|Figure 1. The Arc de Triomphe (Arch of Triumph) is illuminated with the lettering reading 'The Paris accord is done' in Paris on November 4, 2016, to celebrate the first day of the application of the Paris COP21 climate accord. Image credit: Patrick Kovarik/AFP/Getty Images.|
For the first time in history, the United States has removed itself from a worldwide agreement negotiated to protect the world’s atmosphere. President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of the U.S. from the Paris Agreement in a press conference at the White House on Thursday, June 1. "The US will withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord but begin negotiations to reenter either the Paris Accord or an entirely new transaction, on terms that are fair to the United States, its businesses, workers, people, [and] taxpayers," said Trump."We will see if we can make a deal that’s fair. And if we can, that’s great, and if we can’t, that’s fine."
Under UN rules, it will take four years for any such withdrawal to take effect, though the U.S. may opt to stop participating in agreement-related activities right away.
Trump's action goes against the near-unanimous world opinion of the 194 nations that signed the agreement, as well as U.S. precedent. In the late 1980s, the United States joined all other UN members in ratifying the hugely successful Montreal Protocol, which has already begun to stabilize the stratospheric ozone layer from depletion caused by human-produced chlorofluorocarbons and related substances. In 1992, under President George H.W. Bush, the United States joined virtually every nation on Earth in signing and ratifying the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which took effect in 1994.
As set forth on the UNFCC website, “The ultimate objective of the Convention is to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations ‘at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic (human induced) interference with the climate system.’ It states that ‘such a level should be achieved within a time-frame sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change, to ensure that food production is not threatened, and to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner.’”
The UNFCCC is the basis for all subsequent UN action on climate change. This includes the Kyoto Protocol, which was hammered out in 1997. President Bill Clinton signed the Kyoto Protocol in 1998, but it was rejected 95-0 by the U.S. Senate through a related resolution. The subsequent Bush administration also rejected the protocol. The only UN members on Earth that did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol are the U.S., Andorra, and South Sudan. Canada withdrew from the protocol in 2012 under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, as expanded oil and gas production was boosting the nation’s greenhouse emissions. Many other participants have managed to reduce their greenhouse emissions since the Kyoto Protocol was adopted. But the mutually reinforced lack of participation from both the U.S. and China—which together accounted for more than half of global emissions at the time—ultimately doomed the Kyoto Protocol from being able to reduce emissions on a global level.
Trump’s action on the Paris Agreement goes even further than the U.S. rejection of the Kyoto Protocol, because it reverses a previous U.S. commitment. The Paris Agreement has been signed by 191 nations and the EU, which leaves Syria and Nicaragua as the only UN member states who haven't signed it—Syria because of the ongoing civil war, and Nicaragua because they do not believe the agreement goes far enough. As of June 2, 147 nations plus the European Union had proceeded to ratify or accede to the Paris Agreement. It went into force on November 4, 2016, after achieving the requirement of ratification by at least 55 UNFCCC parties that account for at least 55% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
As explained in detail in our March post, the U.S. promised a 26 - 28% reduction in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 2025 under the Paris Agreement. Current U.S. policies would only reduce emissions 9% below 2005 levels by 2025. This includes the Clean Power Plan, which Trump has ordered to be dismantled, so the actual reduction would be even less. If coal production is boosted—a frequently stated goal of the president—then U.S. emissions could even rise over time.
The U.S. share of global carbon dioxide emissions has dropped in recent years; as of 2014, it stood at about 15% of the global total. Thus, it is unlikely that the U.S. withdrawal from Paris will directly endanger the agreement. However, it could have major indirect effects on the agreement and on our climate future. The not-for-profit group Climate Interactive noted that the United States accounts for 21% of all of the emission reductions that would be achieved by global pledges through 2030. “US withdrawal from Paris, either formally or de facto, could lead to a dangerous cascade of goal erosion.” they add. Other groups have found that U.S. departure from the agreement could by itself lead to 0.1°C - 0.3°C of additional warming.
