U.S. Withdrawal From Paris Climate Agreement Would Be Symbolic But Not (Yet) Substantive

If it’s true, as reported, that Trump will withdraw the United States from the international climate change accord negotiated in Paris in 2015, it will be a symbolic abdication of U.S. leadership on clean technology and climate.  And if the U.S. does not get a more climate-friendly president in January 2021 (or sooner), or somehow get a change of heart from this current one, it could have serious environmental consequences for the planet.

It’s important to note that the agreement itself was essentially symbolic, although it provides an important structure for global cooperation on greenhouse gas emissions reduction and can be strengthened over time.  The agreement isn’t binding, and the U.S. contributions to the global emissions reduction effort are predicated on domestic policies like the Clean Power Plan, which the Trump administration is now trying to roll back anyway.

As my UCLA Law colleague Ann Carlson notes, staying in the agreement would mean masking the administration’s full-scale attack on domestic climate change programs.  So in some ways, the agreement itself is a distraction from the administration’s policies on everything from expanded oil-and-gas exploration on public lands, rollback of vehicle fuel economy standards, and efforts to undermine renewable energy and public transit, among others.

In terms of actual emissions reductions though, the Paris agreement — and the policies supporting it like the aforementioned Clean Power Plan — weren’t really meant to start immediate changes to our energy system.  The real action for most of these efforts begins in the 2020s.  So the good news is that substantively, there’s still some time to make progress on climate, even with a four-year (or less) pause in federal climate action.

But the bad news of course is that we lose these years of taking action, with no guarantee that the U.S. will change course politically anytime soon.  And time is already running out to avert the worst impacts of climate change.

But one other silver lining to the administration’s anti-climate actions: it has motivated states like California and cities across the country to do more to reduce emissions, while also emboldening the European Union and China to step in and become economic leaders in the effort to transition to low-carbon technologies.  While that’s a political loss for the U.S. as a whole, it points to the potential for much more decentralized, global action on climate.