US President Donald Trump announced today that the US will be withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement, a framework that was developed over many years and boasts the participation of all nations except Nicaragua and Syria.
The US’ departure is stunning not only in its betrayal of the world and its disregard for the threat of climate change, but also because the Paris agreement was a highly flexible arrangement that allows countries to work toward their own goals.
Now the rest of the world has to figure out what to do with a global pact that’s missing, perhaps, its central figure.
Here are five things that may happen now that the US has pulled out.
The Paris Climate Agreement Could Unravel
The Paris climate agreement was incredibly difficult to pull off even after years of negotiation and global consensus that climate change is real. One of the reasons it came into existence is because its conditions are highly flexible — each country was allowed to set its own goals and many of the goals were modest.
Another reason is because the US was taking a leadership role.
If the country largely responsible for the climate crisis wasn’t involved in the agreement, what incentive would other countries have, especially developing countries with people living in extreme poverty?
And now before the plan even gets off the ground, the US is reneging on its commitments, beginning a years-long process of formally leaving the framework.
“I think there’s a significant risk that the agreement could unravel,” John Sterman, director, MIT Sloan Sustainability Initiative, told Global Citizen. “Along with all the [anti-climate] actions that have already been taken, this could lead to a cascade of waffling and goal erosion.”
Other countries, seeing the US give up on its pledges, could pull out of the agreement or choose to pursue targets half-heartedly. Further, the goal of the Paris agreement is nearly impossible to reach without US leadership. The initial commitments made in the Paris agreement were not even enough to keep temperatures under 2 degrees Celsius — years of increasing commitments and collaboration were needed.
Trump suggested in his announcement that he's open to renegotiating the terms of the agreement, but anything below the previous commitments set by the US will be insufficient if the the ultimate target is to be hit.
Even if a future president rejoined the agreement in 2020, for example, the damage will have been done.
“There’s no time to waste,” said Sterman. “Even four years of delay will be damaging.”
Sterman said that three additional factors could cause the agreement to collapse.
The first is that the Green Climate Fund, which funds efforts by developing countries to transition to renewable economies, could dry up. Trump said in his announcement that the US will no longer support the budget.
“If the US doesn’t commit more to the funds, it’s hard to see that other developed nations will commit what they need to,” Sterman said. “And if the funds aren’t available, the developing countries will not be able to leapfrog the damaging and harmful fossil fuel energy system.”
The second is that other countries are beginning to feel populist pressure akin to what propelled Trump to power in the US and these populist movements could cause other countries to withdraw.
Finally, the actions by the Trump administration have caused great uncertainty in the business community that will slow down the advance of technology critical to the renewable economy such as solar panels, wind turbines, storage systems, and more, which will have consequences far into the future. Because this innovation is being slowed, the advances needed for the Paris agreement to reach its goal may not be realized in time.
But the Agreement Might Survive
The US is an outlier when it comes to climate change action and the rest of the world may rally around its retreat by radically stepping up their commitments.
“Countries, sub-national governments, and corporations have all vowed to continue with the Paris agreement,” said Michael Burger, executive director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University. “I see no reason to doubt their intention to do so.”
“The climate change problem is real, and despite the Trump administration's skepticism and denial it is not going to be solved by ignoring it,” he said. “The rest of the world gets that.”
China and the European Union, which are, respectively, the first and third emitters in the world have reaffirmed their “highest political commitment” to the agreement.
US States and Cities Will Stay Focused
Even as federal action on climate change recedes, states and cities will continue to reduce emissions and transition to renewable economies.
California is aiming to cut emissions by 50% in 2030 from 2005 levels.
“Donald Trump has absolutely chosen the wrong course," Jerry Brown, the governor of California, said in a statement following Trump's announcement. "He’s wrong on the facts. America’s economy is boosted by following the Paris Agreement. He’s wrong on the science. Totally wrong. California will resist this misguided and insane course of action. Trump is AWOL but California is on the field, ready for battle.”
New York is aiming to cut emissions by 40% in that time frame.
Texas, meanwhile, generates more wind power than the next three states combined, which shows that renewable energy has bipartisan appeal.
Virginia recently announced plans to stay committed to the Paris climate agreement. And cities like Miami that are directly facing the effects of climate change have transcended politics to work toward solutions.
“Ongoing climate action from states and cities can continue to advance technical and regulatory innovations necessary to effectively address climate change,” Burger said. “It can also counteract some of the increased greenhouse gas emissions emissions that will result from the absence of federal regulation.”
“However, in the long run, federal leadership is crucial to effecting the large-scale transformation needed to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.”
The US Will Lose Out Economically
Trump is leaving the climate agreement because his advisors claim it will kill American jobs and hurt the economy.
In reality, renewable energy is a way to create millions of middle-class jobs while achieving energy independence.
The renewable sector, for instance, is employing people at 12 times the rate of the rest of the US economy and already has twice as many jobs as the coal industry. At the same time, the coal industry is dying even without renewable energy because natural gas is a far cheaper alternative and advanced technology is taking over many of the existing jobs.
“Slowing down that growth is harmful to the welfare of the people in this country and especially harmful to the people in states that voted for president Trump,” Sterman said.
“Most of the jobs are building, operating, and maintaining wind turbines, solar panels, insulating houses, building the high performance windows,” he said. “Those jobs are mostly in red states and most of them are blue collar and would be available but for the withdrawal.”
In China, which is going all-in on renewable energy, more than 2 million people have jobs in solar, according to Sterman.
“Studies show that a large chunk of our emissions can be avoided while making money,” Sterman added.
As the US stops investing in renewable energy, other countries will step in and take up the green energy mantle, taking the jobs and income that could have occurred in the US.
The US People WIll Suffer
The US is already facing the effects of climate change — coastlines are eroding, storms are getting more severe, people are facing displacement.
And the health of millions of people are affected by both the causes of climate change and its actual impact.
“It’s well documented that the pollution from burning coal, from burning fossil fuels in our industries, hurts people’s health and leads to excess mortality,” Sterman said.
Water and food sources are being contaminated by the runoff caused by heavier precipitation, which in turn makes people sick.
For example, an extremely wet year in 2013 across the Midwestern US caused mercury, livestock hormones, and pesticides to appear in higher quantities in water sources.
The air pollution from increasingly severe droughts and the dust these unleash into the atmosphere are leading to higher rates of lung diseases. The greater frequency of forest fires is further polluting the air. This is on top of the massive pollution caused by burning fossil fuels.
Higher temperatures and stronger heat waves are causing more people to suffer from heat strokes, dehydration, and similar illnesses.
The life-cycles of pests are growing as a result of climate change.
The prevalence of Lyme's disease is booming across the Northeastern US and mosquito-borne illnesses are becoming increasingly global in nature as conditions become balmier everywhere. Many scientists also believe that the spread of the Zika virus was accelerated by climate change.
Climate change is often discussed in dire terms — the ice caps are all melting, animals and plants are dying off at alarming rates, countries are woefully unprepared, and so on.
Then there are the lived experiences of climate change — people being forced to relocate because land becomes uninhabitable or fires or storms destroy their homes, and people contracting illnesses indirectly from climate change.
All these stressors can exacerbate mental health conditions.