|Figure 1. On May 25, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and 21 other Republican Senators sent a letter to President Donald Trump urging him to pull the United States out of the Paris Climate Agreement. However, research by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication shows that a majority of Americans in all 50 states support U.S. participation in the Paris Agreement, including the 15 states whose Senators urged President Trump to reject the agreement. In a nationally representative survey conducted after the election, 69% of registered voters said the U.S. should participate in the agreement, compared with only 13% who say the U.S. should not--more than a 5 to 1 ratio. Additionally, by a nearly 2 to 1 margin, Trump voters said the U.S. should participate in the Paris Agreement.|
The Paris Agreement was explicitly designed to bring in all nations by allowing each participant to set its own goals for greenhouse gas reduction. Many scientists, governments, and activists felt a stronger deal was critical, since it was apparent that the voluntary goals brought to Paris would be far short of enough to reduce global warming to 2.0°C above preindustrial levels (the generally accepted goal for avoiding dangerous impacts). Nevertheless, if the Paris Agreement had included legally binding targets, as did Kyoto, the fear was that the United States would not participate. It is thus makes covfefe sense that President Trump has seen fit to remove the U.S. from this entirely voluntary framework.
It took many years and immense amounts of work to get the entire world on board for the Paris Agreement, so the idea of renegotiating the deal is a non-starter. Indeed, the idea was quickly dismissed in a joint statement by France, Germany, and Italy.
The withdrawal of the U.S. from the Paris Agreement means that the world will now look to China to lead the global fight against climate change, a role the Chinese have been increasingly willing to play. Any U.S. action to halt or slow down climate change mitigation and adaption will run up against powerful worldwide momentum, including the global recognition of climate change threats and the enormous growth of wind and solar energy. While Trump’s actions cannot stop this ongoing shift, they could still do a tremendous amount of damage. Other nations look to the United States for leadership, and may reduce their pledges made in the Paris Accord in response to the U.S. action because there remains far more fossil fuel on Earth than we can safely burn while still avoiding dangerous risks to our climate. Even if other nations remain in the Paris Agreement and hold to their pledges, the extra greenhouse emissions from the United States will raise the odds of truly serious consequences for many years to come.
The Paris Agreement is just one of a number of actions related to climate change in the first few months of the Trump administration. Shortly after Trump’s inauguration, the Climate Action Plan was removed from the whitehouse.gov website, reinforcing Trump’s stated intention to drop the plan, which was designed to scale back greenhouse emissions from power plants. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was ordered on Inauguration Day to freeze all grants and contracts. The president’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2018 includes massive cuts to many climate-related programs. And various federal websites and Twitter accounts have been restricted from sharing or updating information related to climate change. Even if U.S. policy on climate change runs counter to the rest of the world, it is critical that U.S. agencies be able to share factual information on what is happening to our atmosphere and ecosystems and what we can expect going forward.
Meanwhile, the planet continues to warm, our ice sheets continue to melt, and sea levels continue to rise, indifferent to those who deny or downplay the reality of human-caused climate change. The year 2016 was the third year in a row to set a global record temperature, with 2017 running close behind. And carbon dioxide concentrations have risen above 400 ppm for good, ensuring even more warming to come.
“We deem the momentum generated in Paris in December 2015 irreversible and we firmly believe that the Paris Agreement cannot be renegotiated, since it is a vital instrument for our planet, societies and economies."
—Joint statement from German chancellor Angela Merkel, French president Emmanuel Macron and Italian prime minister Paolo Gentiloni
"The range of possibilities for future climate—built upon study after study—led the [American Meteorological Society] to conclude, 'Prudence dictates extreme care in accounting for our relationship with the only planet known to be capable of sustaining human life.' This is the science-based risk calculus upon which our nation’s climate change policy should be based."
—Keith Seitter, AMS executive director, "Withdrawal from the Paris Agreement Flouts the Climate Risks" (American Meteorological Society)
“Today was a sad day if you are a climate scientist, and you’ve spent most of your adult life studying the nature and causes of climate change…Tomorrow begins the hard work of ensuring that the United States is not ‘bound in shallows and in miseries’, rejoins the family of nations, and is lifted on the rising tide of a sustainable energy and climate future."
—Ben Santer, “Trump and the Tide of History” (Scientific American)
Joe Romm, “Trump falsely claims Paris deal has a minimal impact on warming” (climateprogress.org)
Andrew Freedman, “In Paris Agreement speech, Trump never acknowledged the reality of global warming” (Mashable)
Marshall Shepherd, “Paris Climate Agreement Skeptics Sing A Familiar Song If You Remember The Ozone Hole Debate” (Forbes)
University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, UCAR Statement on U.S. Withdrawal from Paris Climate Agreement
Carbon Brief has this summary page of over 100 published reactions from various politicians, news outlets, and scientists on the decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement. As of 10 am EDT Friday, the reactions were 7% positive, 8% neutral, and 85% negative. The page will be updated frequently over the next few days.
Jeff Masters co-wrote this post.