Today, President Trump is likely to withdraw the United States from participation in the Paris Climate Agreement. Trump fired off this tweet last night:
This has, understandably, produced nervous hand-wringing from those worried about the worsening effects of climate change. Representatives from the European Union and China are set to give a joint statement tomorrow to publicly reassert their commitment to the climate agreement.
The U.S. pulling out from Paris been discussed for a while now--we heard opinions on this topic when Miles interviewed experts for a NewsHour piece on Obama’s climate legacy earlier this year.
“The Paris Climate Agreement is one which had been years and years in the making,” said Dr. Robert Stavins, Director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program. The Paris Agreement was a huge step in the right direction, Stavins says, as it “broke the logjam after 20 years of essentially treading water” on the issue.
The Agreement isn’t very long--just 16 pages--but it put together a promising two-pronged approach on how nations could come together to keep average global temperatures from rising more than 2°C above pre-industrial conditions. Stavins explained it well:
“There are elements that are top-down, that are centralized from the United Nations. Those are binding under international law. But what they essentially say are things such as, you as a country, as a party to the agreement, have to submit a target. It doesn't say numerically what your target is.
“Then there are bottom-up aspects of it, which are the individual targets that the countries are submitting. These are their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). Those are not binding under international law; however, they are binding in a way that’s vastly more important, domestic laws and regulations, which are passed or promulgated in order to achieve those targets.”
So, if this a solid international climate initiative, why does it matter if the United States leaves the discussion?
Well, the rest of the world looks to big players like China and the United States to lead the charge. Developed nations got to enjoy the benefits of rapid industrialization without concerns over climate impact. It’s only fair that they now have an obligation to help developing nations tackle climate change. Developing nations did not get to enjoy industrializing with cheap, dirty fuels--yet now, they stand to lose the most in the face of rapid climate change.
“When we looked at climate debates going back 20 years now, we’ve frequently tried to have everybody sort of do the same thing and that’s the history of global agreements,” former EPA Administrator Carol Browner told Miles. “This is I think really the first time where you have a global agreement when there is a recognition that there is a different history, a different future but that everybody is going to within their means attempt to do their best.”
Take Uganda, for example, which classifies itself as a “Least Developed Country”. In their first submitted NDC, they mention that they contribute to only 0.099% of greenhouse gas emissions, yet climate change damages to the country in 2007-2008 equaled 4.4% of the national budget. 80% of Ugandans rely on subsistence farming, but annual rainfall has decreased and become unpredictable, making farming more difficult.
Still, Uganda would like to reduce their emissions by 22% by the year 2030. They will not be able to achieve this noble goal without financial and technological support from powerhouses such as the United States.
Our proposed NDC of curbing emissions to 26-28% below 2005 levels by the year 2025 would be a good goal to attain, but sticking with the Agreement and using our scientific expertise and financial resources to help those nations most at risk is really the key to why Paris was so important. Not to mention the fact that the United States contributes to 15% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, more than 150 times worse than Uganda.
Putting a dent in that much American pollution has measurable benefits for the whole world. Recent research has shown that scrubbing sulfur dioxide out of American coal plant exhaust will likely increase the amount of rainfall in the Sahel region of Africa, helping reverse the negative effects of rampant sulfur dioxide release in Europe and Asia during the 1970s and 80s.
The drastic decline of sulfur dioxide emissions in the United States is due to the passage and enforcement of the Clean Air Act. This hugely popular legislation has been a mainstay of domestic environmental protection for decades--a crucial component that critics say the Paris Agreement lacks.
Facing Republican opposition in Congress, then-President Obama had to resort to executive actions such as the Clean Power Plan to be on track to achieve the NDC goals submitted to the Paris Agreement committee. “He may have been the smartest guy in the room and he may have been the most committed person at the table, but he didn’t have the backing of the elective representatives, and that’s the will of the people,” Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a veteran of John McCain’s presidential campaign, told Miles.
Not that it matters anymore: President Trump is rolling back those Obama-era environmental executive actions left and right. Some argue that it might be better that a lackluster United States stay out of the Paris Agreement, even though the effects felt domestically will be negative.
Yet, in a strange twist of fate, even staying out might be difficult. “US participation itself is baked in for four years,” said Stavins. “If the new administration wishes to remove itself from the Paris Agreement, then it has to announce that three years in advance and then it takes another year for it to fall into place. That's the first term of the Trump administration.”
However, leaving the overarching UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, of which the Paris Agreement is a part, would only take one year. “To do that would have such implications for other areas of international affairs that for people that work in this realm that's almost unspeakable to think that the administration would choose to do that,” said Stavins.
Although I wouldn’t put it past them to try to completely renege on its environmental protection duties, the Trump administration might just be stuck with Paris.
Banner image credit: Wikimedia