Trump's Choice on the Paris Agreement

At the close of the 2017 G7 Summit in Italy, the U.S. refused to sign on to a communique reaffirming a strong commitment to swiftly implement the Paris Agreement. Soon thereafter, Trump tweeted that a decision on the Paris Agreement would come this week.


Photo by IISD/ENB | Kiara Worth


The Paris Agreement has been widely hailed as a breakthrough in global climate politics and even as a potential turning point in humanity’s fight to address the climate crisis. According to the Yale Center for Climate Change Communication, the Paris Agreement is supported by a majority of Americans in every U.S. state. Businesses from Microsoft to Google to Walmart to Exxon want the U.S. to stay in the Agreement. Nearly every nation signed the deal, and our closest allies are urging Donald Trump to abide by the U.S. commitment.


If Trump were to unilaterally pull the United States out of the Paris accord, he would be doing so despite the strong and consistent advocacy and preferences of business leaders, national security experts, the international community, and over 70 percent of Americans - including majorities in every state. Withdrawing from the Agreement will make us less safe, less prosperous, and will due incalculable damage to our credibility and standing in the world.


Background on the Paris Agreement 

The Paris Agreement is the most ambitious, inclusive, and procedurally rigorous climate agreement the world has ever seen. It sets ambitious but scientifically responsible goals of holding global temperature rise “well below” 2°C, to work to stay below 1.5°C, and to achieve net zero emissions in the second half of the century. At the same time, it has secured the broadest level of participation in a climate agreement, with nearly every country submitting plans to address their climate pollution. Moreover, it sets out the most rigorous process yet for countries to accelerate action towards meeting these goals. Beginning in 2020, countries must submit progressively stronger mitigation targets every 5 years, take the actions necessary to achieve those targets, and report on these actions through a strengthened transparency framework.


Support for the Agreement is Broad and Deep

This common framework has achieved near unanimous global support. Nearly 200 countries signed the Agreement, and over 120 countries sent their leaders to Paris to participate in the negotiations in 2015. The only countries who have not signed are war-torn Syria and Nicaragua, which would like the agreement to be even stronger. Over 145 countries have already formally joined the Agreement, bringing the Agreement into force far faster than anyone thought possible. And the Agreement enjoys broad popular support, both in the United States and around the world.


Indeed, it is clear that the Trump Administration will not undermine this broad support. Since his inauguration, many countries have expressed concern about the direction of U.S. climate policy, but not one single country has said that they would follow the U.S. out of the Agreement. Quite the contrary, many countries and groups—including India, China, the EU, Japan, Saudi Arabia, the Least Developed Countries, the High Ambition Coalition and others -- have all reconfirmed their commitment to continue to take aggressive climate action under the Agreement. Others have even joined the Agreement in the days since Trump took office. In so doing, they have sent a resounding message that the countries of the world will forge on, with or without the United States.


The main opposition to the Paris Agreement seems to be centered around the faux-nationalist and fossil fuel hack wings of the administration and GOP, led by White House adviser Steve Bannon, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, and a handful of Senate Republicans who are pushing invalid legal arguments (see here and here) that even we at the Sierra Club reject. Meanwhile, other world leaders, including Pope Francis, as well as hundreds of businesses -- including the world’s biggest oil companies -- have repeatedly called on Trump to remain in the Agreement for both economic and diplomatic purposes.


Bipartisan Approach

While some Republicans have opposed the Agreement, it scrupulously follows bipartisan criteria for climate agreements set out by the Senate in 1997. As the Kyoto Protocol was being negotiated, the Senate adopted the Byrd-Hagel resolution by a vote of 95-0, warning President Clinton that the Senate would not ratify a new agreement that included emissions reduction mandates for the U.S., unless it also included specific commitments for developing countries. In fact, the Paris Agreement doesn’t mandate specific reductions for any country -- rather, it allows all countries, including developing countries, to define their own contributions to the global effort.


Diplomatic costs

Withdrawing from the Paris Agreement will do considerable damage to the U.S.’s global standing and credibility in the world. Countries have clearly shown, through the unprecedented engagement of their leaders in the development of the Paris Agreement, that climate change is now a core national interest and a top-tier diplomatic priority. By abandoning the global effort to contain the climate crisis, the Trump Administration would severely undermine its ability to achieve any of its other diplomatic priorities. Countries have even gone so far as to say that the U.S. will face “lasting damage” if it leaves the Paris Agreement.


The Bush Administration discovered this when it left the Kyoto Protocol.As Colin Powell later conceded, President Bush’s foreign policy team did not anticipate the myriad ways in which exiting Kyoto would impede their foreign policy agenda. For Powell, the intensity of the diplomatic response was “a sobering experience.”


The diplomatic response to a U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement would be worse. Nicholas Burns, who served as deputy Secretary of State under George W. Bush, recently told the New York Times, “I think it would be a major mistake, even a historic mistake, to disavow the Paris deal… I can’t think of an issue, except perhaps NATO, where if the U.S. simply walks away, it would have such a major negative impact on how we are seen.”  


As the Trump Administration cedes leadership and credibility on an issue of such surpassing global importance, others are ready to take its place. China has said that it is prepared to assume a more leading role -- and to reap the rewards in terms of international standing, goodwill and global influence that will surely accrue.


Competitive Disadvantage

The global transition to a clean energy economy that will be accelerated by the Paris Agreement has enormous implications for American jobs and competitiveness. The global market for clean energy technologies and services will be in the trillions, and it is increasingly clear that clean energy, not fossil fuels, will drive job growth in the coming decades. Already, clean energy like wind and solar are employing more Americans than oil, gas, and coal. And solar, wind and energy efficiency jobs are growing at impressive rates, with huge upside potential for future growth.  


India and China are poised to seize competitive advantage if the Trump Administration flounders. China sees enormous opportunity in supplying the technologies to power the clean energy transition anticipated by the Paris Agreement, and is making an aggressive play for global market share. Last month, China announced that it will invest over $360 billion through 2020 in renewable energy production. In addition to reducing emissions, creating millions of Chinese jobs and helping to alleviate the intolerable air pollution in many of China’s urban centers, this investment will drive down manufacturing costs and further advance the global competitiveness of China’s clean energy sector.


It would be difficult to imagine a more self-defeating response to China’s aggressive bid to lead the clean energy revolution than for the U.S. to pull out of the Paris Agreement. Making the U.S. a climate pariah will not help us win market share abroad or create jobs at home.