During a round of U.N. climate talks on Tuesday, a Syrian delegate announced that the country would sign the historic Paris climate agreement, leaving the United States as the only country in the world opting out of the landmark deal.
“This is the very last country that actually announced, so everyone has joined and the U.S. is now so isolated,” Safa Al Jayoussi, executive director of the Lebanon-based environmental organization IndyAct, told the New York Times.
Signed in 2015, the Paris climate agreement brought 194 nations together in an effort to prevent global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. By 2050, the agreement aims to achieve net-zero greenhouse-gas emissions. As part of this effort, the deal also laid out framework allowing for sustainable technology, in addition to creating a system encouraging wealthier countries to support their developing counterparts in environmentally conscientious growth.
When President Trump first opted to leave the agreement in May, he had some company. Both Nicaragua and Syria originally opted out of the deal; Nicaraguan officials felt the deal did not go far enough, and Syrian officials reasoned that their country was in the midst of a brutal civil war, which is ongoing.
Nicaragua initially expressed concerns that wealthier nations were not being asked to contribute enough financially and that the Paris agreement’s emissions targets were too low. The country has a long history of investing in renewable energy and aims to be 90 percent renewably-powered by 2020.
Nicaragua finally announced that it was ready to join the agreement in September.
Syria, by contrast, has been at war since 2011. Nearly 500,000 Syrians have died since then, according to some estimates, and hundreds of thousands of refugees have fled the country.
A number of factors contributed to the civil war — not least the brutal dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad — but climate change is arguably among them. One 2015 study found that drought and water shortages made worse by climate change had pushed Syrian farmers to seek work in overcrowded cities. That influx contributed to already staggering inequality and fraught dynamics, all of which helped to escalate the conflict. A number of experts, including the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), have indicated a direct connection between regressive climate policies and global conflicts like the war in Syria.
Now, the United States’ solitude on the global climate stage is official: Syria is ready to join the agreement, according to attendees at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bonn, Germany, also called COP23, leaving U.S. officials on their own.
Syria and Nicaragua joining the climate accord leaves the United States in an unenviable position. Strong U.S. climate leadership helped steer the Paris agreement two years ago, but Trump has shifted that approach dramatically.
The president is the only major world leader who rejects consensus on climate science, according to the Sierra Club. The White House has consistently backed coal, oil, and gas interests while eroding Obama-era efforts to regulate fossil fuels and expand clean energy. Instead, the Trump administration supports “coal, natural gas and nuclear energy as an answer to climate change” despite extensive scientific evidence to the contrary.
That approach has made Trump wildly unpopular with other world leaders. At the G20 summit in July, the heads of the world’s most powerful economies underscored the “irreversible” nature of climate change, vowing to move on climate action with or without the United States. Leaders also asserted that the Paris agreement could not be renegotiated, despite Trump’s frequent claims to the contrary.
Tensions over the Paris agreement haven’t completely diminished U.S. influence over global climate policy. Trump, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt are all skipping out on this week’s conference in Bonn, but U.S. businesses and cities are maintaining a steady presence. Since the United States exited the Paris agreement, U.S. mayors have also taken on the role of championing sustainable climate policies encouraged by other world leaders: in total, more than 175 U.S. cities have pledged to uphold the agreement’s goals, with or without help from the White House.
But cities still lack the power to negotiate on behalf of the government, which means U.S. influence in Bonn has largely been ceded to other major players, like the European Union, India, and China. The conference is primarily intended to lay out the goals of the Paris agreement and determine how exactly countries can meet them. Climate finance and efforts to help fund sustainable projects in developing countries are expected to be among the topics addressed this week.
Despite minimal attendance from top-tier officials at the conference, the United States is still very much tied to the Paris agreement. While the Trump has announced his intention to withdraw, that process is a lengthy one that will take several years, one that won’t actually be possible until the day after the next presidential election, November 4, 2020.