For the second time since 2000, the U.S. is poised to pull out of a major climate treaty that the country itself fought hard for.
Unlike the last time this happened with the Kyoto Protocol in 2001, however, the Paris Climate Agreement, which President Donald Trump is preparing to pull the U.S. out of, is widely viewed as the last, best chance the world has to avoid potentially catastrophic global warming. Also unlike Kyoto, the new agreement is entirely voluntary, making a withdrawal even more extreme.
Scientists think that global climate change, if left unchecked, could bring withering droughts, more intense storms, devastating sea level rise, and more frequent and severe heat waves to many parts of the globe.
In removing the country from the Paris Climate Agreement, which went into force in 2016, the Trump administration would fulfill the worst fears of climate advocates and international allies worldwide.
It would also leave the U.S. as an island of climate recalcitrance worldwide, joining only Syria and Nicaragua in rejecting the treaty.
And considering that Nicaragua stayed out because its diplomats viewed the agreement as too timid, that means the U.S. is in a climate denial alliance only with Syria.
In other words, even the governments of Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un signed this agreement.
With the Paris agreement pullout, which multiple news reports, citing White House officials, say is coming this week, the U.S. will effectively cede leadership on climate and renewable energy to China, India and other rapidly developing economies that are investing billions in solar, wind and other renewable technologies.
A Paris withdrawal also ignores the calls of business leaders ranging from the CEOs of Google, Apple, Salesforce, and Microsoft to well-known personalities like Elon Musk of SpaceX. It also would overrule the arguments put forth by the Trump’s own daughter, presidential advisor Ivanka Trump, who was widely reported to be in favor of the agreement.
Trump said in a tweet on Wednesday morning that he will be announcing his decision this week, implying that his mind is already made up but that the announcement is still being planned. The tweet also implies that Trump’s decision is based on his view of how the agreement will affect the U.S. economy, rather than the country’s standing in the world.
I will be announcing my decision on the Paris Accord over the next few days. MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 31, 2017
However, numerous economic studies have shown that unchecked global warming will have a huge negative effect on the economy, dwarfing the costs of efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels.
Climate change is projected to put a major dent in U.S. economic output by the middle of this century, with even bigger losses projected throughout the developing world. For example, a 2015 study published in the journal Nature found that U.S. gross domestic product could drop 5 percent by 2050 without climate action.
The Paris Agreement commits the world to keeping global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, above preindustrial levels through 2100. It is the first treaty to bring developing and developed countries together to commit to taking action on global warming after decades of acrimonious negotiations over who was more responsible for climate change and who should pay for its damages.
The U.S. is the world’s second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, but the biggest historical emitter. Under Paris, former president Barack Obama’s administration committed to slashing domestic greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.
The Paris agreement contains no mechanism to punish America (or any country, for that matter) for failing to meet its emissions goals or revising them.
The voluntary and non-punitive nature of the agreement was a major reason why it was so successful in getting countries to sign onto it after decades of frustrating climate talks. However, Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and others in Trump’s orbit nevertheless viewed the treaty as legally binding.
This may have triggered the withdrawal, especially since Trump, along with many of his cabinet picks, does not believe that greenhouse gases are the main cause of global warming, which runs contrary to the scientific consensus on this issue.
On Tuesday, White House spokesman Sean Spicer was asked whether Trump views fossil fuels as a contributor to climate change and responded: “Honestly, I haven’t asked him that.”
Climate scientists widely view the 2-degree goal as ambitious — if not impossible to adhere to — given recent global warming trends. Studies have shown that unless massive cuts to greenhouse gas emissions are made worldwide beginning in the next few years, there may be little chance of meeting the Paris target.
Trump has been under heavy pressure by conservatives and the fossil fuel industry to leave the agreement, while business interests in Silicon Valley, European leaders, and others have sought to keep the U.S. within the fold of this landmark treaty.
Much depends on what happens next and exactly how the U.S. seeks to exit the agreement. If President Trump decides to withdraw from the agreement unilaterally, that would not be able to take place until 2020 at the earliest. However, there are speedier ways of doing this, albeit more extreme.
Also, a U.S. departure could spur other nations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions pledges, which in turn would make global warming more severe since it would increase the concentration of greenhouse gases worldwide.
Assuming the Trump administration follows through with a Paris Agreement withdrawal, it would also be a staggering repudiation of Obama’s legacy of environmental protection. Without Obama’s hands-on involvement throughout his second term, the treaty would not have been adopted.
It would also ignore the will of the American people, with polling showing that majorities in every state — including those represented by anti-Paris senators — favor remaining in the agreement.
Trump is scheduled to meet with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of ExxonMobil, on Wednesday. Tillerson is thought to be in favor of staying in the Paris Agreement, though it appears Trump’s mind was already made up going into the meeting.