Challenging Trump’s Withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement

April 30, 2019 | 4:42 pm
House Speaker’s Office/Facebook
Alden Meyer
Former Contributor

President Trump’s announcement in June 2017 that he intends to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Agreement was both ignorant and irresponsible, placing the interests of the fossil fuel industry ahead of the health and well-being of current and future generations.  The Agreement represents an historic consensus among the nations of the world on the urgent need to respond to the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced.

On Thursday, the House of Representatives will vote on H.R. 9, the Climate Action Now Act, which would prohibit any federal funds from being used to advance the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Agreement on climate change.  The bill, which was introduced by Rep. Kathy Castor (FL-14), Chair of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, would also require the president to develop and submit to Congress a plan for how the U.S. will achieve its pledge under the Agreement to reduce its emissions of greenhouse gases by 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.

Given its overwhelming support from House Democrats, H.R. 9 will pass the House; it may even attract a few yes votes from Republicans.  Of course, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has no intention of bringing it up for a vote in the Senate.  But the vote later this week will send a signal that at least one body of Congress stands with the strong majority of Americans who want the U.S. to stay in the Paris Agreement and be a global leader on climate change, and with the thousands of U.S. companies, states, and cities that have committed to take the actions needed to meet our Paris obligations.  As House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Frank Pallone put it when H.R. 9 was unveiled on March 27th, “we are going to do whatever we can to say to the president, ‘Look, you say you’re going to withdraw from Paris. What is your plan? How are we going to address these climate issues?’”

Making the U.S. a rogue nation

Climate change is happening now, as the recent spate of floods, wildfires, superstorms and other extreme events here in the United States and around the world makes clear.  The latest international and U.S. government scientific reports are unequivocal: to keep these impacts from getting much, much worse, emissions must be cut sharply, starting immediately.  Every fraction of a degree of warming that we can avoid matters.

As the world’s largest economy and second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, the United States has a responsibility to stay in the Paris Agreement and to implement policies and measures to meet its 2025 emissions reduction pledge.  The Agreement has overwhelming support from other nations; in fact, after President Trump announced his intention to withdraw from the Agreement, Nicaragua and Syria – the only two countries that had yet to sign it – announced that they would do so.

By contrast, President Trump is dead set on making America a rogue nation on climate change, with harmful implications not only the environment but for our economy and our standing in the world.  As AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka put it, “pulling out of the Paris climate agreement is a decision to abandon a cleaner future powered by good jobs.  A deteriorating environment is not the only thing at stake here.  When our leaders isolate America from the rest of the world, its hurts our ability to raise incomes for working families and achieve fairness in the global economy.”

Rhetoric vs. Reality

As the debate takes place this week on the House floor, we can expect to hear many well-worn critiques of the Paris Agreement from opponents of climate action: that it imposes unfair obligations on the United States, it would hurt our economy, it doesn’t require developing countries like China and India to do anything, or it won’t make a dent in global emissions.

These talking points bear little or no relation to reality:

