- Jun 2, 2017 7:00 pm GMT
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President Donald J. Trump fulfilled a campaign promise yesterday and, in announcing that the United States would withdraw from the Paris Agreement, filled his nationalist, climate-change-denying supporters with glee. His speech was filled to the brim with inaccuracies, about both climate change and the Paris Agreement.
I will select just one of President Trump’s fantastical statements, as an example: “…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. 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.” Well, where to begin?
- Implementation of the Paris Agreement starts in 2020. Each country’s nationally determined contribution (“NDC”—its voluntary emissions-reduction pledge) begins in 2020, as well. So there’s nothing to cease right now, in the Rose Garden or elsewhere. There are ongoing discussions among parties to the Paris Agreement about the rules and measures necessary for implementing the accord; presumably the U.S. government no longer wishes to have a say in shaping those.
- The Paris Agreement does not impose many burdens of any kind on its parties. There are some mandatory reporting requirements, and each party must submit updated NDCs every five years. There are no legal requirements concerning the content of the NDCs, nor are there penalties for failing to achieve NDC targets. One of the big ideas behind the Paris Agreement is that each national government can decide for itself how ambitious—and how costly—of an emissions-reduction pledge it wishes to put forward. The “agreement” doesn’t “impose” costs, draconian or otherwise (unless perhaps we count the endless hours our dedicated foreign-service officers must spend sitting in negotiating sessions).
- The Green Climate Fund (GCF) was not established by the Paris Agreement, but by the Sixteenth Conference of the Parties (COP-16) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), meeting in late 2010 in Cancun, Mexico. (The Paris Agreement is, in a loose sense, a treaty that is derived from the Convention.) The GCF receives money from developed countries and does indeed distribute it to developing countries, for emissions-reductions projects and for adaptation to climate change. The United States made a commitment of $3 billion to the GCF, in connection with the Paris Agreement (which does reference the GCF), and the Obama administration conveyed $1 billion before leaving office. I will leave it to the reader to decide whether either figure constitutes a “vast fortune” in the context of the U.S. government’s budget. Finally, the GCF is a multilateral body within the UNFCCC system, and it is not within the United States’ power to “end its implementation.”
One could continue, line by line, but let’s move on.
Yesterday’s decision will have little short-term impact on U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions. Trump and his colleagues have already been busily dismantling the Obama administration’s domestic climate-change regulations; pulling out of Paris won’t move us backwards any faster.
Neither will the decision have much short- or medium-term impact on the U.S. economy, for better or worse. As noted, Paris hasn’t—and won’t—impose major costs, so pulling out won’t benefit the economy much. Some observers suggest that withdrawing from Paris will delay deployment of renewable energy in the United States. It’s hard for me to see how that could be true, however, in the near term; the economic and technological forces driving “clean energy” growth have nothing to do with the Paris Agreement. (Again, domestic policy in the United States—at both the federal and state levels—have significantly advanced renewables, and the Trump administration is indeed attempting to undercut these policies, partly to support coal interests.)
So, then, why is it significant that President Trump is pulling the United States out of Paris? Climate change is what economists call a “global commons” problem. To cut a longer story short, because greenhouse-gas emissions in one location cause climate change throughout the world, then international cooperation is ultimately necessary to address the problem. The Paris Agreement, for the first time in history, provided a platform for international cooperation that included all the major-emitting countries in the world. Because NDCs are voluntary, the aggregate emissions reduction they achieve will be inadequate, at first, to address climate change sufficiently. However, there are other (ingenious, in my view) features of the Agreement that are intended to incentivize increased ambition over time. This process will be gradual, but the cooperation it yields is likely to be stable and ultimately more effective than previous multilateral efforts (most notably the Kyoto Protocol). The Paris Agreement constitutes a strong institutional foundation for increasingly ambitious action over time.
The United States is the second-largest emitter in the world, after China, and our withdrawing from Paris will upset the delicate balance of dynamic (that is, evolving over time) multilateral cooperation needed to adequately reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. So—yes—it is significant—and disappointing—that that President Trump has decided to withdraw.
But wait a minute. How exactly will this dynamic process play out? The United States, given its significant emissions, could, by withdrawing, indeed discourage other countries and start a destructive cycle of declining ambition. But very early reactions to Trump’s decision suggest that other major emitters might instead be motivated by the United States’ withdrawal to increase their ambition. The European Union reacted swiftly and harshly to Trump’s announcement. This was not a big surprise; Europe is deeply committed to addressing climate change. Chinese leaders also criticized the decision and may determine that it is in their national interest to fill the leadership vacuum that President Trump created. European and Chinese leaders are announcing tomorrow their most ambitious bilateral initiative to address climate change. A draft of their joint announcement states that “…multilateralism can succeed in building fair and effective solutions to the most critical global problems of our time.” It also made oblique reference to the U.S. decision to withdraw from Paris and the need to fill the resulting ambition gap. Finally, India, the world’s fourth biggest emitter, has suggested it might move more quickly to combat climate change in face of Trump’s decision. (It had already been phasing out coal more quickly than expected.)
Within the United States, Trump’s decision has energized sub-national jurisdictions—“blue” states and cities. Most importantly, California’s governor, Jerry Brown, has boldly promised to do what he can to translate the state’s already-aggressive climate-change policies into international action, to replace some of the leadership that Trump has decided to forego. Sub-national policy, however ambitious, cannot substitute for strong federal initiatives to reduce emissions—and states cannot be party to international governmental agreements. However, U.S. states and cities could send a message to the world—that the United States is still serious about addressing climate change—and thereby help keep the Paris-Agreement dynamic moving in a positive direction.
