One year ago this month, US President Donald Trump announced his intention to withdraw his country from the Paris Agreement. After playing a key role in pulling the agreement together, the US, now under new leadership, dealt it its greatest blow. The result may be catastrophic for the climate, but climate negotiations are moving forward. Here’s a look at where we are one year after Trump’s decision.
States and cities, lead by Democrats but also some Republicans, banded together to say they were “still in” the agreement. Corporations, too, scrambled to sign up to uphold President Obama’s commitments. The groups made a point of showing up to UN climate talks late last year lead by California Governor Jerry Brown and billionaire Michael Bloomberg, shadowing the official, US state department delegation.
In the US’s absence, of course, climate negotiations continue. Diplomats will meet this September in Bangkok to continue to hammer out the rulebook governing the Paris Agreement. They aim to have it finished by the annual, end-of-year climate summit, which will occur this December in Katowice, Poland. The US continues to attend the climate talks where a mixed coalition of professional staff at the State Department and new, Republican appointees — some of whom support the Paris Agreement and some of whom do not — send mixed messages including promoting liquified natural gas and traditional fossil fuels while simultaneously working on the Paris Agreement rulebook as if the US had never announced its intention to leave.
Officially, Nothing Has Happened…Yet
The awkward arrangement speaks to the US’s position with one foot firmly planted in the doorway but, so far, going no further. Despite Trump’s announcement last June, under the Paris Agreement rules, the US cannot officially give notice that it is exiting the agreement until 3 years after it joined it — so, in November 2019. That exit will not go into effect until one year after that, November 2020.
In the US, climate skeptic groups who had lobbied Trump heavily to pull out of Paris also aren’t satisfied. The door is still open, they warn, for the US to rejoin the Paris Agreement at any time. The Competitive Enterprise Institute, an oil industry aligned think tank, is calling on Trump to send the Paris Agreement to the Senate where it would be voted on as a treaty. CEI and similar groups have also urged Trump to pull out of UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the treaty that undergirds the Paris Agreement and through which climate negotiations take place.
Trump could follow the urging of conservative groups and ditch the UNFCCC, but has not yet done so. He also continues to speak about reentering the Paris Agreement from time to time if the US could get a “completely different deal” than the one agreed to during the Obama administration. That is extremely unlikely — impossible, really — in the short term, given that the Paris Agreement was more than a decade in the making. But Trump seems to relish the idea of climate accord as bargaining chip.
With the US hanging about awkwardly at climate negotiations, many warn that countries’ momentum will slow. Others say they already have. “In the absence of the United States, you have a phenomenon of a fair number of countries, I think, trying to pull back a little bit on some of the things that were agreed to, some of the compromises that were reached in Paris,” Todd Stern, Obama’s top climate diplomat, recently told a conference convened by the World Resources Institute.
In a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times Gov. Jerry Brown painted a bleaker picture, asserting that global progress has stalled. “This is real,” Brown told the newspaper. “It is far more serious than anybody is saying.”
A “Closing Window”
A new study published last month in the journal Climate Policy suggests that, due to a variety of factors stemming from US withdraw, the world may not be able to contain global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, the Paris Agreement’s upper goal. The study finds that even if the US re-engages with the Paris agreement in the year 2025 — by which point Trump will be term-limited from office — the world will be 6 to 9 percent less likely to stay below the 2-degrees threshold. To meet the 2°C target without the US means increased reduction efforts and mitigation costs for the rest of the world, and considerable economic burdens for major developing areas.
China’s Murky Role
Despite that, there are some signs of hope.
China has promised to play a greater role in climate negotiations, and has promised to work with the EU to do so; the two entities have a alluded to a partnership of the sort forged between Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping that allowed the agreement to come to fruition in the first place. The potential for EU-China cooperation appears only to have grown as the US antagonizes both on trade.
But in order for international observers to take China’s climate ambition seriously, it will have to show that the work it has done to clean up its act within its own borders extends to its work beyond its projects overseas, an ever-growing part of China’s economy as it seeks to exert influence worldwide.
Only One Way Forward
The best news of the last year is that, even with the US promising to formally quit, no other country has done the same. In fact, no other country has even backslid on its commitments in a substantial way. Not yet, at least.
In a reflection on the last year published in May 2018, Reuters reporter Alistair Doyle, a veteran climate journalist, recalls a metaphor related to him by the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Tosi Mpanu-Mpanu, the former head of the Least Developed Countries group at the Paris negotiations. The group includes 48 nations, mostly in Africa and in Southeast Asia.
At annual climate talks in Morocco in 2017, he told me the Kyoto Protocol was a way of telling the rich countries to fix the problem of global warming – cramming about 40 prime ministers or presidents in a lift in a skyscraper and pressing the button to send them to the top floor.
“But the lift broke down. Now we’ve all agreed to take the stairs. That may take longer, but we’re more likely to get there,” he said.
Poor countries, who, a decade ago, may have balked at cutting their own emissions if the US was not committed to doing the same, now appear to still be ready to move ahead. The grim reality is that most recognize, in a way the US does not, that if climate change is to be limited, they no longer have a choice.