Is it better for the US to be out of the Paris Agreement than to stay in?

Even though Trump’s withdrawal decision cannot be acted on until November 2019 (after the three year waiting period required under article 28 has run, starting from November 4, 2016), the rest of the world is apparently prepared to move forward without the U.S.  A commentary in Nature Climate Change (published before the Trump announcement) even made the argument that it could be in the best interest of global climate cooperation if the U.S. left the Paris Accord rather than stay in (given the policies of the Trump Administration).  The commentary does make some important points.  And while I am not going to repeat what’s already been said more generally about the damage that the withdrawal decision will do, there are a few other observations worth sharing here.

1.  The commentary seems to imply that once the US is out of Paris, American officials will simply stand idly by while the Paris parties will go on their business.  That is extremely unlikely.  The best likely outcome (for the Paris Accord), given Trump’s in-your-face foreign policy approach, would be for the US government to take only the actions necessary to protect the U.S. and its economy from any adverse effects of the Paris Accord.  At worst, the US could attempt to actively undermine the Paris system entirely.  I shudder to think what that might mean, but there is precedence for countries doing such things.

There is also the Kyoto Protocol precedent that provides a glimpse of what the climate change treaty system can accomplish without the US as a participant.  In 2001, George W. Bush announced that the U.S. would never join the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which led to the U.S. sitting out the establishment of the international carbon trading system.  To this day, the U.S. has not participated in any of those carbon mechanisms.  It’s not clear to me who ended up worse off  — the U.S. or the rest of the world.  But clearly, having the U.S. be part of these systems would have been preferable.

Of course, there is a potential game-changer with the Paris Agreement – China has affirmed its continued commitment to it.  If China really follows through, continues to do more (as will be necessary) to address climate change, and works with the EU, India, and Russia, the US could truly be sidelined.  That would be great for the world and the global environment, but likely bad news for US in ways that may not become clear for some time to come.

2.  U.S. climate policy is not only advanced by the Trump Administration but also in Congress and in state capitols.  Withdrawal from the Paris Agreement will make it that much more difficult for these other entities to be engaged, for example, in the event that the Democrats win back both Houses of Congress in 2018. Non-membership essentially imposes an additional barrier for engagement and will make it more difficult to pressure the White House to take positive action.

On the other had, one could also envision a scenario where the withdrawal from the Paris Agreement does not become effective until November 2020 (three years wait + one year notice for effectiveness of withdrawal).  If a Democrat then defeats Trump in his reelection bid, the new President could then sign and deposit a new instrument of acceptance with the Paris Agreement on January 20, 2021, leaving just a few months gap in membership.

3.  Arrangements like the Paris Climate Agreement are not only mechanisms for governmental leaders and diplomats to “do” things but also to “talk” and engage in efforts to find consensus about common goals and interest.  It would be a shame if the US lost all stake to work on fixing our climate problem, as it did to a large extent when the U.S. sat out the Kyoto Protocol.  For everybody’s sake, if Trump goes through with ditching the Paris Accord, I sure hope that it won’t take another 1-2 decades for the U.S. to join another climate agreement.

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