Trump still has time to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement

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Whatever the outcome of next week’s election, one thing will be certain on Nov. 4 — the United States will no longer be part of the Paris Agreement on climate change.

The formal process of withdrawal will be completed exactly one year after it was initiated by the Trump administration last year, on Nov. 4.

Viewed from outside of the United States, it is difficult to reconcile this move with President Trump’s “America First” slogan because it hands control over the potential impacts of climate change on American families and businesses to its trading partners and competitors.

America’s best scientists agree that the growing harm to the United States from sea level rise and shifts in extreme weather is the result of increasing levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

As pointed out two years ago by the Fourth National Climate Assessment, the preparation of which was overseen by several federal agencies, “the continued warming that is projected to occur without substantial and sustained reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions is expected to cause substantial net damage to the U.S. economy throughout this century.”

Most of the global emissions that are driving damage to the United States occur in other countries. According to the Global Carbon Project, the United States was responsible for about 14 percent of global emissions of carbon dioxide in 2019, just over half the level emitted by China. That means 86 percent of the current emissions of carbon dioxide that are damaging American lives and livelihoods are occurring outside the United States.

The dire consequences of these emissions for the United States are becoming ever more obvious. The seven largest wildfires ever recorded in California have occurred within the last four years, including five in 2020, and the evidence for the links to climate change is mounting.

This hurricane season has already broken many records, and the evidence is clear that climate change is making tropical cyclones more dangerous for Americans by increasing the likelihood of stronger storms, heavier rainfall and higher storm surges. 

Yet next week, the United States will give up its direct influence on the implementation of the Paris Agreement, which commits countries to cut global emissions to zero and to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius. 

When Trump originally voiced his opposition to the Paris Agreement during his 2016 presidential campaign, he claimed that the withdrawal of the United States would help him to revive the coal industry. But even though Trump has refused to honor the entirely voluntary contribution to the agreement pledged by the United States during the Obama administration, the American coal industry has continued its long-term decline.

Analysis published by the Energy Information Administration has shown that coal has been overtaken by natural gas and renewables as a source of electricity in many parts of the United States because it is too expensive.

European countries have recognized that the coal industry has no future in a clean and efficient economy, and are making significant investments in retraining and redeploying coal workers in other sectors. 

However, Trump appears to be as much in denial about the economics of energy as he is about the science of climate change.

He has continued to argue that the Paris Agreement is unfair to the United States and would lead to huge job losses. But a recent analysis shows that these claims are not true and based on discredited calculations that make bizarre assumptions, such as the United States being the only country to implement the agreement.

The truth is, as an Anglo-American team of experts have pointed out clearly, the United States would enjoy multiple economic benefits from rejoining the Paris Agreement and delivering ambitious domestic targets for cutting emissions.

Not only would it encourage other countries to reduce the emissions that are causing so much harm to American citizens, it would also provide a boost to American businesses that provide clean goods and services to meet surging demand around the world.

It would elevate the standing of the United States on the world stage and stop it from being left out of decisions about climate change, which all of its major allies recognize as a significant and urgent threat to prosperity and wellbeing.

And it would also allow the United States to play a leading role in international discussions about how the transition to a sustainable and resilient economy can drive a strong global recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Outside the Paris Agreement, the United States will be on its own and increasingly left behind. Over the past few weeks, many of its major international competitors have announced plans to accelerate the transition to economies that are more sustainable and resilient, with China, Japan and South Korea all setting targets to reach net zero emissions. 

Joe Biden has already said that he will seek to rejoin the Paris Agreement if he becomes president. It is not too late for Trump to reverse his decision and ensure that the United States resumes its global leadership on climate change no matter who wins the race for the White House. 

Bob Ward is policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Tags America first anti-climate carbon emissions China climate policy coal industry Donald Trump Japan Joe Biden Paris Climate Accords Paris climate agreement paris deal South Korea Trump administration Trump climate policy United States withdrawal from the Paris Agreement USA

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