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Can the Paris Climate Agreement Survive Trump?

Updated: Jul 3, 2023

In 2017, President Trump rocked and rattled the environmentalist world with his declaration of the US’s departure from the Paris Agreement on climate change. A year on, Laura Wormington examines the state of the Agreement in the wake of the declaration, and the possible ramifications for the future of global environmental politics.

The Paris Agreement was originally drafted and sealed in 2015 by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in order to mitigate against the effects of climate change, minimise greenhouse gas emissions, and, specifically, limit the global average temperature rise to no more than two degrees above pre-industrial levels. The US entered into the agreement in 2016 under Obama who called it the ‘single best chance that we have to deal with a problem that could end up transforming this planet.’ It was withdrawn by Trump a year later.

Screenshot 2018-09-22 at 2.28.14 PM

Due to the treaty’s legal nature, the withdrawal will not actually come into effect until November 2020, coincidentally around the time of the next presidential elections – but what will happen when it does? And what does this all mean for the future of global environmental politics, not least the environment itself? The consensus among many environmentalists is that the withdrawal is unequivocally detrimental for the future of the fight against climate change. But could it be possible that even greenhouse gas clouds have a silver lining?

As environmental activists across the globe constantly reiterate, climate change knows no borders and those most vulnerable to its consequences are often those least responsible for inducing it. Fighting it, therefore, requires international cooperation, particularly by wealthier countries –  like the US, home to a mere twentieth of the world’s population but the cause of almost a third of the excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The Paris Climate Agreement was designed to ensure such cooperation and is complemented by the Green Climate Fund which aims to channel donations from wealthier high-emitting countries towards protecting poorer countries from climate change.

Donald Trump has never hesitated to vocalise his allegations that climate change is merely an elaborate hoax designed to hinder the US. An archetypal tweet from 2012, one of hundreds of a similar sentiment published by his infamous Twitter account, claims,

The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive. — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 6, 2012

Nevertheless, his announcement on 1st June 2017 that the US would withdraw its signature from the Paris Climate Agreement, being the first of nearly 200 nations to do so, sparked incredulity and backlash across the globe.

A dangerous precedent has thus been set for the future of the deal. While the US should arguably be leading the way in the climate change effort, Trump’s flagrant disregard for the moral obligation to repay historical ecological debt or protect poorer countries is disturbing to say the least, and undermines the sense of international responsibility the Agreement aims to promote. What’s more, it brings to light the weakness of the deal’s legal binding power – Trump’s decision to withdraw was entirely within his presidential mandate according to Article 28 of the treaty.

Worse still, he justified the move by claiming it was necessary in order to protect the US economy, implying that maintaining a successful economy and combating climate change are by nature mutually exclusive. The worry now is that other countries will be inspired to follow suit and a domino effect will be triggered. Australia’s former prime minister Tony Abbott, for example, is currently presenting the case for Australia to withdraw on economic grounds, and has repeatedly descripted the Agreement as an ‘aspirational target’ as opposed to a ‘binding commitment’, despite the fact that it was he who signed the deal 3 years ago, describing it then as ‘responsible and achievable’.

Australia, however, appears to be an exception. In the aftermath of the announcement, the international community responded at large with unified outrage and strengthened solidarity. Germany, Italy, and France offered a joint statement of regret; the prime minister of the Czech Republic declared that, while the deal may be weakened, it will not be defeated; Zhang Haibin (Peking University professor of international environmental politics) emphasised the need for China to work more closely with the EU and other BASIC countries (Brazil, South Africa, and India); while Miguel Arias Canete, speaking as the EU Commissioner for Climate, claimed that Trump’s decision ‘galvanised us’.

As environmentalist academic Luke Kemp notes, with the US no longer able to wield its influence within the Agreement and block certain developments, there is arguably now more opportunity for the remaining countries to forge more effective long term plans. There is talk, for example, that China and the EU, two of the most powerful actors within the Agreement, may form a new alliance and offer a more ambitious contribution to the effort, possibly involving carbon tax on US imports or common border carbon adjustments.

Kemp, however, warns that the sense of international solidarity may eventually deteriorate without the political impetus and financial contribution of the US. He draws a parallel with the Kyoto Protocol, an international climate agreement established in the 1990s to which the US failed to ratify their commitment. The international community initially rallied in solidarity against them, but this solidarity was relatively short-lived and the US’s lack of support ultimately lead to the dismantling of the Protocol a decade later. Kemp’s concern, however, should be taken with a pinch of salt as the two cases are very different in terms of international politics, global attitudes towards climate change, and the nature of the treaties themselves.

That said, the Green Climate Fund will certainly suffer without the US’s input. Obama initially pledged that the US would contribute $3 billion to the $10 billion fund, more than any other country. But it has remained $2 billion short since Trump took office (and referred to the fund as a scheme designed to redistribute wealth from rich to poor countries – apparently deemed a criticism).

Other significant donors like the UK, Japan, and Germany, which have so far paid over $3 billion between them, are likely to struggle to make up the difference. The money is used to fund a combination of climate change mitigation and adaptation projects across the globe, like installing hazard warning systems and financing renewable power generation, and without sufficient donations these projects will be limited.

Outside of the deal, many worry that a deregulated US fossil fuel industry will render impossible the effort to limit the global temperature rise to 2 degrees—indeed, a large influencing factor in Trump’s decision to withdraw is probably his campaign promise to reinvigorate the US coal industry.

Fortunately, however, it will not be totally unregulated. Immediately following the withdrawal announcement, the governors of California, Washington, and New York, some of the most populous states, formed the United States Climate Alliance, promising to uphold the Paris Agreement within their own borders. Within days, eight other states issued had similar promises and by July 2017, the month after the announcement, the alliance incorporated 13 North American states and Puerto Rico (what population percentage of US?). As it turns out, the US will likely still miss the emissions targets, but it is better it does this outside of the deal, rather than undermining the obligations it poses from within.

While intuitively the move appears unequivocally catastrophic, the picture is more nuanced. Financially, the deal will suffer without the US’s input but, providing Australia does not withdraw and trigger a mass exodus, all is not lost. The deal may, in fact, be better off without the hindering influence of Trump. What is important to note, however, is that very few of the countries within the Agreement are on track to reach their targets when it comes to reducing emissions. It is only with impressive unified efforts of the remaining countries in the Paris Agreement, with continued support from external groups such as the United States Climate Alliance in reducing emissions, that work may still be done in ensuring that global temperature does not surpass two degrees above pre-industrial levels, at least for the time being.

About the Author: Laura has recently graduated from King’s College London and is now studying economics at SOAS. When not concocting experimental curries, she’s involved in climate-related and workers’ rights activism. She believes in the power of grassroots media and (in the words of Alice Walker) that hard times require furious dancing.

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