In April 2016, with his granddaughter sitting on his lap, Secretary of State John Kerry signed the historic Paris Agreement on Climate Change. It was a year that would soon become the warmest on record.
Although every nation on Earth is a signatory of the historic pact — which brought together all the world’s countries to combat climate change — one rogue superpower has now officially started the process of withdrawing from the celebrated accord: the U.S.A.
Fulfilling President Trump’s climate-denialist, anti-regulatory campaign promise, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced Monday on Twitter the United States’ exit from the Paris pact. This now-imminent withdrawal, however, becomes final in precisely one year — curiously, the day after the 2020 election — and can’t be undone unless a different president (perhaps in 2021, 2025, or later) decides to reverse course.
Today we begin the formal process of withdrawing from the Paris Agreement. The U.S. is proud of our record as a world leader in reducing all emissions, fostering resilience, growing our economy, and ensuring energy for our citizens. Ours is a realistic and pragmatic model.
— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) November 4, 2019
Yes, on November 4, 2020, the U.S. will officially be out of the agreement, which seeks to limit Earth’s temperature rise at well below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-Industrial Revolution temperatures. It’s a radically ambitious, daunting feat, but it’s one global scientists have repeatedly shown, through deeply vetted reports, civilization must achieve to avoid the worst consequences of a disrupted climate.
That one of humanity’s biggest carbon emitters would leave the formal diplomatic process — designed to transparently account for the potent heat-trapping carbon emitted by countries — is at best a dubious policy, and at worst, environmentally and diplomatically damaging, say political and scientific researchers. Withdrawing from the Paris pact might be a successful political stunt, but it certainly won’t help mitigate planetary climate change.
“The United States cannot withdraw from planet Earth,” said Sarah Green, an environmental chemist at Michigan Technological University. “To withdraw from the most important international agreement to keep our world habitable is reckless and irresponsible.”
“Pulling out of the Paris agreement is like being the guy who brags about peeing in the swimming pool while thumbing his nose at people trying to keep it clean,” Green added.
The consequences of leaving the Paris climate agreement are all comparatively troublesome, so ranking them was futile — but they are numbered.
1. The U.S. looks pathetic.
On a relentlessly heating globe, the world’s most economically and militarily dominant power is surrendering, for now, leadership of an omnipresent global threat.
“The U.S. is ceding its influence around the world,” said Andrew Light, a distinguished senior fellow at the World Resources Institute and a former climate advisor in Secretary of State John Kerry’s Office of Policy Planning in the U.S. Department of State. “We are not going to be seen as a serious international actor on this issue.”
Leaving the Paris agreement means that other global powers, like China, Germany, and beyond, will “gobble” emerging jobs and markets for renewable and low-carbon energy, Light stressed. And there are certainly bounties of economic potential as countries decarbonize: An arm of the World Bank, called the International Finance Corporation, estimated that national commitments to slash carbon emissions would “open up nearly $23 trillion” in climate investment opportunities by 2030.
The United States’ exit, while not yet bureaucratically official, has essentially now already happened.
“The U.S. is effectively out of it,” said Light.
2. It’s a terrible message for the rest of the world.
The U.S., along with China, India, and the EU, is among the four big players when it comes to carbon emissions. Historically, the U.S. is by far the largest emitter of carbon dioxide, though China, with its burgeoning new coal plants, is now presently the greatest carbon polluter.
But if the U.S. — the world’s largest producer of crude oil and exporter of natural gas — fails to take bold enough responsibility for stabilizing the climate, other nations might not feel responsible for dramatically decarbonizing their economies (in line for what’s needed to curb warming below 2 degrees C).
“If we, the greatest historic polluter, are unwilling to take leadership, why should China?” asked Michael Mann, a climate scientist at Penn State University. “Why should India? It sends a horrific message to the rest of the world.”
The U.S. withdrawal doesn’t end the global effort to curb warming, not nearly. But it does decelerate the movement.
“Having the U.S. take on a leadership role helps things tremendously,” said Michele Betsill, a political scientist at Colorado State University who has attended multiple international climate conferences. “It provides greater incentives for everyone to ban together.”
Critically, on a planet with skyrocketing carbon dioxide emissions — now rising at rates that are unprecedented in both the geologic and historic record — leaving the agreement will create diplomatic setbacks, headaches, and perhaps disputes. That won’t kill the Paris agreement, but it also won’t accelerate decarbonization.
“It doesn’t help move things forward as fast as we need to,” said Betsill.
The U.S., whose carbon emissions ticked up in 2018, is not yet on track to help limit warming below 2 C this century, according to Climate Action Tracker, an organization that evaluates how well nations are living up to their Paris commitments.
Though renewables like wind and solar are rapidly advancing in the U.S., with 90 percent of all the nation’s wind and solar coming online since 2008, these burgeoning renewables still only account for 10 percent of the States’ electrical generation today (natural gas and declining coal are still dominant).
