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Theresa May could boost her legacy if she uses her final days as PM to challenge Trump on climate change

5 min read

We should not entertain any trade deal with the US unless they announce that they will re-enter the Paris agreement, says Ed Miliband

One thing is certain: when President Trump arrives in the UK, the prime minister has nothing left to lose. She should use her impending freedom from office to deliver some home truths to the president on climate change – the most important issue Britain and the world faces.

The first home truth she should tell him is that she believes it is both morally right and economically beneficial for rich countries to lead on this issue. She has a perfect opportunity to do this by promising that one of her final acts in office, before her successor takes over, will be to legislate for net-zero emissions, as recommended by the Climate Change Committee.

This is an issue where she can win cross-party support and it will be an important legacy for her and, more importantly, send a message to the world about our international leadership on this issue. She could even announce this during his visit and willingly draw a contrast in leadership and approach – and dare any of her potential successors to disagree.

The second home truth is that she should reiterate what a mistake it was for the president to announce his intent to pull the US out of the Paris agreement. It was a bad decision for the United States and for the world, above all because climate change is the biggest national security, economic and social challenge we face.

Climate change is not a hoax, as the president has at times suggested. Some basic facts speak for themselves: 97% of scientists say climate change is real and caused by humans; we have already seen 1 degree of warming compared to pre-industrial temperatures and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is today at a higher level than at any time for more than 800,000 years. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned we have just 10 years to avoid catastrophe.

We only have to look at what is happening in the US to get an inkling of how bad things are and how much worse they could get. In California, wildfires last year ravaged 1.8m acres of land, compared to just 60,000 less than 50 years ago. Of the 10 worst fires in the state’s history, four have occurred in the last 18 months.

This peril is only expected to increase as a result of climate change and, last year alone, the cost of damage from extreme weather in the United States was estimated at $91bn.

The third home truth is that no country should be allowed to ‘freeload’ on others and we will find it much harder to succeed unless every country does its bit. US per capita emissions are around 16 tonnes per person. That’s more than double the level of China and nearly three times higher than us in the UK.

When we look at historic emissions, the US has emitted more than any other country in the world. That gives the US a huge responsibility to act and makes the president’s decision on Paris all the more unforgivable.

Although it is true that US cities and states have basically ignored the president and got on with tackling the problem, his intransigence makes the crucial task of updating the Paris agreement in 2020 even harder. It is difficult enough for 195 countries to agree on anything, but it’s even harder when one of the biggest is acting in the manner of the US.

The US has waxed and waned on a trade deal with the UK after Brexit. I have my doubts about buying their chlorinated chicken anyway, but the climate issue is so important that we should not entertain any trade deal with the US unless they announce that they will re-enter the Paris agreement. The EU shouldn’t either. The economic damage from not tackling this issue will dwarf any potential trade deal. We must use every lever at our disposal.

Fourth, since President Trump claims to care so much about self-interest, the prime minister should explain why he is forfeiting America’s interests by going slowly. Tackling climate change is the route to building the economy of the future. The choice is not climate justice or economic justice – climate justice is the route to creating millions of jobs.

China is stealing a march on the US in the low-carbon industries. It is now the world’s largest producer, exporter and installer of solar panels, wind turbines, batteries and electric vehicles, and leads the world in the number of patents for renewable energy. Think of the jobs there could be for US citizens if he only got with the programme.

The chances of President Trump changing his mind on this issue may be negligible, but at least the prime minister can use his visit to show she stands for a different set of principles and values. By drawing that contrast, she can, even in the last days of her time in office, improve the long-term prospects for future generations.

Ed Miliband is Labour MP for Doncaster North

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Read the most recent article written by Ed Miliband MP - Ed Miliband: "We need to be truth-tellers in Glasgow"