Analysis: Extraordinary self-harming attempt by Donald Trump as the US will leave the Paris Agreement

U.S. President Trump refers to temperature change as he announces decision to withdraw from Paris Climate Agreement at White House in Washington

In The Rose Garden of the White House, President Trump makes a point about temperature rise as he announces that the US will pull out of the Paris Agreement. Photo credit: Reuters / Kevin Lamarque.

By Anders Lorenzen

On Thursday US President Donald Trump ended months of speculation by finally declaring that he will exit the US from the Paris Agreement on climate change.

Standing in the Rose Garden, President Trump said: “In order to fulfill my solemn duty to protect America and its citizens, the United States will withdraw from the Paris climate accord –  but begin negotiations to re-enter either the Paris accord or a really entirely new transaction on terms that are fair to the United States, its businesses, its workers, its people, its taxpayers. So we’re getting out. But we will start to negotiate, and we will see if we can make a deal that’s fair. And if we can, that’s great. And if we can’t, that’s fine. I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris. I promised I would exit or renegotiate any deal which fails to serve America’s interests. Many trade deals will soon be under renegotiation. Very rarely do we have a deal that works for this country, but they’ll soon be under renegotiation. The process has begun from day one. But now we’re down to business.”

The fact that he used Pittsburgh as a reason for pulling out was immediately rebuffed by their Mayor:

The announcement by the President can of course not come as a surprise to many as it was indeed one of Mr Trump’s campaign pledges. What came as a surprise was just how long it took to come to that decision, as he had promised he would do it on day one. The June 1st  announcement came nearly half a year into his presidency. There had been increased hope from the climate community that he would indeed stay in. This was because it was the wish of many key people in the Trump team such as daughter Ivanka, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and Secretary of Defence James Mattis (also known as ‘Mad Dog Mattis’). But clearly that was not enough, and so the climate-denying wing of the Trump administration, lead by Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, and of course Mr Trump himself won.

When and how will it happen?

But several key questions remain. How will the US exit and how easy will it be? The Trump administration favors a quick exit. But it might not be that simple as it is a lengthy process especially as the US has ratified the agreement. The President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker has said it could take up to 3-4 years.  And we can expect the US decision will be fought legally, supported by pressure from NGO’s and businesses, further lengthening the process.

The process of leaving is set out by Klaus Dingwerth, Professor of Global Governance at the University of St Gallen: “Article 28 of the Paris Agreement says: ‘1. At any time after three years from the date on which this Agreement has entered into force for a Party, that Party may withdraw from this Agreement by giving written notification to the Depositary. 2. Any such withdrawal shall take effect upon expiry of one year from the date of receipt by the Depositary of the notification of withdrawal, or on such later date as may be specified in the notification of withdrawal. So, legally speaking, the US may not declare its withdrawal until 04 November 2019, and a withdrawal could not take effect until 04 November 2020 (more or less the date of the next presidential elections in the US).”

It is clear that Mr Trump wants to avoid paying any money to the United Nations as set out in the agreement. This could be one of the key battles. However, the billionaire, former New York Mayor and the founder of, Mike Bloomberg has promised to fill the funding gap as the US exits. But as Mr Dingwerth pointed out there is the possibility that if Trump is not re-elected, the new administration could undo all this. And if Mr. Trump were to be impeached it could further complicate the process. And as even fossil fuel executives had urged Trump to stay in the agreement, they might also frustrate the process.

Diplomatic headache

At a time when Mr. Trump needs global cooperation more than ever to fight terrorism and negotiate new trade deals, this could prove a real headache for him. With the exception of the UK, he has already clashed with every single G7 leader on this issue. As he exits this agreement he is likely to face even more opposition and hostility from the global community. Apart from Syria and Nicaragua, the US will be the only country in the world which is not part of the agreement. Syria has obvious reasons as there is a civil war going on, and Nicaragua thinks that the agreement is not ambitious enough.

Assistant Professor of Global Energy at Warwick Business School, Dr Frederik Dahlman, who studies the transition to a low-carbon economy, thinks it is a self-harming move: at a time when costs in the renewable energy sector are falling significantly and clean tech employment is reaching record levels, the President’s decision ignores the very significant shifts occurring in the global energy system. Combined with other key economies’ desire (notably the EU and China) to accelerate rather than to stop these trends, politically the US will find itself in growing isolation, and face accusations of scientific ignorance and moral irresponsibility”, the professor said.

That this will leave the US isolated was echoed by Andrew Norton, Director of the International Institute for Environment and Development: “in leaving the Paris Agreement and committing to a high-carbon economy, President Trump will not only put the US firmly on a destructive path but will also damage the country’s reputation as a place to do business. As the rest of world works together to deliver the aims of Paris –  the US will be left behind.”

The domino effect myth busted

There was once fear that a US pullout could contribute to a domino effect as other countries either did the same or at least weakened the targets. But that does not appear to be the case, far from it.  The EU and China have reacted by upping their game. They will forge an alliance which will take a leading role in tackling climate change, while other countries have been quick to either reaffirm or strengthen their commitment to the deal. And in the US a coalition has been formed of states and cities who want to stick to the agreement, an effort backed and sponsored by Mr. Bloomberg. However, how this will look legally, and whether it is even possible, is unclear.  

The US leaving might be good

Some experts are even saying it will be good if the US leaves as they will then not be able to weaken targets.  It is argued that as the targets are voluntary the US could actually have stayed in the agreement and weakened the ambition and targets, set by the Obama administration. And there is a strong argument that by the US pulling out we could actually see stronger targets emerging, primarily led by the EU and China. That would not have happened if the US had stayed in, but had done nothing.

What will it mean for tackling climate change?

But then what will all this mean for tackling climate change globally and in the US? By pulling out Trump is not going to ‘Make America Great Again’, or for that matter make the American coal industry great again, because this is shaped by the US and global market forces. Leaving the Paris agreement is unlikely to benefit the coal industry which Trump wants to make competitive again.

News of the announcement even saw coal stocks fall. US corporations and energy companies have already made strategic energy plans for the next 10-15 years based on the world’s appetite for tackling climate change. This will not change because of the president’s move. The trajectory, even in some of the most climate-sceptic US states, is that of a direction of travel towards clean energy and low-carbon sources. This is being driven by market forces and business, and there really isn’t much Trump can do to change course. He can, of course, slow down the pace and make some investors flee, but he cannot stop the transition.

To conclude even as Trump starts the process of pulling the US out, nothing is certain yet. And even if many in his party are skeptical about the science behind climate change, what they hate even more than that are the diplomatic tensions and tremors, which we are already starting to see.

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