Updated: May 31
"Am departing presidential councils. Climate change is real. Leaving Paris is not good for America or the world." - Elon Musk
What is the Paris climate agreement?
In December 2015, representatives of every nation in the world (with the exception of Syria and Nicaragua) signed what Barack Obama’s White House called “the most ambitious climate change agreement in history.” The centerpiece of the Paris climate agreement was a signed pledge that each nation would commit to reducing their carbon emissions in order to limit the rise in global temperatures to no more than 2 degrees Celsius above what they were before the Industrial Revolution. The two-degree target was chosen because scientists believe that anything above that number would drastically destabilize the climate. Although the Paris climate agreement contained no enforcement mechanism (nor any ability to punish countries that didn’t comply), it nevertheless represented a massive commitment to addressing climate change. To ensure a truly collaborative global effort, the agreement called on the world’s wealthier countries to commit to spending $100 billion dollars to help poorer countries reduce their emissions. The logic was that since rich countries got rich from carbon emissions, they should foot the bill to help countries that were still industrializing.
Paris’s surprising allies
When he announced that the United States would be joining the Paris climate agreement in 2016, Barack Obama found that he was supported by some unlikely allies: business leaders from the oil and gas sectors of industry. The American Petroleum Institute, which represents oil companies, announced that it supported the goals of the agreement (although it didn’t explicitly endorse the agreement itself). The support from business leaders for the agreement became even more clear in 2017 when Donald Trump decided to remove the United States from the agreement. CEOs of major corporations, including oil giants Chevron and Exxon Mobil, opposed Trump’s withdrawal decision and Tesla’s CEO, Elon Musk, even resigned from two of the president’s business advisory councils in protest.
The surprising support for the Paris climate agreement from the CEOs of major oil companies is part of a shift in the lobbying behavior of these companies. Within several years of Trump’s exit from the agreement, the oil companies Shell and Total announced that they were leaving American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, an oil industry trade group, due to the group’s opposition to the agreement. BP left the same group (and several other oil industry trade groups) due to BP’s support for carbon pricing.
Why Trump took the U.S. out of the agreement
“I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.” - Donald Trump
In his remarks upon withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris climate agreement, Trump criticized it for putting environmental goals ahead of American jobs in the fossil fuel industry. Trump also claimed that it was unfair that the United States would be expected to pay billions of dollars while poorer countries that were more responsible for pollution would not have to pay anything. Trump had the support of only 21 Republican senators, less than half of the total number of Republicans in the senate. Trump also found that his decision to withdraw was opposed by an overwhelming majority of Americans. 69% of registered voters (and 51% of Republicans) wanted the U.S. to remain in the agreement. Even in the fossil-fuel-rich states of North Dakota, Kentucky, and West Virginia, the majority of voters surveyed wanted to remain in the agreement. While this bipartisan support is something of a mystery, it seems that public awareness of climate change and its consequences is growing.
What happens next?
It’s difficult to say just how the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement will impact the planet because the agreement is non-binding. Therefore, it’s entirely possible for a country to simply ignore the terms of the agreement without withdrawing. What can be said is that the U.S. withdrawal will make it much harder for poorer countries to make progress reducing their emissions. The Obama administration had committed $3 billion to assisting those countries, but Trump cancelled those funds after only $1 billion were paid. The Trump administration has also reduced the amount spent by the state department on climate change by nearly 30 percent.
Another consequence of the U.S. withdrawal is that the U.S. has effectively ceded leadership on climate change to China. Since the U.S. withdrawal, China has reduced its reliance on coal from 80 percent to 20 percent of its total energy mix. At the same time, China’s investments in clean energy technology such as wind turbines and solar panels has brought their prices down by nearly three quarters in the past decade. America’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement has also allowed China to extend its influence in the Major Economic Forum, a group of large countries that were signatories to the agreement which the U.S. led until it’s withdrawal.
America’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement is a sad lesson in the futility of government efforts to address climate change, even with widespread industrial and public support. It would have been reasonable to expect Fortune 500 businesses to come out in opposition to the agreement, but many of them supported it. The agreement found strong support even from Americans who lived in coal country and voted for Republicans. That still wasn’t enough to stop Trump from leaving the agreement. It is all too likely that a future Democratic president might bring the U.S. back into the agreement only for a Republican successor to pull the U.S. out once more. The future of the planet is too important to gamble on supporters of the Paris agreement holding the White House in perpetuity.