On Thursday, President Donald Trump announced that the United States would initiate the formal process to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. Under the accord, countries are allowed to withdraw four years from the date the agreement entered into force — meaning the United States will officially exit the agreement on November 4, 2020.
But Trump made it clear that during that time frame, the U.S. would not honor the commitment to emissions reductions made under the Obama administration.
“As of today, the United States will cease all implementation of the non-binding Paris accord and the draconian financial and economic burdens the agreement imposes on our country,” Trump said in a speech from the White House Rose Garden. “This includes ending the implementation of the nationally determined contribution and, very importantly, the Green Climate Fund which is costing the United States a vast fortune.”
How did we get here? The decision was a long time coming, one marked by months of wavering and irresolution almost from the beginning. Reportedly, the decision created a significant divide within the administration itself, pitting those who preferred to remain in the agreement, like Secretary of State and former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson, against those who advocated for withdrawal, like EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.
The United States, though by no means a historic leader on climate change on the international stage, played a significant role in bringing nations to the table for the agreement in the first place. Todd Stern, former U.S. special envoy for climate change, told ThinkProgress after the agreement was reached in 2015 that a significant first step towards the Paris agreement was the 2014 bilateral climate agreement with China, which helped bring the notoriously climate action-averse nation — also the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases — on board.
The agreement, which seeks to limit global temperatures from rising more than 2°C (3.6°F) above pre-industrial levels, was eventually signed by almost every nation in the world, including North Korea and Russia. Only Nicaragua and Syria are not parties to the agreement; Nicaragua because the agreement did not go far enough to stave off the worst impacts of climate change, Syria because it is in the midst of a devastating civil war.
By removing the United States from the Paris climate agreement, Trump is effectively solidifying the climate policy that he has been pursuing since the presidential campaign, one of diminished international responsibility and increased domestic extraction of fossil fuels. It’s an action that will have considerable consequences, both at home and abroad — consequences that will reverberate immediately, as well as decades into the future.
One of the most immediate impacts of the withdrawal will be diminished standing on the international climate stage. The United States is the largest historic emitter of greenhouse gas emissions, and thus bears much of the responsibility for the current warming that scientists are already measuring (roughly 1ºC, or 1.8ºF). Pulling out of the agreement — which was already too weak to address the most dangerous impacts of climate change — is a complete abdication of any kind of responsibility for the United States’ role in fueling the climate crisis.
“The blow to the international political credibility of the United States can really not be underestimated.”
It also undercuts America’s standing as an international negotiating partner. This will be the second time in two decades that a U.S. president will renege on former commitments to reduce carbon emissions, the first instance being the George W. Bush administration’s rejection of the Kyoto Protocol. Then-Secretary of State Colin Powell told the New York Times in 2002 that refusing to join the agreement — which had been brokered by the Clinton administration — caused blowback among international allies. It’s likely that withdrawing from Paris will have a similar effect.
“The blow to the international political credibility of the United States can really not be underestimated,” Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change from 2010 to 2016, said during a press call. “It really is a very, very serious blow to the seriousness with which one exercises the office of the presidency of the United States, it’s a serious blow to the credibility and confidence that any other country might have about how to engage in the United States in any topic. I really think that is the major consequence of today.”
During his speech on Thursday, Trump said he would be open to renegotiating the Paris agreement. A senior White House official reiterated that sentiment in a call with reporters on Thursday, claiming that there was “no question” that other countries would be interested in renegotiating the deal.
Experts familiar with the deal, as well as leaders from several participating countries, have flatly rejected that this is possible.
BERLIN (AP) — France, Germany, Italy issue joint statement saying Paris climate accord can't be renegotiated.
— Alicia A. Caldwell (@acaldwellap) June 1, 2017
“Apparently the White House has no understanding of how an international treaty works,” Figueres said. “There is no such thing as today withdrawing from the Paris agreement and then renegotiating.”
Withdrawing from the agreement also leaves a vacuum on the international climate stage, one that countries like China and Germany seem eager to fill. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang told reporters in Europe yesterday that the country would continue to honor its climate commitments, echoing statements made earlier by Chinese president Xi Jingping.
“This will have the unintended consequence of galvanizing the groundswell of not just support… but also a deeper commitment,” Figueres said.
It’s likely the United States will also see economic repercussions from leaving the deal. Martin Schulz, who is currently running against Angela Merkel for Germany’s chancellorship, has already said that he would respond to Trump’s withdrawal by imposing a moratorium on transatlantic trade talks. Shifting domestic focus away from renewable energy will also give countries like China — which is investing $360 billion in clean energy by 2020, a move that is expected to create 13 million jobs.
“By 2020, we will have already advanced so much in the decarbonization of the global economy that if then the United States wanted to catch up, they would really have to catch up,” Figueres said.
Cities and states look to fill the void
The Paris agreement is an incredibly popular policy, even among many Trump supporters. Seven out of 10 American voters support staying in the agreement, and almost half of Trump voters feel that the United States should remain in Paris.
Pulling out of Paris — combined with Trump’s domestic policies to roll back greenhouse gas reductions (like the Clean Power Plan, or the EPA’s methane rule) and increase fossil fuel extraction — will certainly put vulnerable communities throughout the United States at a greater risk. Already, 17 communities across the country are being forced to leave their homes due to rising sea level and coastal erosion. Increased carbon emissions will only exacerbate those dangers.
But it’s also possible that pulling out of the Paris agreement will galvanize climate action at the local and state level. Already, a handful of governors have committed to redoubling their efforts to combat climate change at the subnational level.
“Donald Trump has absolutely chosen the wrong course,” California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) said on a press call following Trump’s announcement. “California’s economy and America’s economy is boosted by following the Paris agreement.”
California is one of the most progressive states in the country when it comes to climate and renewable energy. The state obtains 27 percent of its energy from renewable energy, with a goal of 50 percent by 2030. It also enacted the country’s first carbon cap-and-trade program in 2012 — since then, emissions from capped industries have declined, while the state’s economy has grown. In fact, California has the eighth largest economy in the world — much larger than many countries that are party to the Paris agreement.
“Trump may create the exact opposite of what he intended,” Brown said, arguing that the decision to leave Paris could energize climate action at the local and state level. “California will resist.”
Anthony Rogers-Wright, U.S. coordinator with The Leap, reiterated hope that withdrawing from the agreement might have the opposite impact that Trump expects, in that it would encourage environmental organizations to redouble their efforts to curb climate change.
“I think this is an opportunity,” Rogers-Wright told ThinkProgress. “Instead of generating hysteria over this, I hope mainstream environmental organizations use this as a moment to shed light and start investing in the local efforts that are who we have to turn to right now.”