President Donald Trump’s decision to unilaterally withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement this June was met with immediate outcry from both domestic opponents of the president and international partners. Business leaders like Elon Musk of SpaceX and Bob Iger of Disney quit White House advisory councils in protest, the leaders of Italy, France, and Germany immediately released a statement reaffirming their commitment to the agreement, and even oil industry leaders like Exxon Mobil lobbied the administration to stay in the treaty.
Nearly two months later, many view the decision to leave Paris as a crucial turning point, marking not only the Trump Administration’s retreat from international climate initiatives but also its retreat from America’s traditional role of global leadership.
However, others argue that such fears are overblown. They point out that the climate goals of the agreement were not binding and unevenly proportioned, thus dragging the U.S. into an unfair deal that traded long term economic sacrifices for an insignificant environmental return.
How significant is the Trump Administration’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement, both for the fight against global climate change, and the soft power influence that the United States wields?
It is certainly true that the Paris Agreement was limited in its implementation and requirements. Signed in 2015 by 196 countries, the pact sets an international goal to keep the rise in global temperature “well below 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels.” However, each country’s pledge to reach that goal is voluntary, and they will not be evaluated until 2020 when the signatories submit longer-term plans to reduce carbon emissions.
According to Roger-Mark De Souza, director of the population, environmental security, and resilience for the Wilson Center, the U.S. came to the agreement with a pledge to cut carbon emissions by 26 to 28 percent by 2025, but “every country was able to determine the particular levels that it would like to reduce their emissions by, and what concrete actions they would like to take.” The pact also mandates at least $100 billion per year in funding to help developing countries build or update their renewable infrastructure.
However, each country’s pledge to reach that goal is voluntary, and they will not be evaluated until 2020 when the signatories submit longer-term plans to reduce carbon emissions.
Critics of the deal argue that this voluntary implementation structure produces a little real change in the global carbon footprint and allows polluters like China to continue investing in their fossil fuel industries, while rich countries like the U.S. bear the brunt of climate compromises.
As a Heritage Foundation report concluded in 2016, the deal’s restrictions would “eliminate hundreds of thousands of jobs…to achieve only trivial and theoretical impacts on global warming.” This rationale drove much of the Trump Administration’s opposition to the deal.
However, to the deal’s supporters, this is not only economically incorrect, it also misses the point of the Paris Agreement. The pact is not meant to be a perfect finished product; it is an aspirational document that binds every country in the world – except Syria, Uzbekistan, Nicaragua, and now the United States – within a common framework that recognizes the threat posed by climate change and provides a forum for countries to combat it.
The decision to leave this agreement, says De Souza, “raises deep questions about whether America First can coexist with a recognition of how important climate change is to U.S. security, prosperity, and the way that the U.S. engages with partners globally.”
Beyond the issue of climate change, the Paris Agreement also carries far-reaching resonance as a symbol of American multilateral leadership. This climate pact was designed by the Obama Administration to create a new cooperative international framework in which American leadership and core principles are enshrined.
To many of U.S. commitment to other international agreements – especially institutions like NATO or the World Trade Organization, which the president has already criticized – into question, and may deter other countries from engaging seriously in future negotiations.
This is also true of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, which the Trump Administration backed away from in January. In particular, that decision signaled the administration’s commitment to breaking with the post-World War II tradition of U.S. support for the expansion of international trade and liberal economic values.
However, leaving Paris appears to have sent a more powerful message. In part, says Stewart Patrick, Senior Fellow in Global Governance at the Council on Foreign Relations, this is because “it really wasn’t necessary for President Trump to pull out of this deal. The Paris Agreement is voluntary so he could have simply decided not to meet its goals.” Instead, says Patrick, Trump publicly and loudly “walked away from the most important multilateral agreement of the 21st Century.”
This has sent a clear signal to the world that this administration is serious about its campaign promise to doggedly pursue “America First” policies while stepping back from the liberalizing globalist initiatives pursued by previous post-war presidents. That message has been further reinforced by Trump’s behavior at international forums, such as the G20 Summit in Hamburg this month where he skipped a number of multilateral meetings to attend a series of one on one conversations with heads of state. This shift in focus away from multilateral leadership is in keeping with Trump’s promise to cultivate bilateral relations and withdraw from larger mega-agreements if he cannot shape their terms to his liking.
Whether this strategy can be successful remains to be seen, but Trump’s signaling in the first six months of his presidency is already beginning to reconfigure the flow of international cooperation and negotiation. With the position and commitment of the United States uncertain, increasingly this means that new agreements are diverting around the U.S. to new poles of international leadership.
Shortly following the decision to withdraw from TPP, China and the TPP’s remaining signatories met in Chile to discuss ways forward; China and EU moved up their annual summit soon after; and Japan – which still does not have a free trade agreement with the U.S. – signed a new free trade agreement with the EU just before the G20.
With the position and commitment of the United States uncertain, increasingly this means that new agreements are diverting around the U.S. to new poles of international leadership. Shortly following the decision to withdraw from TPP, China and the TPP’s remaining signatories met in Chile to discuss ways forward; China and EU moved up their annual summit soon after; and Japan – which still does not have a free trade agreement with the U.S. – signed a new free trade agreement with the EU just before the G20.
Meanwhile, since the U.S. departure, international commitments to the Paris Agreement have intensified to cover the gap. China has already pledged its commitment to the accords and promised an additional $1 billion to the South-South Cooperation on Climate Change mechanism within the agreement; the 19 other leaders of the G20 released a joint communique reaffirming their support for climate change cooperation; and both France and the UK have now pledged to halt all sales of fossil fuel cars by 2040. Ironically, the leadership vacuum left by Trump’s decision to quit the Paris Agreement may do more to galvanize action on climate change than hinder it.
Ironically, the leadership vacuum left by Trump’s decision to quit the Paris Agreement may do more to galvanize action on climate change than hinder it.
Fritz Lodge is a Middle East and international economics analyst at The Cipher Brief. Follow him on Twitter @FritzLodge.