Categorized | Environmental Security, UN, World

Why the Paris Agreement Will Survive Donald Trump

New members of the United States Congress supporting a Green New Deal do so against a backdrop of increasing American isolation on climate change, driven by President Trump’s intent to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement. Despite impending American non-participation, which will formally take effect after November 4, 2020, the international community reached a milestone in the global climate regime at COP24, the most recent meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Parties reached consensus on a set of rules to enact the Paris Climate Agreement, demonstrating that the Paris Agreement’s survival does not depend on official American participation.

During the second week of the conference, the United States delegation hosted a side event ambiguously titled “Innovative Technologies Spur Economic Dynamism.” At the event Wells Griffith, the Trump Administration’s advisor on energy policy, defended “clean coal” and the expanded use of fossil fuels. Protestors interrupted the talk, and the moment garnered attention as an example of President Trump’s efforts to disrupt the climate conference’s work. This event was the only one hosted by the official US delegation, and over the course of the two-week conference was little more than a widely publicized distraction, a marker of the United States’ waning influence in climate negotiations.

American withdrawal is a major blow to the Paris Agreement’s aims. In particular, it emboldens those states that have rejected the global consensus on climate change action. The United States led Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Kuwait in rejecting the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s special report on the impacts of 1.5°C of global warming. The report’s findings raised widespread concern that international efforts were insufficient to prevent the worst effects of climate change, many of which would occur even at only 1.5°C of warming (The Paris Agreement seeks to limit global warming to “well below 2°C”). Ultimately, rather than officially accepting the report’s findings, COP24’s decision text wrangled opposing views with the linguistic contortion of welcoming the report’s “timely completion”. The American delegation also pushed back against calls to strengthen Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and flows of project finance to developing countries stressed by climate change.

In the absence of American leadership, others stepped in. A “High Ambition Coalition” including the EU, UK, Argentina, Ethiopia, New Zealand, Mexico, Canada, and Caribbean and Pacific Island States committed to “step up” their NDCs, short-term action, and long-term low-emission development strategies. The Talanoa dialogue, a forum intended to raise global goals for emission reductions, highlighted the needs and experiences of states most imminently vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Discussions and side events throughout the COP demonstrated that the United States’ position stood in isolated opposition to large coalitions of developed and developing countries.

Moreover, in a shift from 2015, where cooperation between the U.S. and China played an important role leading up to COP21 and the Paris Agreement, China used COP24 to assume greater leadership in global climate negotiations independently of the United States. Despite being the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases and continuing to build coal-fired power plants in other developing countries, China showcased its own large investments in clean energy and its commitment to the Paris Agreement. Its pavilion ran a full slate of programming, including a visit from Al Gore. When negotiations came down to the wire in the final days of the conference, China helped secure a final consensus with its willingness to support uniform rules, compromising its historically adamant interest in maintaining clear distinctions between the responsibilities of developed and developing countries.

And in the space where the official United States pavilion might otherwise have been, the U.S. Climate Action Center showcased sub-national efforts to meet Paris Agreement targets in the United States. Representatives of U.S. state and city governments, NGOs, and the private sector sought to present a united American coalition to the international community. Former American negotiators—including Sue Biniaz, the State Department’s former lead climate lawyer, and Todd Stern, the former United States Special Envoy for climate change—spoke in an unofficial capacity about the way forward for the Paris Agreement. The center highlighted the significance of climate change as a voting issue following the midterm elections, efforts to phase out HFCs, corporate action on climate change, sustainable agriculture, youth climate action, and subnational cooperation. It also showcased how states like California, which as the world’s fifth-largest economy has committed to economy-wide carbon neutrality by 2045, have the ability to set ambitious climate targets despite the lack of federal support. When California hosted the Global Climate Action Summit this past September, it exemplified how sub-national actors might assert a climate policy—and a foreign policy—of their own.

COP24 fulfilled its mandate to a greater extent than many feared, but it still fell short of what civil society, NGOs, and many negotiators agree is necessary. The Paris Agreement sets no limit on ambition and, unlike the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, is not legally binding. It defines global goals and mechanisms to publicly hold countries accountable for their commitments, but depends on 195 parties’ individual commitments to set ambitious NDCs and work to meet them. Global climate governance is an intensely multilateral effort, one where American leadership rests less on military or economic might than on the more malleable foundation of political and diplomatic will.

This will can come from sources other than the federal government. The Trump Administration cannot single-handedly derail the course of the global climate regime, and in an arena where everyone loses together, an attempt to do so brings the United States no advantage. The President—and Congress—should take note.

Image courtesy of Sofia Menemenlis.

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About Sofia Menemenlis

Sofia Menemenlis is a third-year student at Yale University, and is double majoring in Global Affairs and Geology & Geophysics. She has worked as an intern with the California Air Resources Board and the United Nations Development Programme. A member of the official youth constituency to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, she recently led a delegation of Yale undergraduates to attend COP24 of the UNFCCC in Katowice, Poland.

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