The young woman hauled a small, extremely grubby child out of his car seat. She placed the fretful boy on the front step of their apartment and began neatly washing his face and hands using a water bottle and the edge of her cotton shirt. The boy became still and calm as his mother did what every mother, from a polar bear to a tabby cat, does. She was utterly unself-conscious, methodically cleaning her offspring to her own satisfaction before sending him through the front door. 

I’ve seen many mothers (and fathers) do similar things: brushing a child’s knotted hair carefully, getting the mittens on securely, swabbing a runny nose with a tissue. Some would call it instinctual, that desire to ensure that the next generation is cared for and survives. To nurture one’s offspring might even be called natural.

A very long time ago there was a television commercial having something to do with a margarine that tasted like butter. The gimmick was that Mother Nature herself was fooled into thinking this margarine was in fact real butter. When someone tells her that what she just ate is actually margarine she frowns and says, “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.” Then there’s a flash of lightning and a resounding roll of thunder.  

The commercial’s message was clear: the artificial spread mimics the taste of churned cow’s milk so well that even that personification of the natural world, Mother Nature, can’t tell the difference. The implied message was also clear: don’t make Mother Nature angry lest she make your life truly unpleasant. 

Both versions of motherhood occurred to me last week after President Trump announced that the United States would pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement. The economic and diplomatic foolishness of that decision has been written about extensively by much more knowledgeable people than myself. The environmental implications are also widely known and recognized, although perhaps not by certain people in Washington. 

Climate change is a result of the increase in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere largely caused by the burning of fossil fuels, such as coal and oil, by human beings since the 1880s. Those greenhouse gases cause infrared radiation reflected off the planet to be absorbed in the atmosphere rather than escaping into space. The atmosphere now acts as a blanket and the planet grows ever warmer, more than 1°C since the start of the 20th century. The rate of increase appears to have accelerated since 1998, according to NASA scientists. And just last year, in September, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere crossed 400 parts per million, up from 280 parts per million prior to the industrial revolution.

Mother Nature may be growing a little weary of the upright bi-pedal creatures who have spread across the world and harmed much of their home. After all, she’s been wiping our nose and cleaning our hands in countless ways since, well, forever. The interwoven threads of the natural world nurture human beings with breathable air, H2O in three states, and myriad forms of food. Our activities, however, have caused many of those threads to fray, if not break. 

So what’s Mother Nature going to think of President Trump’s decision? His statement in the Rose Garden last week was quickly proved to be less than accurate. The Paris agreement does not legally bind any nation to specific emission levels; it is a voluntary agreement. The agreement allows each nation, all 196 of them, to name a target level of reduced greenhouse gas emissions it would meet by a certain date and choose the means it would follow to achieve that goal. The ultimate aim is to have zero greenhouse emissions by 2050 in order to keep the inevitable rise in global temperatures below 2°C.

China said that it would reduce the carbon emissions by 60% to 65% below 2005 levels by 2030. In January, the Chinese government announced that it would cancel plans to build more than 100 coal-fired power plants, many of which had already begun construction. India, another electricity-craving country, also committed to reduce emissions by 33% to 35% of 2005 levels. This spring that country announced it would cancel a massive expansion of coal plants in favor of solar panel arrays to meet its increasing electricity needs. The United States had pledged to reduce emissions by 26% to 28% below 2005 levels by 2025.

And now President Trump has said, “We quit.”

Walt Whitman wrote, “After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, and so on — have found that none of these finally satisfy, or permanently wear — what remains? Nature remains.” The question becomes what version of Mother Nature will remain as we continue to warm our home to unprecedented levels: the nurturing version or the punishing entity of majestic power?