President Donald Trump has reportedly decided to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement, according to an Axios report citing “two sources with direct knowledge of the decision.” CBS News has reportedly independently confirmed the news, though White House officials told the New York Times that the decision is not final.
The Paris accord, which was agreed on in December of 2015 by nearly 200 countries, aims to keep global temperatures from rising more than 2° C (3.6° F) above pre-industrial levels. In withdrawing from the agreement, the United States joins Nicaragua and Syria as the only countries in the world not participating. Nicaragua was pushing for a more stringent agreement, but is expected to eventually join. Syria is in civil war.
According to Axios, the Trump administration is currently working out the exact details of how the United States will exit the agreement. The agreement allows for nations to formally withdraw only after initiating a three-year process. Otherwise, in order to exit the agreement, the Trump administration would have to completely withdraw from the underlying United Nations treaty, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which was ratified by President George H.W. Bush in 1992.
Exiting the UNFCCC would be the quickest, but most extreme, option for withdrawal. By exiting the underlying treaty, the United States would essentially be giving up its seat at the table for international climate negotiations. As Politico points out, it would also be the second time in two decades that the United States has helped negotiate a major international climate deal only to pull out at the last minute (the first example being the Kyoto Protocol, abandoned by President George W. Bush). Such flip-flopping is certain to have international ramifications, including causing negotiating partners to doubt the United States’ commitment to following through on its promises.
“International agreements operate under good faith,” Michael Burger, executive director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School, told ThinkProgress after the agreement was signed. “Whether a country is an upstanding member of the international community is what’s at stake.”
As the largest historic emitter of greenhouse gases — and one of the largest economies in the world — the United States’ participation in the deal was an important factor in getting other major polluters, like China and India, on board. The United States’ withdrawal also throws into question bilateral climate agreements, like the one made with China in 2014.
The United States withdrawing from the deal does not, in and of itself, torpedo the deal completely. China, Canada, and the European Union have signaled that they intend to forge ahead with the agreement even without the United States, but the U.S. exit could encourage other, less-willing participants, like Russia, to withdraw or significantly downgrade their commitments.
The Trump administration’s argument against the agreement has been based on the false claim that the agreement would harm the U.S. economy and give foreign countries control over the kinds of energy used domestically. In reality, the agreement was based off of independent commitments made by each country, meaning that every participating country would be free to reduce emissions in whichever way they saw fit. Moreover, the United States’ pledged emission reductions — 26 percent to 28 percent by 2025 — were largely considered to be on the weaker side of commitments made in Paris.
Studies have time and again shown the economic benefit of climate action. The United Nations Development Program, in November of 2016, found that limiting global warming to 1.5° C (2.7° F) — the most ambitious goal laid out in the Paris agreement — could save the global economy $12 trillion by 2050, compared with a business-as-usual scenario. Other studies have put the potential for economic savings as high as $400 trillion by the end of the century.
Despite promising to withdraw from the Paris agreement within the first 100 days of his presidency, Trump has waffled on the decision for months. Still, the decision to officially withdraw — while it certainly undermines the United States’ position as a global negotiating power — is little more than codification of a climate policy that has focused on shirking responsibility for climate action. There was little hope of meeting — or deepening — emission reduction targets set by President Obama after Trump’s executive order on climate change, which ordered agencies to begin rolling back policies like the Clean Power Plan. Those domestic policies formed the backbone of the United States’ plan to meet its Paris commitments — and without following through on domestic climate action, remaining in Paris would have been little more than window-dressing on a new, fossil fuel-focused energy policy.
Scientists already estimate that the world has warmed by 1ºC (1.8ºF). Consequences of that warming are becoming increasingly clear, from record-low ice in the Arctic to more extreme weather events, like flooding and deadly heat waves. Warming beyond 2° C (3.6° F) will likely inundate entire countries, particularly island nations of the South Pacific, with rising sea levels.