty…

Yes, over 189 nations, including China (the world’s largest GHG emitter), signed the Accords. Yes, $100 billion was set as a goal for climate assistance to developing countries, and yes, if everyone works in the spirit of the agreement and targets improve, and everything works out right, then expected warming by 2100 could fall by 1⁰ Celsius and this might stave off the worse effect of climate change.

On the other hand, the Accord sets initial warming levels too high, and the “pledges” are toothless and non-binding. Countries agreed on goals and promises with no real plan of how to achieve them, or any effective measures to ensure accountability. As John Sterman of the Alliance for Research on Corporate Sustainability reported just after the conference, this is “like a person trying to lose 50 pounds, but who isn’t eating less or exercising more and then says ‘my new goal is to lose 80 pounds.’” Further, the Accord doesn’t even address the carbon and methane emissions from industrial agriculture and the global food system that together are responsible for up to 40% of the planet’s GHGs.

Why so weak? Simply, because the U.S. strategy for the Accords was to work with mainstream environmental organizations and big business and to ignore the widespread, grassroots-based climate justice movement. It’s hard to call on your base for support if you’ve cut them out of the process to begin with.

For its part, the global climate justice movement has been mobilizing communities in drought-stricken and lowland areas, islanders, small scale farmers and indigenous people—basically the people who are already being affected by climate change. There are millions in the movement and their numbers are growing. The other salient characteristic of the climate justice movement is that its organizations are not only mobilizing against polluting, carbon-spewing corporations and their political minions, but in favor of viable, non-polluting economic alternatives. They have to; they are on the front lines of the hurricanes, floods, droughts, heat waves and growing disease vectors that result from climate change. For them, building structural and community resilience is a survival tactic as well as a strategy for systems transformation.

Take food production, for example. Corporate environmentalists are counting on “climate smart” seeds from Monsanto and Co., and on “sustainably intensifying” (reduced fertilizer and water application) the production of vast monocultures of soy and corn to feed livestock and cars. This is good for agribusiness and the auto industry, but doesn’t do much to address their petroleum-heavy and methane-spewing practices.

In contrast, small, family farmers around the world—the ones who actually produce over 70% of the world’s food—are cutting back on petroleum products and capturing carbon in the soil and into newly-planted trees and shrubs with the rapidly-growing practice of agroecology. These are the farmers “cooling the planet” that are absent from the Paris Accords. Too bad, too, because there are nearly a billion strong, and their numbers are growing. They would have had a stake in defending a good climate agreement.

Whether Trump’s move to sacrifice the Accords is a tactic to further cripple the EPA, a desperate move to shore up falling approval ratings (by making good on at least one campaign promise), or just more isolationist grandstanding, is hard to tell. What’s clear is that the move sucks political momentum out of an agreement that, while underwhelming, was one of the last vestiges of the ill-fated progressive neoliberalism that linked the United States to the rest of the world.

What is also clear is that if we really care about climate change, we’d better stop focusing on Trump’s twitter-bait and start working with climate-vulnerable communities and with the people on the ground who are actually fighting for a climate justice agenda. If we do end staying in the agreement, these are the organizations that will put real teeth into the Paris Accords.