If he manages to follow through (which won’t be easy), the U.S. would join Syria and Nicaragua as the world’s only holdouts
Early Wednesday morning, as the world was still laughing about Trump’s mysterious “covfefe” tweet, an Axios “scoop” set off a wave of reports about Trump’s apparent intentions to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement. Before we all hyperventilate about this seemingly devastating news, let’s try to get some perspective.
First, we don’t actually know if he will try to “pull out” of the Paris Agreement. Even Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, a noted friend of Big Oil, has declared himself a major supporter of the climate accord. As Michael Shear and Coral Davenport rightly note in The New York Times, Trump has been known to change his mind at the last minute, even after his “closest advisors” have already alerted reporters that he was going to make a certain decision.
Advisers pressing him to remain in the accord could still make their case to the boss. In the past, such appeals have worked. In April, Mr. Trump was set to announce a withdrawal from the NAFTA free trade agreement, but at the last minute changed his mind after intense discussions with advisers and calls from the leaders of Canada and Mexico. Last week, a senior administration official said Mr. Trump would use a speech in Brussels to make an explicit endorsement of NATO’s Article 5 mutual defense provision, which states that an attack on one NATO member is an attack on all. He didn’t.
Additionally, if Trump does “pull out” of the Paris Agreement, it’s unclear how he would actually make this happen. When he said on the campaign that he would “cancel” the Paris Agreement, he clearly didn’t understand how such binding agreements work. Perhaps the reality of the formalities of the deal have now settled in—which is why we’re reading vague statements such as, “Details on how the withdrawal will be executed are being worked out by a small team, including EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.”
By the terms of the deal, no party (or nation) is able to withdraw from the Agreement for three years after it enters into force. You may recall that the Paris Agreement went into force on November 4, 2016; nations ratified and made the deal official in record time, largely for the very purpose (it was whispered) of “Trump-proofing” the deal. Whoever was elected president of the United States wouldn’t be able to pull out of the Agreement until November 2019, and even then, another year would pass before the withdrawal would go into effect.
So, the United States is going to be a party to the Paris Agreement until November 2020—unless Trump takes one of two “nuclear” options. And as of Thursday’s announcement, he did not say he would employ either:
Nuclear Option 1
Trump could pull the United States out of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or the UNFCCC, entirely. The UNFCCC is the body underpinning all international climate negotiations, including the Kyoto Protocol (which the United States famously failed to ratify) and the Paris Agreement (which the United States is now infamously mucking up). It’s worth noting that the UNFCCC is formally considered an international treaty, and was ratified unanimously (imagine that!) by the U.S. Senate. So just to be clear, Trump would essentially be using unilateral powers to cancel a treaty that enjoyed the perfect, full support of a bipartisan Senate.
Nuclear Option 2
Trump could submit the Paris Agreement to the Senate, making a legal argument that the deal is actually an international treaty—which demands Senate ratification—as opposed to an executive agreement, which the Obama administration insisted it was. In fact, during the negotiations, the U.S. team took great pains to make sure that the language in the deal didn’t give birth to a true treaty, specifically for the purpose of avoiding the two-thirds vote needed in the Senate. As the Agreement is worded, then-President Obama claimed the authority to officially accept the deal as an executive agreement.
Trump’s team may try to make a counterargument and send it to the Senate, where the Agreement would have a snowball’s chance in a warming world of getting two-thirds approval. The fossil fuel lovers at the Competitive Enterprise Institute have been making precisely this pitch.
But if this happens, the United States will join Syria and Nicaragua (which didn't sign on because they didn't think the Agreement was strong enough) as the only countries not a party to the deal—and pulling out would be even less popular than the president’s current approval ratings. Seven out of 10 Americans want the United States to participate in the Paris Agreement—even more than the number of Americans who say they want to keep Obamacare.
If the United States withdraws somehow from this international agreement, it would be a diplomatic failure of epic proportions—though of course, according to administration’s recent interpretation of international relations, they may consider it a success. Still, it would be a signal of bad faith in negotiations with other nations, and will further isolate the country from our allies. Following the G7 meetings in Italy last week, we saw something extraordinary: all of the G7 parties, minus the United States, publicly calling out America in the communiqué’s final section about climate change.
"The United States of America is in the process of reviewing its policies on climate change and on the Paris Agreement and thus is not in a position to join the consensus on these topics. Understanding this process, the Heads of State and of Government of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United Kingdom and the Presidents of the European Council and of the European Commission reaffirm their strong commitment to swiftly implement the Paris Agreement, as previously stated at the Ise-Shima Summit."
In the world of “make no waves” diplomacy, a statement like this can be read as a scolding.
Finally, if the United States withdraws from the Paris Agreement, it will deflate the booming renewable energy industry that is one of the country’s strongest economic sectors—far stronger than fossil fuels in most states—and one of the fastest growing employers. Solar, wind, and other clean tech industries have been bolstered by the Paris Agreement, and to pull out would cost the country jobs.