I don’t know if President Trump really believed all the things he said in his speech yesterday about the Paris Agreement. (I hesitate to try to get inside his head; I’m not sure it’s safe to do so.) We do know that he is driven primarily by nationalism, and climate change is the ultimate supra-national problem. Trump is inherently skeptical about international cooperation, which is eminently important in confronting climate change. Ironically, however, in abandoning this particular multilateral enterprise , in which the nations of the world had invested years of effort and a great deal of passionate concern, and on which the hopes of many vulnerable countries rest, he may have unintentionally laid the groundwork for more rapid emissions reduction, even before the Paris Agreement is implemented. At the same time, he energized many sub-national jurisdictions within the United States that, while incapable of fully rectifying the environmental damage he is doing, may nonetheless represent our country in a constructive manner during this unfortunate interregnum.
 The text of the Paris Agreement is here: http://unfccc.int/resource/docs/2015/cop21/eng/10a01.pdf.
 Edward-Isaac Dovere, “Trump’s nationalism wins out again,” Politico, June 1, 2017, www.politico.com/story/2017/06/01/jerry-brown-trump-climate-deal-california-china-239035.
 Tom DiChristopher, “Scott Pruitt’s latest climate change denial sparks backlash from scientists and environmentalists,” CNBC, March 9, 2017, www.cnbc.com/2017/03/09/scott-pruitts-latest-climate-change-denial-sparks-backlash.html.
 The text of President Trump’s speech, with notes by National Public Radio correspondents, is here: www.npr.org/2017/06/01/531090243/trumps-speech-on-paris-climate-agreement-withdrawal-annotated. See also analysis and commentary by Nathaniel Keohane, “Trump just walked away from a great deal on climate,” Forbes, June 1, 2017, www.forbes.com/sites/edfenergyexchange/2017/06/01/trump-just-walked-away-from-a-great-deal-on-climate.
 http://unfccc.int/cooperation_and_support/financial_mechanism/green_climate_fund/items/5869.php; www.greenclimate.fund. The President made some wildly erroneous statements about the GCF in his speech; see Karen Orenstein, “Five things Trump’s Paris speech got wrong in his attack on the Green Climate Fund,” June 1, 2017, www.devex.com/news/opinion-five-things-trump-s-paris-climate-speech-got-wrong-in-his-attack-on-green-climate-fund-90415; Benjy Sarlin, “Why Trump is seeing red about the Green Climate Fund,” NBC News, June 1, 2017, www.nbcnews.com/politics/white-house/why-trump-seeing-red-about-green-climate-fund-n767351.
 GCF, “Status of pledges and contributions made to the Green Climate Fund, May 12, 2017, www.greenclimate.fund/documents/20182/24868/Status_of_Pledges.pdf.
 See Marc Hafstead, “On Trump, Paris, and greenhouse gas emissions,” Resources for the Future blog post, May 1, 2017, www.rff.org/blog/2017/trump-paris-and-greenhouse-gas-emissions.
 For example, Jeff McDermott, “Leaving the Paris Agreement could cripple American businesses,” Fortune, http://fortune.com/2017/06/01/paris-agreement-american-businesses-donald-trump.
 See also Ban Ki-moon and Robert N. Stavins, “The United States and the Paris Agreement; A Pivotal Moment,” Harvard Project on Climate Agreements, April 2017, www.belfercenter.org/publication/united-states-and-paris-agreement-pivotal-moment.
 Robert Stowe, “Differentiation, financial support, and the Paris Climate Talks,” The Energy Collective, November 12, 2015, www.theenergycollective.com/robertstowe/2290125/differentiation-financial-support-and-paris-climate-talks.
 See also Robert N. Stavins, “Paris Agreement—a good foundation for meaningful progress,” blog post, December 12, 2015, www.robertstavinsblog.org/2015/12/12/paris-agreement-a-good-foundation-for-meaningful-progress.
 See related analysis in Luke Kemp, “Better out than In,” Nature Climate Change, May 22, 2017, http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nclimate3309; cited in Chelsea Harvey, “These experts say it may actually be best if the U.S. left the Paris Agreement,” Washington Post, May 31, 2017, www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2017/05/31/these-experts-say-it-may-actually-be-best-if-the-u-s-left-the-paris-climate-agreement.
 Somini Sengupta, et al., “As Trump exits Paris Agreement, other nations are defiant,” New York Times, June 1, 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/06/01/world/europe/climate-paris-agreement-trump-china.htm; Aria Bendix, “The global reaction to Trump’s climate change decision,” The Atlantic, May 31, 2017, www.theatlantic.com/news/archive/2017/06/the-global-reaction-to-trumps-climate-change-decision/528777.
 Citied in Jean Chemnick, “For the first time China and EU to join forces on climate,” Science, May 31, 2017, http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/05/first-time-china-and-eu-join-forces-climate.
 Kavya Balaraman, “India’s energy landscape is rapidly changing,” Scientific American, April 26, 2017, www.scientificamerican.com/article/indias-energy-landscape-is-rapidly-changing.
 David Siders, “Jerry Brown defies Trump on world stage,” Politico, June 1, 2017, www.politico.com/story/2017/06/01/jerry-brown-trump-climate-deal-california-china-239035.
 The Paris Agreement allows parties to revise NDCs at any time. If President Trump and his colleagues were really concerned about costs and nothing else, they could have cranked the ambition of our NDC down a few notches. The text of the Paris Agreement makes clear that revisions should make climate action more ambitious, but there is no legal requirement that such revisions do so.
Photo Credit: Bradley Weber