President Trump Could Trash the Paris Agreement, but Why Would He Want To?

Withdrawing from the international climate pact would be a risky political and business decision.

President-elect Donald Trump met with President Obama in the Oval Office of the White House on Nov. 10. (Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Nov 10, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Emily J. Gertz is an associate editor for environment and wildlife at TakePart.

Candidate Donald Trump promised supporters that he would “cancel” the Paris Agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and stave off catastrophic climate change. President Donald Trump will be able to make good on that vow, although only in terms of United States participation in the accord.

According to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, a nonpartisan climate and energy think tank based in Washington, D.C., international and U.S. law allow a future president to end American participation in the agreement. “A party need not provide any reason or justification for withdrawing: the only limitations imposed by the Paris Agreement relate to timing,” wrote Daniel Bodansky, an expert on international climate and environmental law at Arizona State University, in a fact sheet published by C2ES in October.

The earliest any nation could give notice that it intended to back out of the Paris Agreement would be Nov. 4, 2019, three years after the treaty came into force, Bodansky wrote. The reversal would take effect one year later.

The president could speed up the process by opting to drop out of the overarching international agreement that has structured international talks on climate action for decades: the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. That would only take a year, Bodansky wrote.

History doesn’t offer much guidance on how either of these moves would affect both international climate action and U.S. standing abroad, even though “this is not the first time that the U.S. has changed course on climate change,” said Jake Schmidt, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s international program. “The Clinton administration negotiated the Kyoto Protocol, and then the Bush administration came in” and opposed the agreement internationally, he noted.

“Why this could be very different is that support for the Paris Agreement is a lot deeper and wider than support for the Kyoto Protocol was,” Schmidt said. While the earlier pact only required the richest industrialized nations to cut emissions, all nations have committed to cuts under the Paris Agreement and have backed up these promises with action.

“The speed at which it entered into force is historic [and] shows that leaders agree that this is a top-tier issue” for the public welfare and economies of their nations, he said, noting that major emitters Japan and Australia approved the agreement this week.

In mid-October, 197 nations participating in another treaty, the Montreal Protocol, also agreed to phase out use of ozone-destroying hydrofluorocarbons, a class of chemicals used for cooling and refrigeration. HFC emissions are also powerful heat trappers, and the agreement was widely hailed as a major step forward in the global effort to avert catastrophic climate change.

Nations “don’t enter international agreements because it’s a nice thing to do. They do it because it’s a priority for them and their citizens,” Schmidt said. “For many countries, it’s a fundamental life-or-death issue. So it’s going to be a challenge for a future president to explain why the world’s richest country and largest emitter can’t help them survive climate change.”

RELATED: What Does a President Trump Mean for Public Education?

The current situation is also different from what it was in the 1990s, when the Kyoto Protocol was negotiated, Schmidt noted. Multinational corporations are grappling with threats to their supply chains caused by extreme weather, including changes in water supply, rainfall, and temperature, and want clear policies from governments to help them plan ahead for more.

There have also been technological advances in renewable energy that are transforming that sector’s economics, Schmidt said. “If you’re a country now, and you’re looking to build out your energy economy, you look at the alternatives and put it out for a competitive offer,” he said. “Lo and behold, wind and solar are coming in cost-competitive and in many cases below coal and [natural] gas. The market dynamics of clean energy around the world are taking hold. That’s going to continue the momentum regardless of a four-year blip.”