Trump’s Paris Withdrawal: The Nail in the Coffin of U.S. Global Leadership?

The announcement on June 1st by U.S. President Donald Trump that he will withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement was, in my view, misguided; and the justifications Mr. Trump provided were misleading, and to some degree, untruthful.  In this essay, I seek to explain why I believe that withdrawing from the Paris Agreement will be damaging both to the United States and the world.  Sadly, Trump’s withdrawal announcement gave the impression that the President has little understanding of the nature of the Agreement, the process for withdrawal, or the implications of withdrawal for the United States, let alone for the world.  Rather, Mr. Trump appears to be channeling talking points from his chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, and his supporters among Alt-Right nationalists, isolationists, and anti-globalists.

Some Context

Let’s start with a few numbers. The United States accounts for about 14% of global greenhouse gas emissions, with China the largest emitter at 30%, followed by the European Union (10%) and India (7%). But climate change is a function of atmospheric concentrations, and when looking at cumulative emissions since 1850, the United States is first with 29% of the total, then the European Union (EU) with 27%, and then Russia and China with 8% each.  With Trump’s announced withdrawal, the United States will join Syria and Nicaragua as the only countries among 195 that are not Parties of the Paris Agreement.

Global Implications of U.S. Withdrawal from the Paris Agreement

With the United States out of the Paris Agreement, it loses the ability to pressure other countries, such as the large emerging economies, to do more.  Worse yet, the announced departure may encourage some countries to do less than they had planned.  In the worst possible outcome, the U.S. announcement might eventually even lead to the broad Paris coalition unraveling.  However, initial indications from the EU, China, India, and other key Parties to the Agreement is that they will maintain their targets, and some may even make them more aggressive because of President Trump’s short-sighted action.  Only time will tell.

What Does President Trump’s Announcement Actually Mean?

In several ways, the President’s announcement was both confused and confusing.  The President stated that the country “will withdraw from the Paris climate accord but begin negotiations to re-enter either the Paris accord or an entirely new transaction on terms that are fair to the United States.  We are getting out. But we will start to negotiate, and we will see if we can make a deal that’s fair. And if we can, that’s great.”

First, the notion of re-negotiating the Paris Agreement is a non-starter.  Within hours of the President’s announcement, the idea of renegotiation was rebuked by French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Italian Premier Paolo Gentiloni, British Prime Minister Theresa May, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, among many other world leaders.

Second, what could Mr. Trump even mean by his assertions of the deal’s “unfairness” to the United States, and what should we to make of his statement that such unfairness could be addressed through renegotiation?  According the Paris Agreement’s own provisions, there is a required three-year delay from November, 2016 (when the Agreement came into force) before any Party (country) can even begin the process of withdrawing, and then there is another year of delay before that process is completed.  So, what the President actually announced – in effect – was the U.S. government’s intention to begin the process of withdrawing some two and a half years from now, and to complete that withdrawal process in November, 2020.

Thus, the announcement was equivalent to stating that the U.S. will remain a Party to the Agreement for virtually the entire term of this administration (which it will).  The administration could – in theory – submit a revised Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) that is consistent with what the country can accomplish in emissions reductions (possibly a 15-19% reduction by 2025 compared with 2005, according to a recent Rhodium Group analysis, instead of the Obama NDC of a 26-28% decline), consistent with the broad rollback of Obama-era climate regulations that President Trump has initiated.  The country-specific NDC is the key element that can be thought of as affecting “fairness” of the U.S. role under the Paris Agreement, because it is only through the self-determined, voluntary, country-specific NDCs that any national targets or actions are specified.

Given that the Administration had already begun the process of unraveling Obama-era climate regulations (that were to be used achieve the Obama NDC), the announced withdrawal from the Paris Agreement has no additional effects on U.S. emissions mitigation actions.  Hence, it is fundamentally dishonest to claim as a justification for the withdrawal that this will reduce costs for the U.S. and save jobs.

Beyond the national targets and actions specified by the U.S. NDC, there is one other aspect of pledged action under the Paris Agreement that could be considered to affect fairness, and that is the set of pledges of financial contributions to the Green Climate Fund, to which industrialized countries have voluntarily pledged $10 billion since 2013 to help low-income countries reduce their GHG emissions and adapt to the effects of climate change.  If the U.S. were to fulfill its original $3 billion commitment to the Fund, this would amount to $9.41 per capita, ranking 11th among country pledges, starting with Sweden’s at $59.31 per person.  However, the President had previously announced that no funds will be going to the GCF (beyond the $1 billion already delivered during the Obama administration).  That makes the per capita U.S. contribution a bit more than $3 per capita, ranking close to the bottom of the list, only above South Korea’s pledge of about $2 per capita.  So, with this financial element, as well as with regard to domestic emissions mitigation actions, withdrawal from the Paris Agreement can have no real effects on the “fairness” of the U.S. role.

The Paris Agreement Was the Answer to U.S. Prayers

The very structure of the Paris Agreement itself was and is the answer to U.S. prayers, going back to the bipartisan Byrd-Hagel Resolution of 1997, in which the U.S. Senate – in a 95-0 vote – said that it would not ratify an international climate agreement that did not include the large emerging economies (China, India, Brazil, South Africa, Mexico, and Korea).  After more than 20 years of negotiations, an important breakthrough came with the signing of the Paris Agreement, which increased the scope of participation from countries accounting for just 14% of global emissions (under the current, second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol) to countries accounting for 97% under the Paris Agreement.

