WASHINGTON — The Trump administration’s move Monday to start the clock on pulling out of the Paris climate agreement places the U.S. at odds with the entire rest of the world — once again — when it comes to committing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The move has little practical effect for energy policy in the United States, where President Donald Trump is already dismantling Obama-era regulations on major sources of heat-trapping emissions such as power plants and automobiles.
But it hands a ready talking point to the Democrats running to replace him, all of whom have pledged to rejoin the agreement if Trump pulls out. And Trump’s action is symbolically striking in the realm of international climate diplomacy, coming just weeks before nations are due to gather for yet another climate conference in Madrid.
“I think there is a big difference of him doing this now before the [conference],” said Andrew Light, a State Department negotiator under former President Barack Obama who is now at World Resources Institute. “Many countries out there are going to be taking a harder stand on the U.S. in the [conference] depending on what is said in the letter.”
Wait, didn’t this already happen?
In climate diplomacy, nothing happens quickly.
While Trump announced his intention to withdraw from the Paris agreement in June 2017 and has since portrayed the decision as a done deal — “We did away with that one,” he said in Pittsburgh last month — Monday was the first day he could formally put that plan into motion. That’s because the terms of the Paris agreement don’t allow participants to withdraw until three years after it took effect.
However, it will be another year until the U.S. is officially out — on Nov. 4, 2020, one day after the presidential election. That means the State Department would still send a delegation to the 25th Conference of Parties scheduled to convene next month, where countries are supposed to work out details of how they will fulfill their promises to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.
Is this going to be an election issue?
Climate change has emerged as a top issue in the Democratic primary, where the candidates have outlined competing proposals — some costing trillions of dollars — for weaning the U.S. off fossil fuels and transitioning the country toward relying mostly on wind, solar and other renewable energy.
Even some moderate Republicans are calling on the GOP to acknowledge the reality of climate change, seeing the issue as key for attracting young voters who are increasingly worried about the havoc that scientists are projecting for the latter half of the century.
Still, the Paris deal remains unpopular among the most conservative Republicans who make up Trump’s strongest base of support. House Republicans last week circulated a draft resolution, led by Representative Jodey Arrington (Republican-Texas), backing a clean break Monday from the Paris agreement, and underscoring the party’s objection to the climate deal.
Are we just giving up on climate change?
Once the withdrawal notice is out, the U.S. will be the only country on Earth not in the agreement, which asks participants to submit individual pledges to reduce emissions . (The goal is to limit temperature increases to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, a figure that much research has pointed to as the threshold for catastrophic warming.) But the commitments that countries have submitted so far are well short of that goal — as were the pledges that the Obama administration offered in Paris four years ago.
The president has repeatedly scoffed at the notion that climate change is even a problem, and his administration has shown a clear preference for boosting domestic oil, gas and coal production by eliminating or rewriting Obama’s regulations.
However, some states like California and New York are stepping up their efforts to reduce emissions and produce more renewable energy, and businesses are facing growing consumer pressure to clean up their act. U.S. states, cities and businesses who said they remain committed to the Paris accord goals account for $10.1 trillion in GDP, making them the third-largest economy behind the entire U.S. and China, according to the World Resources Institute. Serious doubts exist that those steps will be enough without the leadership of the U.S. government, however.
What will the rest of the world do?
Trump maintains little interest in the international climate talks. He called Chilean President Sebastián Piñera last week to offer support for the leader’s decision to cancel the upcoming climate conference that had been planned for Santiago and allow them to take place elsewhere amid violent protests in the country.
But the deal itself seems likely to survive the U.S. exit, and U.S. negotiators have largely operated with little overt political influence from the White House.
The Trump administration saw last year’s climate negotiations in Katowice, Poland, as a priority because it wanted to secure strong transparency and reporting requirements for countries’ carbon emissions, as a way to keep China in check.
The stakes for the upcoming conference are much lower — ironing out international carbon trading regimes, for example — and have thus attracted less attention from the president’s political aides.
Why couldn’t we renegotiate?
Two years ago, when he announced the planned Paris withdrawal, Trump suggested he may be willing to stay in the deal if he could secure better terms for the U.S., but there was never much serious followup, and the rest of the world has largely moved on without him.
French President Emmanuel Macron noted he didn’t even attempt to change Trump’s mind during this summer’s G7 summit in Biarritz, France. Trump skipped the summit’s climate change session and White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney said last month that it won’t be a topic at next year’s G7 meeting in Florida.
“Everyone largely expected this, overseas,” said Jesse Young, senior adviser for climate and energy at Oxfam America, in an email.