Politics of Poverty

Will we stay or will we go?

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Negotiators gather in Paris for COP 21, December 2015. (Photo: UNFCCC, via Flickr)

The decision about whether President Trump will keep the US in the Paris Climate Agreement looms. Three things to know as the White House decides.

As the media has recently reported, high-level administration officials are poised to huddle in the White House today to discuss nothing less than the fate of the planet. Advisors like Jared Kushner and Gary Cohn, and cabinet officials like Tillerson, Perry and Pruitt may be in the meeting, though we don’t have a final list of attendees, and there is little clarity on the decision-making process in this White House.

We expect that they will talk through two potential scenarios:

1) Immediate pullout from the Paris Agreement to follow-through on the President’s frequently repeated campaign promise; or

2) Renege on the existing US emission reduction commitments in the Paris Agreement (a.k.a. the US’s Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC)), reassert that the US will not deliver on its international commitments to support low-emissions development and adaptation in developing countries, and announce the intent to put forward some version of an “America First” NDC. This option has been reported on recently in several outlets.

A tsunami of statements, letters, and op-eds have been published since the election on why it makes sense for the US to stay in the Paris Agreement, and to remind the American public that the US is committed to the agreement until 2019. A couple of pieces include yesterday’s letter sent to the president from 13 Fortune 500 companies, and statements by a number of world leaders on the historic importance of the Paris Agreement and the ongoing commitment of nearly 200 countries to make it a success.

These endorsements exemplify what makes our democracy great. Polls continue to show that Americans want the US to play a shared leadership role in the world, of which the Paris Agreement is a good example. Americans are proud of our country because we stand for what we believe in, we stay true to our promises, and we lead with integrity. Pulling out of the Paris deal would call those deep American values into question and raise flags about the US’s reliability as a global partner.

The second scenario, in which the US disavows its domestic emissions commitments, is more likely at this stage given the strange bedfellows that have emerged in support of Paris over the past few months – including some coal companies. But that said, the consequences of an NDC reversal have been highly under-reported.

If the President announces that the US is pulling back from its current targets, he will be speaking to two lonely constituencies: 1) fossil fuel companies who can’t innovate out of a myriad of problems plaguing their industry and are desperate for a lifeline – even a frayed and flawed one, and 2) right-wing conservative think tanks in DC that want to unravel the Obama legacy regardless of the merits.

Here are three things to know as the drama unfolds:

  • Other countries will stand strong as US global leadership weakens: A move by the US to walk back on its NDC will not likely weaken the rest of the world’s resolve to stand by the Paris Agreement and their country targets. Other countries have put too much political capital in the agreement to back down now. The move does mean that the US will dismantle its participation in the agreement, threatening its future negotiating powers with allies along with opening the door for diplomatic, or even financial, retaliatory measures (think tariffs on US high-carbon exports.) It will also mean that the country that historically contributes the most to the effects of climate change isn’t willing to step up and fulfill its moral responsibility to help vulnerable countries cope with the real and dangerous consequences of a warming planet. That’s significant, and not in a good way.
  • There will be more pressure on US businesses to step up even as they face greater uncertainty: A move to weaken existing targets makes little sense from a business perspective. Many businesses want clear, long-term signals from the US government on policies and regulations to have greater certainty in planning for the future. Businesses will also continue to come under pressure from a frustrated public that wants action and rightly blames the fossil fuel industry from holding back critical climate progress.
  • Focus on actions at the US sub-national level will increase in importance: An NDC walk back will continue to put the spotlight on actions taken at the state, city, and local levels to compensate for any attempt to slow down reductions at the federal level. As many analysts have noted, there are trends playing out in the renewable energy sector, coupled with pending coal-plant closures, efficiency measures, smart transportation planning, etc. at a state level that could help compensate for failure to act nationally.

Let’s hope that President Trump does the right thing and stays in the Paris Agreement. But let’s also hope that administration officials keep in mind that weakening our commitments to Paris and to vulnerable countries is neither true to American values nor to our history of US leadership with integrity.

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