Quite apart from the wider global impact on future generations of Trump’s decision, it sets him back on a collision course with the tech industry just two weeks before a 19 June meeting with sector leaders at the White House.
Prior to the announcement of the US withdrawal yesterday, a number of tech CEOs had signed up to an open letter urging Trump not to pull out. These included Apple’s Tim Cook, Salesforce’s Marc Benioff, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Google’s Sundar Pichai and HP Enterprise’s Meg Whitman as well as Microsoft’s Chief Legal Counsel Brad Smith.
But their pleas fell on deaf ears as Trump insisted that he was elected to represent Pittsburgh, not Paris. That was a soundbite that bit back as Pittsburgh’s Mayor immediately hit back, noting that Pittsburgh actually voted 80/20 for Hillary Clinton and that the city would be sticking with the Paris Accord commitments!
His was only one among a floodtide of similar criticisms that swept across social media channels, with tech firms to the fore alongside politicians, other national leaders and the scientific community:
But the big question now for the tech community is, what next? It’s all good and well making a digital protest on Twitter, but how does that extend into practical action?
As mentioned above, later this month the Trump administration wants tech’s brightest to turn up to workshop ideas for the new American Technology Council.
On the one hand, that could be seen as a good opportunity to lobby and make a stand against the Paris decision.
On the other hand, would such action have any effect whatsoever and might presence at such a gathering not also be seen as implicit support for the administration? It would certainly make for another great photo opportunity along the lines of the tech summit at the Trump Tower back in December.
Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk has actually laid down a marker here, immediately announcing that he is pulling out of all of his involvement with Trump’s advisory councils. Walt Disney’s Bob Iger has followed suit. Are we going to see tech leaders do the same thing?
The answer to that is going to take time to become clear. I asked a few companies for a comment on this topic and got a holding response from all of them. That said, IBM has made it clear that CEO Ginni Rommety intends to continue to sit on the Business Advisory Council, while Intel CEO Brian Krzanich also told the media that he would continue to enage with the administration.
The other response that the tech sector can of course make is to commit itself to setting an example by adhering to Paris Accord levels of compliance and activity on climate change. The likes of Google, Amazon and Microsoft, among others, made just such statements of intent yesterday.
There has been a lot of work done across the tech industry on improving its climate change and sustainability records. For example, Salesforce recently announced that it has achieved its net-zero carbon emissions’ goal decades before the goal date of 2050, while Facebook has committed that every new data center it builds will be powered by “100% renewable energy”.
Personally I struggle to see how you 'Make America Great Again' by committing to policies that turn Florida into a water feature in the long term, but the dark deed is done now and every tech leader needs to decide how he or she will respond.
The tech industry will undoubtedly continue to set a positive example here to other sectors, but as climate change commitments are torn up across other industries, the damage that will be done is terrifying to contemplate.
It’s reassuring to see responses at state level from the likes of New York, California and Washington that the Paris Accord commitments will be adhered to. When tech firms are deciding on investment and expansion priorities, such promises need to be rewarded.
Personally I applaud Elon Musk’s bold and immediate distancing from the administration. While I understand the ‘inside the tent, making the case’ argument, I don’t think there’s any appetite or inclination for change here. Bear in mind, this is not an idea that's just popped into Trump's head:
That being the case, this is not the moment for any stance to be taken that can be interpreted as appeasement or spun as support for this terrible decision. It's time for a line in the sand. The world is looking to the tech industry to take a lead here.