The Paris Agreement, American Disengagement and State Climate Action

Today President Donald Trump announced the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on climate change. I spent the months leading up to COP21 (the 2015 climate conference in Paris where the Agreement was made) studying the negotiating process, the history of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and the disparate ways that different countries and subnational groups approach the challenge of international collective action. In December 2015, I spent two weeks at the conference itself, and the conversations and experiences I had there have given me some perspectives that feel different from a lot of what I’ve been seeing.

I find today’s decision to withdraw deeply humiliating — for two reasons. First, because the US went to extraordinary lengths in 2015 to water down the text of the Agreement, fighting hard to keep the primary warming target at 2° rather than 1.5° and forcing all 196 other party states to keep the agreement non-binding. All this was frustrating, inequitable, and embarrassing at the time, but it made sense — a binding treaty would have had to face ratification in a Republican-majority Senate, and a weaker treaty that included the US, the world’s largest historical emitter, was arguably better than a stronger treaty without it. But now that we’ve withdrawn, it seems that the world would have done better to have forged ahead without us then — which it now most likely will going forward. That’s the second humiliation — that for a quarter of a century, US political failures have kept the entire world waiting, all for nothing. Angela Merkel has this week voiced the lesson that the entire UNFCCC community has now learned — the US is no longer worth accommodating.

However, beyond this humiliation, President Trump’s decision isn’t the catastrophic climate disaster it may feel like. The Paris Agreement is a landmark because it established contributions from every country, and because it established a framework to standardize accounting, reporting, verification, and all the other tricky technical puzzles which are the key to actually achieving, rather than just promising, greenhouse gas emissions reductions. But because the Agreement was non-binding, it was never seriously viewed as more than a first step towards the reductions that have now been agreed upon — the negotiations have continued. In pursuing his agenda, President Trump had three options for dealing with the Paris Agreement: stay in and default on the American contribution, withdraw from the Agreement, or withdraw from the UNFCCC entirely. Had the US stayed in the Paris Agreement and simply defaulted on its commitments, it could have achieved the same result as withdrawing from the Agreement, while still retaining the diplomatic credibility it has used to slow the pace of progress for the last two decades. Alternately, the US could have decided to withdraw from the UNFCCC itself, removing America from the structure which enables international climate negotiations in the first place. This decision would have destabilized larger diplomatic balances of power, and would have harmed the international community’s ability to negotiate better agreements in the future. By landing in the middle, Trump has given a strong political signal to climate denialists and the oil lobby, but has missed the strongest methods for doing serious, permanent damage to international climate efforts.

On top of this, the federal government has never been where the most impactful climate action has happened in the US. States like California have historically been the legal and political drivers of greenhouse gas emissions reductions, and the federal government has followed along largely by accepting, mimicking, and allowing state action — often only when faced with a court order. This is true across emissions sources: In the power sector, in fossil fuel extraction, in transportation, and even in many types of land use change, states have significant jurisdiction, and many states have chosen to exercise that jurisdiction more aggressively than the federal government has. There are exceptions, such as in energy efficiency, where the Obama Department of Energy made tremendous gains. But even under the Obama Administration, the whole suite of federal climate actions only dubiously satisfied the Administration’s own underwhelming Paris targets. None of this should obscure the symbolic damage or the opportunity cost of today’s decision, but that decision clears a history of minimal impact, whose promise lay mostly in ill-defined future commitments.

So, in sum: the real current damage the US can cause in international climate negotiations is in slowing the pace of those negotiations, not in failing to meet our already-weak obligations. The Trump Administration, in its rush to make bold decisions and signal its fossil fuel sympathies, has chosen perhaps the worst available method for obstructing climate progress. Meanwhile, here at home, Democrats have a critical opportunity to speak about the issues — to articulate climate justice, to own up to the difficult but necessary realities of energy transition, to discuss in real, present terms the ethical and physical danger of complacency. Clinging to and lamenting the Paris Agreement rings false — because we were never that committed in the first place, and because the Agreement’s impact on global emissions came from federal programs and regulations which President Trump has already overturned, begun to rollback, or attempted to defund. With luck, the rest of the world will take this as an opportunity to reach for the higher bars the US wouldn’t allow them to two years ago. It will be up to us to eventually prove ourselves trustworthy partners again in the future. Regardless, climate fights are local fights over economic diversification, transit equity, local industry, native sovereignty, air quality, and fair returns to federal taxpayers. As citizens, our energy has most impact at the local level, even if our attention is most easily drawn to the broadest international dramas. Look to your neighborhood, your city, your county, and your state — the jurisdictions where the most is possible and the least effort is being expended.

Josh Lappen is a senior and co-term (BA in Classics, MS in Atmosphere/Energy Engineering) who studies state climate and water policy. His writing about California’s approach to international climate politics has previously appeared in the American Prospect.