President Trump’s decision to exit the Paris climate-change agreement sets in motion a years-long process that won’t be final until 2020. But the diplomatic impacts could be felt much earlier.
Arguing that the deal is “very unfair at the highest level to the United States,” Trump said he would exit or try to renegotiate an agreement. The White House said it would follow Article 28 of the agreement, which says a country can only apply to exit three years after the deal takes force and must give parties one year of notice.
That would put the date of the U.S. exit on Nov. 4, 2020, four years after the agreement went into force.
The White House could have exited the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Senate-ratified treaty that underlies the Paris agreement, a more extreme step that would have taken only a year. Instead, Trump picked a path that makes it possible for a future president to reenter the Paris deal, and the timing of the exit also places it squarely in the spotlight of the 2020 presidential election.
Echoing his rhetoric on trade deals, Trump said that the U.S. would seek to “renegotiate” the agreement “under a framework that is fair and where burdens and responsibilities are equally shared.” The promise was undercut slightly with the addition, “if we can’t, that’s fine.”
The original agreement was voluntary—the deal itself does not compel any country to take action, nor does it contain any punishment for countries that don’t meet their promised emission cuts (although negotiators are working to add teeth to the agreement over the next few years).
It’s unclear what a renegotiation could mean, or how the 194 other nations would participate in such a discussion. Within hours of Trump’s announcement, France, Germany, and Italy issued a joint statement saying the agreement could not be renegotiated and that it is “a vital instrument for our planet, societies and economies.”
A senior White House official did not offer any details on what a better deal might look like, saying “that’s up to the president.” As to whether allies would want to participate, the official said, “There’s no question that other countries … are going to want to sit down with us and talk about the potential way forward.”
Either way, the White House is stepping away from the policies that formed the backbone of the U.S. commitment to cut emissions by 25 to 27 percent below 2005 levels by 2025 through a series of domestic policies like emissions cuts to power plants and increased fuel-economy standards for vehicles. Trump’s administration has put the brakes on those policies, although the market has already been moving away from coal in favor of cleaner-burning natural gas and renewable energy.
Trump said the decision was made in order to protect American industries, citing a NERA Consulting report that the accord would cost the U.S. economy $3 trillion, with specific impacts on coal and manufacturing sectors. That study found far more drastic impacts than other academic research on addressing global warming, and it’s unclear what the Paris agreement on its own would do to the coal industry.
Even some coal companies had urged Trump to stay in the agreement, saying it would benefit research for so-called clean-coal technology.
While the process will take years, experts say the international impact of the decision could be felt much earlier. Countries have increasingly made climate change a high-level issue, and the Paris agreement—which sought to limit temperature increases to 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial levels—was the centerpiece of that discussion.
Former Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement that the exit could be “the most self-defeating action in American history,” warning that it would be a “global stain on our credibility.”
Staying out would make the U.S. one of only three nations—along with Syria and Nicaragua —not in the agreement, although Russia has also not ratified it (Nicaragua did not join because it felt the deal was not strong enough). That puts the U.S. out of step with major allies, a stance that could have ripple effects on other foreign policy issues.
After the George W. Bush administration rejected the Kyoto protocol on global warming, administration officials said they were surprised at the diplomatic response. In a 2002 interview, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell told The New York Times that the blowback “was a sobering experience that everything the American president does has international repercussions.”
The Kyoto action also threw a wrench in international climate talks by taking the world’s largest emitter away from the table. A more active U.S. under President Obama was crucial to reshaping the cooperation that led to Paris, but it appears that the U.S. withdrawal won’t collapse the agreement. China, India, and the European Union—three of the world’s four largest emitters besides the U.S.—have all committed to making the agreement work.
China and the European Union will also meet Friday to discuss climate change, among other topics, and will issue a resolution supporting the Paris agreement, according to reports.
More directly, some countries could even respond with economic measures; former French President Nicolas Sarkozy said he’d demand that Europe put a carbon tax on all products coming from the United States.
Andrew Steer, the president of the World Resources Institute, told reporters that while countries don’t have the right to impose individual tariffs, they might at least explore some kind of economic response. That includes the possibility that American corporations could be blocked from projects funded under a United Nations climate fund to which Trump has said the U.S. will not contribute.
“If you are 194 countries, and you believe that this is one of the greatest challenges facing civilization in the last several hundred years, and there are three countries that say you couldn’t care less about this … I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we start seeing some pretty muscular activity,” Steer said.