The Long- and Short-Term Impacts of Pulling Out of Paris

Trump’s withdrawal from the climate-change pact could spark economic retaliation.

President Trump announces the U.S.'s withdrawal from the Paris climate-change accord in the Rose Garden on Thursday.
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
Jason Plautz
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Jason Plautz
June 1, 2017, 5:45 p.m.

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.

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