The Silver Lining to the U.S. Withdrawal from The Paris Agreement

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Written by Samantha Stafford

In a highly anticipated—but not surprising—announcement, President Donald J. Trump withdrew the United States from the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change.  His reasoning: the action is necessary to save jobs in the U.S. and the agreement imposes “no meaningful obligations on the world’s leading polluters.” By making this decision, the United States, the second largest polluter behind China and key architect of the agreement under the Obama administration, left the 194 other nations who signed the agreement, to join a small club of nations who refused to be part of the agreement—Syria and Nicaragua.  The role of the 194 remaining nations, as well as non-federal actors within the U.S., will be critical in stemming the effects of the U.S. withdrawal.

But what is actually in this agreement? According to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) website, the central aim of the Paris Agreement is to limit the global temperature increase of this century to under two degrees Celsius (striving for a limit of 1.5 degrees Celsius, if possible) through lowering CO2 emissions.  While the agreement is non-binding, it requires all members to regularly report their emissions and steps taken towards implementation, prepare and maintain “nationally determined contributions” (NDCs), and participate in a global stocktake every five years to evaluate the collective progress made.

After the U.S. withdrawal was officially announced, world leaders, such as French President Emmanuel Macron, powerful U.S. corporations, such as the Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Tesla, and even local and state government officials, such as Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, voiced opposition. Quickly, non-federal sectors and regions within the U.S. joined together in support of the deal. Almost immediately succeeding the announcement of the U.S. withdrawal, New York Governor Cuomo, along with state governors Edmund G. Brown of California and Jay Inslee of Washington State, formed the U.S. Climate Alliance, a group of states committed to supporting the accord despite the federal government’s stance. As of June 5, 10 additional states have joined.

In addition to state government opposition, the response of the private sector and industry is perhaps even more stark and interesting. Highly influential business leaders in the U.S. have spoken out against the withdrawal. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg promised to donate up to $15 million to help pay for the formerly committed U.S. share of the Paris Agreement, and stated, “Americans will honor and fulfill the Paris Agreement by leading from the bottom up—and there isn’t anything Washington can do to stop us.”  Hundreds of companies, such as Apple, Google, Amazon, and Microsoft, reiterated their support for the agreement, launching a “We Are Still In” campaign to combat the “absence of leadership from Washington” on the issue.

For environmental advocates, as well as anyone who disapproves of the Trump administration’s stance on climate change, this widespread opposition could entail a silver lining. Not only because some sort of commitment on behalf of the U.S. to uphold the Paris Agreement is better than none, but because the U.S. withdrawal from the agreement and the reaction it sparked could in fact lead to more U.S. climate initiatives than otherwise would have occurred if the Trump administration had formally upheld the agreement.

How? The agreement is non-binding, and the Trump administration had clearly indicated that climate change and the limitation of CO2 emissions was not a goal of the administration, even before the U.S. withdrew. Climate change references were removed from the White House website in January, and months later, the Environmental Protection Agency did the same on their website to “reflect the views of the leadership.” Even if the U.S. had remained formally committed to the Paris Agreement under President Trump, it is doubtful that the U.S. would have done much more than attend the meetings—if that. If President Trump had stayed officially supportive (but not behind closed doors), there would have been less of a reason for groups and individuals within the U.S. to rally behind the agreement to the extent that they have now. The main problem with the U.S. withdrawing is symbolism and the precedent it may set for other members to withdraw.

Regardless of what countries decide, the reality of the situation is clear. The rock has been thrown into the pool. It is now up to non-federal coalitions within the U.S. to determine the size of the rock, and other nations to decide how big the ripples will be.