Energy & Environment

Paris exit makes it tougher for US to lead a green future, experts say

President Trump's official withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord is raising questions about how much leverage the U.S. will lose by leaving it, and how quickly it might be able to regain its global position if the next president opts to reenter the agreement.

Experts say the U.S. has already created a leadership vacuum by refusing to take on climate change under the Trump administration, a factor that will only worsen without an American presence in the agreement.

"Without the U.S. engaged, we don't have the technical, the moral or the financial impetus that the world needs," said Christopher Field, director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University.

Trump's formal withdrawal notice this week, given on the first day possible, means the U.S. won't officially be out of the deal, which is signed by every other country in the world, until Nov. 4, 2020, one day after the next presidential election.

Pledging to rejoin the Paris Climate Accord has become box to tick for 2020 Democrats, with many saying they'll do so on their very first day in office.

Legal experts say this won't be difficult. A new president could use executive authority to enter the agreement much in the way that former President Obama did, with no permission from Congress required.

"To get back in, a new administration would just have to submit another notification or another letter to the U.N. Secretary General, and they could rejoin within 30 days," said Brendan Guy, manager of international policy for the Natural Resources Defense Council, making Feb. 19, 2021 the earliest possible date the U.S. could rejoin the agreement.

Getting out of it isn't that hard either. The Paris agreement required countries to remain in the pact for three years before giving a one-year heads up of plans to withdrawal. Now that Trump has given notice, it's mainly a matter of waiting out the clock until the U.S. is no longer part of the accord.

And climate experts say it's not clear the U.S. will do much else to engage on global climate issues, giving up leverage to push other major carbon emitters to take stronger action, which Trump has long argued the deal failed to accomplish.

"Trump is giving away one of the best tools we have to make sure all countries are acting, including China and India," said David Waskow, director of the World Resources Institute's International Climate Initiative, pointing to two countries often targeted by Trump.

On Monday, a number of U.S. and world leaders criticized the president's decision, with Germany calling it "regrettable" even if not surprising.

But it's hardly just environmental policy experts and world leaders who back staying in the accord. The majority of Americans, 77 percent, said they supported staying in the agreement, including 60 percent of Republicans, according to a 2018 Yale University poll of registered voters.

Experts say the U.S. is walking away from the deal as two important meetings approach.

One in a few weeks in Madrid will review international carbon markets and hammer out other details as countries prepare to update their emissions reductions targets as required every five years. And a meeting in Glasgow, Scotland, next year where counties will convene after announcing the new targets will be held with the U.S. on the sidelines.

"They'll be relegated to observer status, which is basically the same as an international organization that doesn't have any say," Guy said.

How quickly the U.S. could manage to return to a leadership role remains to be seen.

"I think when I look at the last few years of the way the U.S. has operated on the international scene, how long will it take to restore confidence that other countries can trust the United States - I don't know if that's a flip that switches where the U.S. is a trusted counterpart or if it takes a generation to rebuild that," Field said.

Experts say that simply rejoining the agreement won't be enough to return Washington to a position of leadership - the U.S. has to make an effort to tackle it own emissions.

"I think the U.S. is going to have a little bit of an uphill climb to regain global credibility on this issue. I do think the world would welcome back the U.S. back into the fold but you have to earn that with corresponding domestic policy as well as international leadership," Guy said.

Researchers say the commitments included in the Paris Climate Accord are not enough to tackle global warming effectively. Earlier this week, a report from climate scientists said most of the pledges are "totally inadequate."

Meanwhile, the U.S. has made no real federal effort to meet it own targets - reducing emissions about 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.

"We're behind. There's still some chance that the U.S. could meet the 2025 targets, but every week that passes, every day that passes when we're not making the climate a priority we're deeper in the hole, and there's no way out of that," Field said. "With every delay it means that solving the problem is going to be more complicated and more expensive."

Some environmentalists have been heartened by commitments from cities and states that have made their own Paris commitments, even in the absence of larger, federal action.

That, combined with the unity of every other country in the world, shows that even without Trump on board, the push for progress will continue.

"At the end of the day, Trump is obviously causing problems, creating inaction, and  throwing blockades in the way, but I see it as trying to run down as escalator that's moving up," Waskow said. "It matters that he's going the wrong way, but that escalator is still going up."