My epiphany came when the egg hit the Tesla. I was in Madrid, attending a conference to mark the inauguration of Lord Foster’s new foundation — a celebration of the work of one of the greatest British architects, who has pioneered energy-efficient buildings and smart cities. The audience in the Teatro Real listened, rapt, as he and other leading architects and designers set out their visions for the green, pristine megalopolis of the future.
The spell was broken by the news from Washington that President Trump had decided to withdraw from the Paris agreement on climate change. Not since his election has he aroused this depth of indignation. Murray Energy, America’s largest private coal miner, applauded. Pretty much everyone else with a Twitter account was against.
Of course, you would expect the Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer to call it a “devastating failure of historic proportions.” You knew that Barack Obama would be unable to resist condemning Trump for “reject[ing] the future”. More startling were the objections by some of America’s biggest corporations: not only Apple but also General Electric, and even ExxonMobil. The boldest entrepreneur of our time, Tesla’s Elon Musk, declared he was withdrawing from the president’s advisory councils.
Conspicuously absent from the Rose Garden, where Trump made his announcement, were the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, who used to run Exxon, Trump’s daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner. Even the mayor of Pittsburgh disavowed Trump, rebutting the president’s claim that he was “represent[ing] the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris”.
Yes: if the goal of this announcement was to re-establish the coalition of “globalists” that Trump ran against last year, then this was a resounding triumph for his populist éminence grise, Steve Bannon.
Which brings me back to the egg and the Tesla. I sat mesmerised in Madrid as the Swiss architect Matthias Kohler presented a series of futuristic videos: of robots building a computer-designed wall, of drones building a computer-designed tower, of greenery-filled apartment blocks next to high-speed railway stations. A central theme of the conference was that such innovations are the solution to climate change.
This makes sense. My view on global warming has always been that I am not qualified to judge the science, but I can take a view on the most rational form and scale of insurance. The plausible costs in terms of flooding, harvest failure and mass migration will end up being borne by our children and grandchildren more than by us. We need to pay an insurance premium on their behalf, and the obvious one is to invest in technology that reduces carbon emissions.
You can be a climate change “denier” and still support this approach. Making the American way of life less dirty and wasteful seems an uncontroversial goal, and reducing the fossil fuel consumption of cars, lorries and buildings is the obvious way to go. We should therefore all live in solar-heated apartments near our solar-heated workplaces, recycling all waste products and covering longer distances in electric cars, preferably the safer, driverless variety.
But in getting to that city of the future there will be many losers. The egg that hit my Tesla was thrown by a Madrid taxi-driver and was part of a campaign against Uber, the American ride-hailing company my driver worked for. That cabbie is just one of millions of people losing out as technology advances. Within 10 years, Uber won’t need drivers. Kohler already doesn’t need bricklayers. Perhaps Lord Foster soon won’t need draughtsmen.
Trump justified withdrawing from the Paris deal in terms of protecting manufacturing and mining jobs — “and I happen to love the coal miners”, he added. “It is time to put Youngstown, Ohio; Detroit, Michigan; and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania . . . before Paris, France,” he declared, not to mention before China, the world’s No 1 polluter. This is not stupid politics.
First, let’s not make a fetish of the Paris agreement. It is not Nato. It is not even Nafta. It is a non-binding accord, dependent on voluntary commitments. Unlike its predecessor, the Kyoto protocol (which the last Republican president pulled out of), it does not set targets with legal force. It does indeed, as Trump pointed out, commit developed countries to transfer $100bn a year to developing countries. Does China gain more from Paris than America does? Yes. China’s commitment is only that its CO2 emissions will peak by 2030 at the latest. The US commitment was to cut its 2005 level of emissions by 26%-28% by 2025. (It is already halfway there.)
The Paris agreement asks democracies to make sacrifices for future generations. They have become quite bad at that. It asks rich countries to make sacrifices for poorer countries. This, too, has become a hard sell. It asks the American empire to bind itself to a supranational agreement. The empire does not like doing that, which is why it is also not a member of the International Criminal Court and has not ratified the United Nations convention on the law of the sea. The Paris agreement asks a country in the midst of a fossil-fuel revolution (the extraction of shale gas and oil) to restrain its development.
Above all, Paris asks inland Americans to make sacrifices for coastal Americans. Funnily enough, people in middle America don’t worry much about rising sea levels; they do worry about job losses caused by environmental regulations. Most Americans think global warming is happening (though only 40% think it will harm them). But the states with below-average concern about climate change are the states that voted for Trump. Meanwhile, California and the other liberal strongholds can go ahead and stick to the Paris agreement if they so choose. I predict they will and that US emissions will continue to fall.
Finally, to those who continue credulously to applaud Angela Merkel’s anti-Trump grandstanding, have a think about that increasingly close relationship between Berlin and Beijing. Good luck, Angela, with your pivot to Asia in search of more “reliable” partners. Good luck, Volkswagen — yes, the company that fiddled its engine emissions data — with your new electric car partnership with the state-run Anhui Jianghuai Automobile Group. My money’s still on Tesla.
President Trump has been much mocked for a sleepy, late-night tweet that introduced to the world the word “covfefe”. I have a message to his virtue-signalling critics. As you press on with your Paris commitments, watch out for flying eggs. And wake up and smell the covfefe.