Sometimes, the only way to fix an unhappy relationship is to end it. Since former president Obama (remember that guy?) left office in January, the United States has done an about-face on the Paris climate agreement—we’ve gone from being an leader on climate action to a rogue state that can’t decide whether it wants to keep a seat at the international table.
One expert, at least, thinks that we no longer deserve that seat, and that the Paris agreement would be better off without us. Unsurprisingly, not everybody agrees—many other experts think the US abandoning its commitment to act on climate change would be catastrophic.
Writing this week in Nature Climate Change, Luke Kemp, climate and environmental policy expert at Australian National University, argues that the US should exit the historic international climate accord its previous leadership helped to forge. But unlike Trump or EPA head Scott Pruitt, Kemp doesn’t doubt the reality of global warming, or subscribe to some sort of America First economic philosophy. Rather, he thinks a large, powerful carbon emitter remaining in the accord uncooperatively poses a greater threat to climate action than a large, powerful carbon emitter embracing its new image as a coal-loving backwater.
“Continued US membership in the Paris Agreement on climate would be symbolic and have no effect on US emissions,” Kemp writes. “Instead, it would reveal the weaknesses of the agreement, prevent new opportunities from emerging, and gift greater leverage to a recalcitrant administration.”
Ratified last fall, the Paris agreement brings together nearly 200 nations who have committed to weaning themselves off fossil fuels in order to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius. Each nation has set its own emissions reduction goals, and each is developing its own policies for achieving them, with the idea that ambitions will be ratcheted up every few years. Critically, emissions reductions goals are voluntary, meaning that the agreement is built—more than anything else—on a sense of mutual trust.
Former president Obama’s Clean Power Plan was the policy measure intended to keep the US compliant with its Paris goal, of curbing emissions 26 to 28 percent from 2005 levels by 2025. But Trump and EPA-head Scott Pruitt (who has sued the EPA over the CPP), have made it clear they have no intention of enforcing the rule in its current form, much less meeting that emissions target. Kemp worries that America’s “laggard” behavior will bring others down, too, if it’s permitted to go unchallenged.
“A great power that wilfully misses its target could provide political cover for other laggards and weaken the soft power of process,” Kemp writes. Indeed, a lack of US leadership on climate change has arguably been slowing the world down for decades—earlier climate negotiations under both George W. Bush and Obama failed, in part because America wasn’t willing to set aggressive emissions targets.
Kemp goes on to argue that there’s a risk of the US watering down the provisions of the Paris agreement even further, and that “positive opportunities” could arise from US withdrawal, including other nations slapping a hefty carbon tax on American imports, and more effective climate leadership by the world’s largest and third largest emitters, China and India, respectively. (Those two nations are already on track to exceed their Paris pledges thanks to aggressive de-carbonization policies, according to a study released last week.)
“Frankly, I have had the same thought,” Naomi Oreskes, Harvard historian of science and a staunch advocate of climate action, told Gizmodo when asked if the Paris agreement might become stronger should the US exit. “For twenty years, climate agreements have been weaker than they might otherwise have been, in part because of the effect of the United States.”
Oreskes cited the Paris agreement’s genetic predecessor—the Kyoto Protocol—as a salient example of a treaty the United States attempted to water down, and then failed to ratify anyhow. Apparently, this is a bit of a pattern for America.
“On the other hand, the withdrawal of the US would potentially threaten the entire structure [of the Paris Agreement],” she continued. “So it would not be something I would advocate.”
One of the key dangers of US withdrawal is that the billions of dollars of aid America has pledged to give developing nations to help them transition over to renewable energy will dry up. But, Kemp points out, the $500 million Obama already deposited in to the Green Climate Fund means the US can choose to stop giving money right now and technically remain compliant with Paris. Which is exactly what Trump is expected to do.
Of course, there’s also the terrible optics of a global superpower abandoning its climate commitment, not to mention the billions of tons more carbon emissions it all but guarantees.
Elliot Diringer, executive vice president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, maintains that the best outcome is still for the US to remain compliant with the Paris agreement—even if we don’t live up to our end of the bargain for the next four, or eight, years.
“The Paris Agreement was designed to be durable, although no one expected the first major test of its resilience would come so soon,” Dirigner told Gizmodo. “Other countries cannot be expected to welcome or endorse a weaker US target. But by simply acknowledging rather than rejecting it, they can help keep an unfortunate setback from becoming an utter disaster.”
The sobering reality is that Trump is going to do whatever he damn well pleases, and the rest of the world is going live with the consequences. The new administration has been arguing over whether to remain in the Paris agreement for months, but has promised a decision following the G7 summit in Sicily, which begins later this week.
No doubt, whether the US decides to stay in the accord, but ignore its own pledges, or withdraw, and threaten to topple the entire structure, will have far-reaching consequences. It’s not great news for the planet either way. And while America’s current leadership seems comfortable ignoring its own culpability in global climate change, history will not.
“The United States is not only the world’s largest economy but also, cumulatively, its largest greenhouse gas emitter,” Dirigner said. “No country bears greater responsibility for climate change.”