The Paris Agreement is really happening — and it’s about more than climate change

The agreement is one of more than 17,000 similar pacts that rely on a foundation of trust among allies.

French President Francois Hollande, French Foreign Minister and president of the COP21 Laurent Fabius, United Nations climate chief Christiana Figueres, and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in Paris. CREDIT: AP Photo/Francois Mori
French President Francois Hollande, French Foreign Minister and president of the COP21 Laurent Fabius, United Nations climate chief Christiana Figueres, and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in Paris. CREDIT: AP Photo/Francois Mori

A wave of support from countries around the world has now set up the Paris Agreement — a historic global pact to curb greenhouse gas pollution and build resilience to climate change — to take effect in early November 2016.

As President Obama put it, the Paris Agreement represents “the single-best chance that we have” to protect the planet from climate change. Its promise lies in the fact that it establishes a durable framework of global action in which all countries, both developed and developing, make improved climate commitments over five-year cycles.

But participation in the agreement, which was negotiated by more than 190 countries in December 2015, is not only critical for the planet. It is also critical for the trust among nations that has supported many thousands of international agreements with the United States — on topics from defense to environmental protection and from atomic energy to economic cooperation. This is a point currently lost on Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, who has vowed to “cancel” the Paris Agreement.

“The international community has demonstrated exceptional commitment to the Paris Agreement by bringing it into force in less than a year, which is extraordinary compared to other major international pacts,” said Nigel Purvis, a former senior U.S. climate change negotiator in the Clinton and Bush administrations and president of Climate Advisers. “No nation will be able to withdraw from the Paris Agreement without alienating important allies and undermining vital foreign policy objectives.”

“No nation will be able to withdraw from the Paris Agreement without alienating important allies and undermining vital foreign policy objectives.”

There are two conditions for the agreement to take effect: At least 55 countries must officially join, and the countries must account for at least 55 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Several countries, including China, the United States, Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina, officially joined the agreement in September, pushing the agreement past its 55-country threshold.

Then India ratified the pact over the weekend, increasing the percentage of global emissions covered by the Paris Agreement to 52 percent. On Tuesday, the European Parliament also voted to ratify, pushing the agreement past its emissions threshold. When the E.U. deposits its ratification documents to the U.N. by Friday, it will trigger a 30-day countdown to entry into force, meaning that the U.N. climate summit in Morocco in November will serve as the first meeting of the parties to the Paris Agreement.

For the United States, the Paris Agreement is an executive agreement, which is an internationally binding agreement made pursuant to the authority granted by a prior treaty, a statute, or the president’s constitutional foreign affairs power. The Paris Agreement falls under the umbrella of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, a treaty ratified in 1992 with bipartisan support by the Senate during the George H.W. Bush administration.

In the din of the presidential election, it may be helpful for U.S. allies to note not only the lasting nature of the Paris Agreement but also the record of the United States as a fundamentally dependable diplomatic partner. In the modern era, the United States has participated in more than 17,000 executive agreements on a broad range of topics, made under both Republican and Democratic administrations and congresses. Opponents of U.S. participation in the Paris Agreement have failed to show any track record of the United States failing to keep its word on similar pacts.

These agreements rely on a foundation of credibility. Even pulling back from plans to participate in the Kyoto Protocol — a treaty that the United States never got as far as joining — set the country back years in diplomatic relations and slowed progress on fighting climate change.

“In 2001, President George W. Bush’s rejection of the Kyoto Protocol made it harder for the United States to advance American foreign policy goals,” Purvis said. “Our allies became less interested in working with us on trade, Iraq, terrorism, and non-proliferation.”

Failure of any nation to participate in the Paris era of climate cooperation would be diplomatic folly. It would also reveal contempt for the wellbeing of the innumerable communities, ecosystems, and economies threatened by climate change.

Gwynne Taraska is the Associate Director of Energy Policy at the Center for American Progress. Greg Dotson, Vice President of Energy Policy at the Center, and Cathleen Kelly, Senior Fellow at the Center also contributed to this piece.