Carbon emissions are increasing, and time won’t stop ticking.
3. It’s a really bad deal for the U.S.
Climate change, of course, is a global phenomenon, but it’s hitting the U.S. hard. Remember, climate change doesn’t cause extreme weather events or trends — it exacerbates them in numerous ways, as Jonathan Overpeck, a climate scientist at the University of Michigan was so kind to list (he was also willing to offer even more examples):
“Farmers in our nation’s heartland are dealing with less predictable, more flood- and drought-prone weather.”
“The very lifeblood of the American Southwest, the Colorado and Rio Grande Rivers, are flowing less and less as our climate warms.”
“Wildfires are raging around the planet, fueled in part by hotter temperatures and drier conditions.”
“Unprecedented heatwaves are killing more and more people.”
“Drought is becoming more severe in the U.S., and around the planet, and sea level rise has become very real in many communities as well — our entire coastline is slowly being submerged, and this will have untold economic repercussions.”
Exiting the Paris climate agreement, according to scientists who study climate, is quite simply a bad idea.
“Every aspect of our society is threatened by an unstable climate,” said Green, of Michigan Technological University.
4. The ocean is particularly screwed.
The seas, which hold some 332,519,000 cubic miles of water, are warming, rising, acidifying, and losing oxygen. A new comprehensive U.N. climate special report, released in September, presents an encyclopedic rundown of how Earth’s oceans have been altered as the world relentlessly heats up.
There’s a lot to say about the oceans, but a major crux of their woes is that most of the heat trapped on Earth by humans ends up in the lowest of the low places: the seas. This is bad, especially for the creatures therein, who have begun to flee to cooler waters.
“Over 90 percent of heat from global warming is warming the oceans,” said Josh Willis, a NASA oceanographer who had no role in the U.N. report.
“Global warming is really ocean warming,” Willis emphasized.
And guess what? The oceans are expected to keep warming. “Over the 21st century, the ocean is projected to transition to unprecedented conditions with increased temperatures” among other changes, the U.N. report concluded.
5. People are increasingly screwed.
It will be difficult to stave off significant changes to the ocean this century, though civilization can certainly limit the ever-worsening consequences of acidifying and warming seas. But on the whole, the planet, one day in the deep future, will repair itself. It always does, even after getting slammed with an asteroid some 10 to 15 kilometers wide.
As for relatively fragile, easily bothered humans? We’ll have a rough time.
“The climate crisis is not an environmental crisis, it is a crisis of human society and the biosphere that sustains us,” emphasized Green.
Unpredictable and extreme weather threaten agriculture, which impacts the food supply and our trade balance, she noted. YES, THIS MEANS YOUR BEER SUPPLY, TOO.
The World Bank estimates that tens of millions of people, displaced by exacerbated flooding and drought, could be climate refugees in a few decades’ time, by 2050.
“Droughts and floods have caused or exacerbated crises from Syria to Guatemala, leading to waves of migrants fleeing ravaged homelands,” noted Green.
And, as mask-donning Californians will attest, the fires mean sour air. “Fires and high temperatures exacerbate air pollution, leading to health crises, said Green.
“This is not about saving polar bears, it’s about saving humans,” she concluded (Green didn’t imply that we should ignore the present and future plight of polar bears).
6. Rejoining ain’t simple
If a president, besides Trump, ever decides to reenter the Paris climate accords, they’ll need to send the U.N. a letter asking to rejoin, said the World Resource Institute’s Light.
That won’t guarantee reentry. The U.S. will need to articulate, in detail, how it seriously intends to make commitments to ambitiously curb carbon emissions, in line with other nations’ efforts. The U.S., for example, must explicate who’s on board (states? businesses? Congress?) for achieving robust climate targets.
“It’s a significant challenge for a future president who is serious about getting the U.S. back in the effort to solve the [climate] problem,” said Light.
Such will now be the burden of a future president, whomever she or he is.
In the end, Trump may have excited his political base by fulfilling a promise to get out of the Paris pact.
“It’s raw politics,” said Colorado State’s Betsill.
At the same time, the withdrawal won’t change the unflinching laws of physics — understood since the 1800s — that amassing carbon dioxide will warm the planet. The consequences are increasingly clear.
“Despite Trump’s actions and statements denying the reality of climate change and pushing for, for example, ‘saving’ the coal industry, the impacts of climate change are increasingly obvious to more and more people, and the economics of cutting emissions and expanding non-carbon energy are more and more attractive,” said environmental scientist Peter Gleick.
Perhaps another president will shift course, whatever the challenge, and rejoin over 190 nations in combating a daunting problem, but one with known solutions.
“In the long run, we can only hope that Trump will turn out to be a minor speed bump in the long road to tackling climate change, slightly delaying but not stopping the transition to a more climate-friendly energy system,” said Gleick.