What’s Next for the Paris Climate-Change Agreement?

President Trump appears to be leaning towards an exit, but the pathway remains unclear.

Activists gather near the Eiffel Tower on Dec.12, 2015 during the United Nations Climate Change Conference.
AP Photo/Thibault Camus
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Jason Plautz
May 31, 2017, 3:56 p.m.

President Trump appears to be leaning towards exiting the Paris climate-change agreement, potentially putting the U.S. on the outside of a discussion dominating international circles and leaving climate advocates scrambling to keep climate discussions alive.

Multiple press reports have suggested that Trump is likely to leave the deal, although no announcement has been made and the White House has emphasized that a final decision has not been reached. Trump himself teased a decision “over the next few days” on Twitter and told reporters Wednesday he’s “hearing from a lot of people” on both sides of the argument.

Withdrawing from the Paris Agreement would put the U.S. on the outside of a discussion that’s become a priority for most of the world powers. Just last week, all of the G7 nations except the U.S. released a statement reiterating their support for the climate change agreement; China, the European Union, and Canada are meeting in September to discuss climate-change solutions.

The path forward remains unclear. Trump could simply pull back on the U.S. commitment under the agreement, in line with domestic policies that have reduced Obama-era climate-change commitments. If Trump decided to take the more symbolic step of ditching the agreement, the White House has several options, each with their own challenges and implications for the future.

The U.S. could exit the Paris deal itself, a process that would take several years and would not take effect until the end of President Trump’s first term. Under the terms of the agreement, that would leave open the door for a future president to stage America’s return.

Trump could also elect to pull out of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the 1992 treaty that provides the basis for U.N. climate action. That process would only take a year, but the steps are less clear. The treaty was approved by the Senate and U.S. law is ambiguous about whether the president could take unilateral action or would require Senate approval to reverse that decision.

Finally, Trump could decide that the Paris deal is a treaty and requires Senate approval, sending it to the GOP-controlled body for a vote that requires a two-thirds majority. The Obama administration deliberately crafted the deal to avoid such a vote, structuring it with no top-down requirement of domestic action.

Although several Republicans—including Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Corker and most recently Arizona’s John McCain—have expressed a desire to stay in the agreement, it is likely a ratification vote would fail. That would be the “darkest pathway,” said former State Department official Andrew Light, because it would not mean a future president would have to get Senate approval to return, but it could imperil other international discussions.

“Most of our international agreements are executive agreements and other countries understand that,” Light said. “To do this, you’d send a signal to the whole world that you sit down with American diplomats at your own risk, if a future president could just get the Senate to reject anything.”

It’s also worth noting that a reduced U.S. presence over the coming years could prove costly should the country reenter at a later point; negotiators are working to craft reporting and compliance monitoring rules by 2018, a discussion that American negotiators could miss out on.

The Paris decision itself does not hold much bearing—the federal government is continuing to roll back climate policies, while the market has continued to move away from coal in favor of natural gas and renewable energy (coincidentally this week, New England’s last major coal-fired power plant closed).

Some cities and states have also vowed to continue their own climate action, and are even looking at staying engaged with international discussions. California Gov. Jerry Brown has been pushing his state far ahead of the federal government and Friday will head to China to work on collaboration with that country. Brown was one of 12 Democratic governors on a letter calling on Trump to stay in the deal, saying they would “continue to support the achievement of the existing U.S. Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) to the Paris Agreement—and if possible to go further, faster.”

In a press conference Wednesday, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey also vowed to “take every measure we can,” threatening legal action over climate policies.

Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti previously said he’d like his city to adopt the Paris deal and New York City mayor Bill De Blasio tweeted Wednesday “we’ll take matters into our own hands,” saying he would “sign an executive order maintaining New York City’s commitment to the Paris Agreement.”

Private companies have also been supportive; even oil-and-gas giants like Exxon have urged Trump to stay in the market. Tesla founder Elon Musk tweeted Wednesday that he’d leave a CEO panel advising Trump if the White House left the Paris deal.

It’s unclear what role subnational governments would play in the agreement; the U.N. already has a Compact of Mayors led by former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg to organize city-level sustainability programs. Private companies were also involved in the Paris talks, which kicked off with Bill Gates and 27 other investors vowing to deploy renewable energy, backed by increased research-and-development investments from governments.

Speaking Tuesday in New York, United Nations Secretary General António Guterres called on “U.S. society as a whole—for the cities, the states, the companies, the businesses—to remain engaged with the Paris Agreement” even if the federal government decided to back out.

Perhaps the biggest engagement, however, will come from abroad from entities like China, India, and the European Union. It was a sentiment that Guterres hinted at without mentioning Trump by name. “If one country decides to leave a void,” Guterres said, “I can guarantee someone else will occupy it.”

Graphic by John Irons
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