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We’ll Always Have the Paris Accord

Josh Barro has the right take on the withdrawal from the Paris Accord:

A lot of people have been noting that President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement on climate change will leave the US as one of just three non-participating countries in the world. We are nearly alone on this. Isolated.

But I don’t think this talking point means quite what people think it does.

It was possible to get nearly every country in the world to join the agreement because the agreement does not really do anything. The agreement allows countries to set their own targets for greenhouse gas emissions, and it prescribes no way to enforce those targets.

Since the agreement is fundamentally symbolic — an expression of global intent to combat climate change — Trump’s choice to withdraw is similarly a symbol of his intent for the US to unencumber itself from international commitments.

Exactly. The substantive things Trump is doing to dismantle President Obama’s legacy on climate change all relate to his appointments and changes to the domestic regulatory framework. Those decisions were already damaging America’s international position; pulling out of Paris is a purely a public-relations stunt. And it’s a stunt that the very industries that stand to benefit from Trump’s gutting of Obama’s environmental legacy opposed, precisely because by throwing away our seat at the table, it threw away theirs as well.

It is way past time for those observing the Trump White House to recognize: this is an exceptionally weak administration with no objectives, no plans, no goals, and no ability to accomplish anything. Virtually everything it does, it does out of petty and venal self-interest, out of fear, or out of simple vanity and desire for attention. The fact that Trump withdrew from the Paris climate accords is the best proof needed that the action is of little significance on the substance. Indeed, it won’t even result in us pulling out of the accords — per the text of the agreement, we’ll be in through 2020, after the next Presidential election.

As Daniel Larison points out, this doesn’t mean leaving is literally meaningless. It will weaken both America’s negotiating position vis-a-vis future agreements and in unrelated areas:

Far from forcing a better deal from the other parties, this just demonstrates that our government isn’t interested in making a deal, and the other parties to the agreement respond accordingly. Trump can’t possibly improve on a non-binding agreement that calls for voluntary contributions, and the other signatories aren’t interested in talking to him about it in any case. This decision gains the U.S. nothing it didn’t already have, and it harms our relations with many allies in the process.

And, as Barro argued in an earlier piece, that might be the best thing for the future of efforts to fight climate change:

Obviously, taking the US out of the accord reduces our ability to lead on reducing carbon emissions — but the US wasn’t likely to provide much leadership on that under Trump, in or out of the accord.

Trump’s choice to exit might increase political pressure within other countries to act on climate change. This effect would be similar to the surprising way Trump seems to be strengthening the European Union and depressing support for Euroskeptic parties in Europe.

Trump is globally unpopular, and he tends to bring discredit on the causes with which he associates himself. When Trump endorses nationalist political parties, voters become less inclined to support them. And if Trump is against the Paris agreement, that could increase support in other countries for adhering to Paris — and for the economically challenging steps those countries might have to take to reduce emissions.

I’m skeptical of that, because while I think the Europeans, Chinese and Indians take climate change seriously, I also believe they take their own economic positions seriously. That was what made negotiating any climate agreement so difficult: every country worried that they would be particularly disadvantaged by whatever metrics are agreed upon. Which is how we wound up with a purely voluntary agreement that included everybody rather than a tougher agreement that China or India objected to as being unfair.

But now, the Chinese, Indians and Europeans have every incentive to do something like figure out what carbon-pricing regime best rewards them for their existing initiatives, and negotiate an agreement that penalizes American exports and companies more than theirs for not having the same mix of carbon problems and solutions. We’ll complain, of course, but we’ll be negotiating from a position of self-imposed weakness rather than strength.



about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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