Furthermore, in addition to including all countries, the Paris Agreement answered a second key U.S. demand by granting all countries the right to determine their own targets and their own paths of action (through their respective NDCs).

And the third of three U.S. wishes was also granted by the Paris Agreement by providing for transparency around how countries report their emissions and demonstrate progress toward their respective targets.

Thus, the Paris Agreement was truly the answer to bipartisan U.S. prayers going back at least twenty years, and was eminently “fair” to the United States.  What, then, can renegotiation possibly accomplish that would make this President happy?  Perhaps one option would be to rename precisely the same agreement the “Mar-a-Lago Accord” (or simply the “Trump Agreement”)!  That might change this President’s mind.

A Rebuke to Countries around the World … and to U.S. Businesses

Mr. Trump’s decision is a remarkable rebuke to countries and heads-of-state around the world, as well as corporate leaders in the United States, and some key senior officials in the Administration, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.  However, the announcement does attempt to fulfill the President’s campaign pledge to “cancel” the Agreement that he claimed would “destroy American jobs.”

But dropping out of Paris will have no meaningful employment impacts.  Again, Trump had already launched the process of undoing domestic climate regulations from the Obama administration.  Also, the much-talked-about coal jobs are not coming back.  The losses that have taken place over decades are due to increased productivity (technological change) in the coal sector, and more recently, market competition from low-priced natural gas for electricity generation, not environmental regulations — and certainly not CO2 regulations that had never been implemented.

Support for Trump to keep the United States in the Paris Agreement was broad-based within U.S. private industry – from electricity generators such as PG&E and National Grid, to oil companies such as Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Exxon-Mobil, BP, and Shell (the last two having large operations within the U.S.), and a very long list of manufacturers, including giant firms such as General Motors and General Electric.  Even some of the largest coal producers, such as Arch Coal, Cloud Peak Energy, and Peabody Energy, told the President about their support for the U.S. remaining in the Agreement. This broad support was due to a simple reality – leaders of successful businesses make decisions not on the basis of ideology, but based on available evidence.

Damages to U.S. International Relations

The potential damages to U.S. international relations are grave, but should we be surprised?  After all, this is the same President who withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership days after inauguration, thereby handing over to China economic leadership in Asia; and the same President who just last month dismissed and diminished NATO and insulted our key European allies, thereby granting Russian President Vladimir Putin one of his greatest wishes.  Former Mexican President Vincente Fox may have summed it up best with the shocking assessment that “the United States has stopped being the leader of the free world.”

At a time when the U.S. wants and needs cooperation from a large and diverse set of countries around the world on matters of national security, trade, and a host of other issues, it is counter-productive in the extreme to willingly become an international pariah on global climate change, but that is what President Trump has accomplished.

Defining U.S. Climate Policy Geographically, Rather than by Federal Government Action

Of course, this is not the end of all climate change policy action in the United States.  Climate policies in California, Oregon, Washington, and the Northeast will remain in place, and quite possibly be strengthened. And more than half of all states have renewable energy policies; just since Election Day, the Republican governors of Illinois and Michigan have signed legislation aimed at increasing solar and wind generation. At the federal level, important tax credits for wind and solar power will likely continue to receive bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress.

But it is highly unlikely – in the absence of a significant economic recession – that those policies (plus others from cities across the country) will be sufficient to achieve the climate targets that made up the Obama administration’s anticipated contribution (NDC) under the Paris Agreement.

Trump’s Core and a Sad Bottom Line

For President Trump’s core supporters, the move was probably perceived in very positive terms.  As Cary Coglianese, a professor of law and political science at the University of Pennsylvania, has said, “For Trump supporters it looks like he’s delivering on a campaign promise — it looks like he’s standing up for Americans against the rest of the world.”  The opposition to Paris among Trump’s electoral core (and a considerable share of Congressional Republicans) seems to be linked with their admiration for his “America First” battle cry, which builds on nostalgia for an earlier (and whiter) America with its long-gone manufacturing-based economy, plus doses of xenophobia, hostility to immigration, fear of globalism, and opposition to multilateral agreements of any kind.

The President’s announcement of withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement will indeed appeal to his core constituency, and thereby may help galvanize his base, and that may be the central White House objective at this time when the administration is facing grave questions and challenges from Congressional hearings and Justice Department investigations. As Ban Ki-moon, former Secretary-General of the United Nations, and I wrote in April in The Boston Globe, “reducing emissions will not be cheap or easy, but the greatest obstacles are political.”

The announcement by President Trump that he will withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement was based neither on real science nor sound economics.  Rather, it was confused, misguided, and – in some ways – dishonest.  Sadly, that makes it consistent with much of this President’s behavior – in a variety of policy realms – during the campaign and since he assumed office.

Author: Robert Stavins

Robert N. Stavins is the Albert Pratt Professor of Business and Government, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program, Director of Graduate Studies for the Doctoral Program in Public Policy and the Doctoral Program in Political Economy and Government, Co-Chair of the Harvard Business School-Kennedy School Joint Degree Programs, and Director of the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements.