How domestic forces could help prevent Trump from dismantling U.S. climate efforts

While the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement could have an effect on international efforts, Maria Banda argues three factors could lessen the impact: the role of sub-national government, private sector initiatives and climate litigation.

By: /
June 2, 2017
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People hold banners as they protest next to the Brandenburg Gate, beside the U.S. embassy, against the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate change deal, in Berlin, Germany, June 2, 2017. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

After months of rumours and prevarication, President Donald Trump finally announced on Thursday that the United States would withdraw from the landmark Paris Agreement on Climate Change (or try to negotiate terms that are “fair” to the U.S.). 

The decision, which fulfils one of Trump’s campaign promises, is regrettable and will be remembered as one of this administration’s most short-sighted and self-defeating measures. It sends a message to the rest of the world that climate change is no longer a U.S. priority, that every country should fend for itself (or sink), and that vital international agreements can be scrapped willy-nilly.      

Thankfully, it is not game over for the Paris Agreement. For one, the rest of the world does not seem inclined to follow Washington’s lead just yet — though longer-term consequences for the stability of international agreements are yet to be seen. The Europeans, China and the Alliance of Small Island States have all already made it clear that the Paris Agreement is not up for renegotiation. Justin Trudeau said Canada's commitment was "unwavering." Russia has also stated its support. So a complete U.S. exit from the accord, as opposed to a renegotiation, is likely.

There is no doubt that the Paris Agreement is imperfect — but not for the reasons Trump cites (i.e., as an “intrusion” on U.S. sovereignty or a source of “massive” future legal liability). Rather, the agreement does not set any binding emissions reductions, nor does it have an enforcement mechanism to punish non-compliers. But, painstakingly negotiated and signed by 195 nations in 2015, it does reflect a near-universal commitment to fighting climate change and has generated strong global momentum for action. 

"The real question isn't whether the U.S. is in or out of the Paris regime, but whether or not it will behave like a responsible global citizen."

The technical details (the “Paris rulebook”) are still being hammered out, and strong U.S. leadership will be sorely missed. Under the Obama administration, the U.S. played an important role in crafting the (binding) disclosure, review and transparency provisions on which the agreement’s integrity depends. Without continued U.S. support, there is a risk of backsliding. (Neither China nor India, for example, are likely to stand up for meaningful transparency.) 

The biggest immediate loser from the withdrawal will be the United States itself. By giving up its seat on the table, the Trump administration is condemning the U.S. to irrelevance in the climate talks (similar to Canada’s marginalization following Stephen Harper’s withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol in 2011). Though if the alternative is the U.S. disrupting the process from the inside, its exit may be the lesser evil.  

At the end of the day, however, the real question is not whether the United States is in or out of the Paris regime, but whether or not it will behave like a responsible global citizen. At 14 percent of the global emissions, the U.S. is the world’s second top-emitter, so its actions (or lack thereof) matter greatly. (China, at 27 percent, is the number one polluter.) In this sense, what the Trump administration does domestically to reduce U.S. emissions can do far more for climate mitigation than the mere fact of U.S. participation in the agreement.   

The domestic factors

If Trump could be taken at his word — that the U.S. will remain the “world’s leader in environmental protection” — the U.S. withdrawal would be less disconcerting. But the series of executive orders Trump has signed since January, from opening up the federal public lands to oil and gas exploitation to rolling back climate-related regulations, show that Washington is not serious about environmental leadership, either at home or abroad.

While the Trump administration’s abdication of responsibility for countering climate change will hinder international efforts, here are three domestic factors that may help blunt the impact:  

First, the U.S. federal government does not have complete control over U.S. emissions. U.S. states and cities have been playing an increasingly important role on climate change and may now be galvanized to do even more. Within minutes of the White House decision, the governors of the states of California, New York and Washington announced the creation of a United States Climate Alliance, which will convene U.S. states committed to upholding the Paris Agreement and taking “aggressive action on climate change.” Over 60 U.S. mayors, including of Boston, Houston and Pittsburgh, immediately stated their intent to honour the Paris Agreement regardless of the federal government.   

Second, while the withdrawal may be welcomed by America’s fading coal industry, significant portions of the U.S. private sector want stronger climate action and worry about losing their competitive edge without it. After the election, 365 U.S. businesses and investors reaffirmed their support for the Paris Agreement and low-carbon development. In fact, in 2009, Trump himself had called for U.S. climate legislation. Pressure from shareholders worried about exposure to climate risks, including financial firms and pension funds, is increasing. The U.S. industry will likely maintain and step up pressure on the Trump administration to provide climate leadership.

Finally, climate litigation, which has proliferated over the last decade, can be expected to keep the Trump administration (and state governments) in check. As one judge wrote in 2016, “[t]hese children can’t wait, the polar bears can’t wait, the people of Bangladesh can’t wait.” American courts are increasingly responding to the urgency of climate change and will be instrumental in protecting environmental law over the next four years. 

These factors will make it more difficult for the Trump administration to completely dismantle the climate regime domestically. But international leadership on climate change, including by Canada (as a major emitter), will also be essential to ensure that “l’esprit de Paris” remains strong until the U.S. is ready to rejoin the collective effort.