The accord, reached in 2015, is a landmark collective international effort to avert looming climate catastrophe. Every country but Nicaraguaand Syria signed on, the former declining because the agreement did not go far enough. Trump’s move is a lamentable setback for curbing carbon emissions, which is critical to ensuring a habitable planet for future generations.
The announcement was classic Trump: nationalistic, factually questionable and deeply aggrieved. Trump rolled out his decision in a speech focused on reclaiming sovereignty and protecting American economic interests, and giving little attention to the deleterious effects of climate change that he once claimed were a hoax. His justifications for doing so were false, misleading or misguided. Instead of advancing US interests, backing out of the agreement exacts a range of political and environmental costs: it will hurt America’s global standing, harm the economy, undermine security and hamper climate change mitigation efforts at a time when they need to be intensified.
Trump’s claim that he would get a better deal reflects his purely transactional worldview and his corresponding disdain for statecraft. He blithely presumes that he can simply demand a redo on an international accord it took the global community years to hammer out, using his unparalleled negotiating skills to extract more favourable terms. That misconception either underscores how little he understands of the agreement or reflects his intentional misrepresentation of its terms. Because commitments under the agreement are voluntary, Trump can change Washington’s targets unilaterally and without penalty.
Besides, other nations are disinclined to renegotiate, so walking away makes little strategic sense, especially now. Instead, as Tess Bridgeman argues, “giving away our seat at the table for free – while key implementation rules are still being negotiated and before any eventual withdrawal could legally take effect -does not free us but rather ties our hands as a nation”. The loss of US credibility and goodwill will, however, hamper international cooperation in other critical areas.
Washington's abdication of responsibility has galvanised business leaders, cities and states to commit to meeting the US' emission goals with renewed vigor.
Trump railed against the accord’s unfairness, claiming that China and India will get away with increasing coal production while the US is bound by limiting its own. But each state sets its own targets and is not dictated to by others. Besides, China has been cancelling coal plants, and the US coal industry has been on the decline, and unlikely to rebound to the benefit of the workers Trump claims to be protecting. In contrast, renewable energy jobs are on the rise.
Trump’s allegiances have always been clear. Even before the announcement, Trump’s evisceration of climate protections was already well under way. He has moved to gut Obama’s signature Clean Power Plan and auto emissions standards and vowed to dismantle other environmental regulations, and appointed men with ties to the fossil fuel industry and climate skeptics to his cabinet, including the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, whose funding he wants to slash, along with cuts to United Nations climate programmes.
The brokered climate agreement reflected a carefully crafted compromise that many felt did not go far or fast enough to avoid catastrophe. Despite its shortcomings, the accord projected a strength of purpose by affirming the consensus that reducing carbon emissions must be tackled collectively and urgently. But Trump has railed against multilateralism under the banner of America First, taking counsel from adviser Steve Bannon and other virulent nationalists. “I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” Trump intoned. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh, which voted for Hillary Clinton by more than 75 percent, committed to upholding the spirit of the accord.
Nowhere was Trump’s rejection of global community more evident than his exaggeration of the nation’s contribution to the Green Climate Fund and misapprehension of its intent. The fund was designed to help developing countries that are vulnerable to the most immediate and severe climate impacts, had the least to do with creating them and possess the fewest resources to adapt and curb their own emissions. Trump claimed the fund would cost Americans “billions and billions and billions of dollars” while some other countries would pay nothing. In fact, the US’ contributions are set at $3bn, one third of which has already been paid. That figure is less per capita than many other countries are paying. As the The New York Times pointed out, “The United States … has contributed more than any other country to the atmospheric carbon dioxide that is scorching the planet.”
With his travel ban on hold, Obamacare repeal facing an uncertain future, and the probe into Russian election meddling and collusion creating an ongoing distraction, Trump desperately needed a win. But withdrawing may provide a hollow and fleeting victory. A recent survey by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that nearly 70 percent of Americans want the US to continue its participation in the climate deal, including 47 percent of Trump voters, while fewer than a third want the US to withdraw. In the days after the announcement, Trump’s approval rating dipped five points, to a new low of 36 percent.
Some observers worry that Trump’s move will dampen enthusiasm for urgently needed action, and sow mistrust and disunity. If the world’s second largest carbon emitter can disengage with global efforts, they fear, others will follow suit. But so far, Washington’s abdication of responsibility has galvanised business leaders, cities and states to commit to meeting the US’ emission goals with renewed vigour. And other countries will step up to fill the leadership void.
The climate agreement never represented a panacea, and it faces other challenges besides Trump’s intransigence. But it does provide a powerful tool for civil society to demand responsible leadership. As writer and activist Naomi Klein observes, it “was always the task for the global climate justice movement … to try to hold governments to the strong spirit, rather than the weak letter, of the agreement”. That burden just got considerably bigger.
Lauren Carasik is a clinical professor of law and the Director of the International Human Rights Clinic at Western New England University School of Law. She has provided legal support for the water protectors.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.