The U.S. federal government has announced its intention to pull the United States out of the Paris Climate Agreement. Bad idea, sure, but maybe not the monumental setback in the fight against climate change that is feared by so many.
While it’s easy to work ourselves into a tizzy, the real effect of withdrawing from the agreement might be more symbolic than substantive. Indeed, when it comes to the task of reducing emissions, there may be some upside as the rest of us follow the words of Sir Richard Branson and “get on with it.”
Other countries have not announced their intention to quit the deal or roll back their emissions targets because of our departure. The other big emitters are sticking with it and seem even more galvanized to exceed their targets. Just look at the immediate response from the European Union or from President Xi of China who met with California Governor Jerry Brown immediately after Trump’s announcement. In England where there is a high degree of political uncertainty, there is no major party questioning action on climate change. In France, President Macron announced a new initiative to lure American climate scientists to continue their work in France.
Sure, this administration’s actions might be a convenient excuse for a few outlier countries, but it won’t be what drives decision-makers in other countries as they had full flexibility over their own level of involvement when they agreed to the deal. So it appears highly unlikely that the agreement will fall to pieces. (Plus the U.S. can’t technically be withdrawn until a certain amount of time and process, which happens to coincide with the day after Election Day 2020. #ThanksObama)
Of course, there is real damage done by our withdrawal as it compromises our newfound position of climate leadership in the world. For a long time, America trailed behind other industrialized nations in terms of curbing carbon emissions. Having snubbed prior global environmental standards—namely Kyoto and its predecessors—we spent decades signaling to the global community that economic growth and environmental prudence were, in America’s eyes, mutually exclusive.
In the past, America’s failure to lead lent legitimacy to the argument that curbing emissions could wait. But when the Obama administration took up the mantle of leadership and started implementing its Climate Action Plan, announced in June of 2013, widespread global consensus and meaningful commitments were soon achieved. Hundreds of nations pledged to reduce emissions based on plans that worked for their particular situations and not the ideals of other nations. Even within the U.S., the proposal that President Obama took to Paris was already based on a bottom up approach: state plans and targets that added up to the Clean Power Plan. It was based on emissions that had already been reduced by state-based clean energy policies, industry adoption of new efficiency technologies (with some pushing and regulatory engagement), and enforcement of the Clean Air Act with the support of power companies, auto companies, and local governments.
Along with the hundreds of other countries that remain in the agreement, the U.S actors that formed the basis for our commitment to the Paris Accord are still in this fight. While “The United States of America” may not appear as a signatory, American states, cities, corporations and individuals are more determined than ever to fill the void of leadership left by our federal government.
Already, U.S. states accounting for more than a third of our national gross domestic product have pledged to meet the country’s commitments for cutting greenhouse gas emissions under the Paris climate agreement. Twelve states and 187 cities calling themselves the United States Climate Alliance have committed to cutting emissions by 26-28 per cent from 2005 levels, investors are upping their game, and people are making buying and spending decisions based on the climate risk policies of the businesses they patronize.
The moment the Paris Agreement went into force, we achieved agreement, but scientists and the closest observers agree that we are already behind the eight ball and running out of time to ratchet up efforts to bring emissions under control. Now, consistent with the theory and construct of this bottom up approach, we can all play our role in ensuring not only that we continue to meet the targets originally agreed to, but that we aggressively act to make the next milestone in emissions reductions a reality.
We may have lost a battle, but the war is far from over. Now it is up to leadership from other strong American institutions to do what they know is right for our environment and our economy.