Washington DC - politics, Paris syndrome and "would you rather"

December 4, 2017

Mon 27th - 21km


I arrived in Washington DC at around midnight, having played “would you rather” with my friend Kat for 4.5 hours on a bus from New York. “Would you rather run 21kms tomorrow or go to jail” was an example of one of the pressing questions I was faced with. When we arrived at our friends Tori and Josh’s house we got a good seven hours sleep and then got up early again on Monday morning (not to do anything in particular, just because jetlag from one of the previous eight countries was beginning to set in). At 3pm we set off from the house in northwest Washington DC, down 13th street to National Mall, before stopping to get the obligatory photo outside the White House. We picked up Tori from the New Zealand Embassy en route, who ran with us for the last 15km. I lost Kat at one point, who was biking alongside me mapping the way, somewhere near the edge of Observatory Circle. Realising that we were already running behind schedule, I ran up to a lady who was dressed completely in white, and walking a small dog, and asked if she could point me in the direction of the embassy. Mumbling a long-winded version of “no”, the lady was extremely unhelpful. However, on reflection, a foreigner running at her with no possessions, looking anxious and sweaty and asking for the New Zealand Embassy, is probably a red flag.


 Like many a national icon that I have visited in person, I found the White House to be rather underwhelming. I got absolutely ridiculed when I conveyed a similar sentiment to friends about the Eiffel Tower, when we visited Paris last year. “But you have to admire the amazing architecture”, they would say. Perhaps I did admire the architecture the first, second and third time I saw pictures of the tower. However, when I saw it for the 136th time, I just stood there, separated from the structure by streets, a lot of grass, and thousands of people taking photos of each other with one arm sticking straight up pretending to pinch the air and thought to myself “yep, looks exactly like they said it did”. I must not be alone in this though, as there is a Wikipedia page dedicated to “Paris Syndrome” described as “a transient mental disorder exhibited by some individuals when visiting or going on vacation to Paris, as a result of extreme shock derived from their discovery that Paris is not what they had expected it to be”. “Japanese visitors are observed to be especially susceptible”, apparently.

 As I peered through the White House gates, there was no sign of the rose garden where Donald Trump had stood back in June, announcing that he would withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement. In doing this he had, in effect, ensured that the US (the world’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gases) will quit the international effort to address dangerous global warming. In his usual articulate and intellectually thought-provoking way, Trump told of how he would continue to negotiate an agreement on terms that were fair to America, stating that “We will start to negotiate, and we will see if we can make a deal that’s fair. If we can, that’s great. If we can’t, that’s fine.” Captivating stuff from Trump. I don’t know what he envisages when he talks of an agreement that is fair to the US – perhaps one that allows them to keep polluting? It’s hard to say.

Climate change is one of the many global issues of today that knows no borders.  We need an effective web of multilateral governance and the combined will of all nation-states to have any chance of combating it. The setting up of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the 23 Conferences of Parties (COPs), where national delegations meet annually to assess progress and negotiate climate change agreements, are examples of effective international collaboration. But responding to climate change will require all nations to come to the party, especially the largest emitters such as the US. This must also be backed up by political will and action at a national level. It took 21 COPs to finally reach the Paris Agreement in 2015, the agreement in which 169 member states covenanted to keep global temperature rise this century well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels.  The Agreement Donald Trump completely undermined as he stood awkwardly in a bed of roses.


You would think that, as the world’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gases and the country with the largest economy, the US government would feel some ethical responsibility to take action – to lead the way even. However, its position on climate change has effectively resulted in the US isolating itself internationally, causing other leaders to outwardly convey their disappointment at Trump’s decision and creating a void for another superpower, perhaps China, to step up and set an example. It is also possible that the US’s refusal to join the rest of the world in curbing emissions could have other diplomatic repercussions. The international community may decide to withhold cooperation on issues the Trump administration cares about, like trade. In an extreme scenario, other countries could threaten to impose carbon tariffs on the US.


Climate change has undoubtedly had an effect on international relations, not simply in terms of the creation of a divide between the US and the rest of the world, but also between developed and non-developed nations. Developing countries are very open in expressing their desire to benefit from industrialisation (and the huge quantities of carbon emissions that brings), in the same way that developed countries like the US and UK have. Seems fair, but in reality, the global climate cannot cope with this development. Similarly, these developing countries who have not contributed the level of carbon emissions that, for example, the US has, do not feel they should have to pay for the consequences of climate change caused by others. Adding another layer of complexity again, the developing countries that have for the most part not “caused” climate change, are the ones who will bear a large proportion of the first wave of impacts – they are often geographically low-lying with large populations living on the coast, under-resourced and very poor. They are also least able to adapt and mitigate.


There is hope, however. When it was signed, the Paris Agreement itself was coined the world’s greatest diplomatic success, illustrating that imminent transboundary issues such as climate change can result in unprecedented global cooperation. The Paris Agreement also dictates that developed country parties shall provide financial resources to assist developing countries with respect to both mitigation and adaptation. And even though the US government wants to withdraw, many individuals in the country consider this decision and Trump’s inaction to be a slap in the face to the American people. As I said above, Trump announced in June that the US would be pulling out of the Paris Agreement. It is now December and there has been no further movement in this regard.


Moreover, in the months following the rose garden exchange, 14 state governors vowed to continue upholding the Agreement and press ahead with policies to fight global warming. This is enough to meet their share of the Obama Administration’s pledge under the Paris Agreement. Further, even though the US government itself was not present at the latest COP 23 talks held in Bonn last month, a rival US delegation called “We Are Still In”; made up of university presidents, mayors, governors, and business leaders, attended to contribute. They stood in solidarity with international leaders to show the world that US leadership on climate change extends well beyond federal policy.

A massive thank you to Tori and Josh for their hospitality and to Tori especially for running with me and playing tour guide. Thanks also to Kat on the lens and on the bike (a dangerous combination that she is learning to master well). 




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