  • Emissions reduction commitments under Paris are nationally-determined; no other country is telling the U.S. what to do. Each country is expected to put forward pledges that represent the best effort they think they can make, to report on how they are doing in meeting those pledges, and to periodically update them based on developments in science, technology, economic feasibility, and other factors.  If a country falls short of its intended goals, there are no penalties – no fines, no trade sanctions, no other consequences.  This architecture, with universal participation by both developed and developing countries, self-determined commitments, and a robust and transparent reporting regime, represents what U.S. administrations — of both parties — have called for over the last two decades.
  • Reducing emissions is good for the economy; increasing climate impacts are the real threat. US Greenhouse gas emissions have come down substantially over the last 20 years, as a result of technological advances and policies that have been put in place at the federal, state, and local levels – although that trend was at least temporarily interrupted in 2018.  The sharp cost reductions in wind, solar, LED lighting, and other clean energy technologies, together with low natural gas prices, is already leading to the shutdown of a substantial share of U.S. coal generating capacity, and analysts predict we will soon see similar tipping points reached for electric vehicles in the competition against gasoline-powered cars and light trucks.  Over 4 million Americans work in the clean energy economy, with the renewable energy industry employing about five times as many people as the coal industry.  And when the costs of climate impacts are factored in to the equation, it is clear that it is inaction on climate change — not bold action – that poses the real threat to the U.S. and global economies.
  • Major developing countries like China and India are taking significant action to constrain their emissions and are considering doing more.  China is on track to meet its goal of reducing the carbon intensity of its economy (emissions per unit of GDP) by 48 percent from 2005 levels by 2020, and to achieve a peak in its national emissions well before the 2030 date put forward in its Paris pledge; an internal debate is now underway in China on increasing the ambition of its pledge.  Both China and India are making massive investments in deployment of energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies, with India putting forward some of the world’s most ambitious renewable energy policies, including a national goal of ramping up solar installed capacity to 100 gigawatts by 2022.
  • The aggregate commitments made under the Paris Agreement, if fully implemented, will have a substantial impact on global temperature increases, though much more must be done. The Climate Action Tracker consortium of analysts projects that these commitments would limit warming to about 3 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, compared to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s baseline projections before Paris of a 4.1 to 4.7 degrees C temperature increase. Of course, as last October’s IPCC special report makes clear, much more needs to be done if the world is to meet the ambitious temperature limitation goals set out in the Agreement: keeping well below a 2 degrees Celsius increase in global average surface temperature above pre-industrial levels and aiming to get as close as possible to a 1.5 degree Celsius limit.  The need for additional action was explicitly recognized in the decision adopting the Paris Agreement in 2015, and many countries are now considering how they can increase the ambition of their initial pledges under the Agreement before they are finalized next year.

What comes next on Paris?

After this week’s vote on H.R. 9 on the House floor, the debate will continue over the Paris Agreement and the issue of climate action more broadly.  Voters are ranking climate change as one of their top issues, and activists – including the inspiring youth climate strikes – are pressing national, state, and local policymakers to take bold action.

There is unanimity amongst the large field of contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination that one of their first acts if elected president would be re-entering the Paris Agreement (assuming that President Trump follows through on his announced intention and withdraws the U.S. from Paris in November, 2020 – the earliest he is allowed to do so under the terms of the Agreement).  Climate change is already featuring as an issue as candidates campaign in the early primary states, and will certainly come up in the round of Democratic debates that start in late June.

On the Republican side, the one announced opponent of President Trump for the Republican presidential nomination, former Massachusetts Governor William Weld, has said that the United States “must rejoin the Paris climate accords and adopt targets consonant with those of other industrialized nations.” And Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, who is reportedly considering entering the Republican primary contest, is a founding member of the U.S. Climate Alliance – governors from 23 states who have committed to implement policies that will help meet America’s Paris pledge, and whose states collectively represent over half of America’s population and economic output.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will be holding a leaders’ climate summit in New York on September 23rd during the opening week of the U.N General Assembly; he is calling on national leaders to come to the summit “with concrete, realistic plans to put us, once and for all, on a sustainable path,” and “to demonstrate how we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 45 per cent over the next decade and get to net zero emissions globally by 2050. That is what science says is needed.”  While it is unlikely that President Trump will attend the summit, his isolation from other world leaders on the need to implement and strengthen the Paris Agreement will once again be on full display, even in absentia.

Finally, between now and 2020, countries will be considering whether to increase the ambition of their emissions pledges under the Paris Agreement.  Some have already announced their intention to do so, and others may join them at the September climate summit.  Also, states, cities, businesses, and other subnational actors will continue to build on the broad suite of commitments they announced at last September’s Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco, helping lead the way to the decarbonization of the global energy economy that is needed to address the climate crisis.

This week’s House vote on the Climate Action Now Act adds to this drumbeat and will provide some hope to international observers that the United States may soon return to the fold of countries committed to climate action.