Trump's Paris Agreement Withdrawal in Context

The Polarization of the Climate Issue Continues

U.S. President Donald Trump departs after announcing his decision that the United States will withdraw from the landmark Paris Climate Agreement, in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, June 2017. Kevin Lamarque / REUTERS

The response to U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement on climate change has been swift but often contradictory. For example, Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, could only offer faint praise for the accord in a December 2015 New York Times op-ed, charging that it did just enough “to keep both environmentalists and the fossil fuel industry from complaining too much.” McKibben changed his tune this past week, claiming that the U.S. withdrawal from the accord “undercuts our civilization’s chances of surviving global warming.”

Other advocates of the Paris climate deal, including many leading voices in the U.S. business community, have also offered rather unsatisfactory arguments for the United States to stay in the agreement: that it is non-binding and doesn’t actually require emissions cuts. Under this rationale, Washington should stay in to maintain influence over the negotiations, which is a de facto appeal to Trump to stay in the agreement in order to weaken it.

There is, of course, some legitimacy to all of these arguments. The Paris deal was too weak to achieve climate stabilization targets, but an important step toward reaching a politically sustainable framework for global action against climate change. Continuing U.S. engagement is probably in the United States’ best interest, even if it doesn’t hit its non-binding commitments. The history of these sorts of agreements, after all, has mostly been one of promises made and not kept, at least when keeping them entailed politically or economically difficult trade-offs, as was the case with the Kyoto Protocol.

But those facts are mostly irrelevant in the face of the over-the-top rhetoric that continues to attend the climate debate. Many proponents of the accord—including such signatories as former U.S. President Barack Obama, former British Prime Minister David Cameron, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi—made sweeping claims about its significance, despite the fact that the nations of the world had made non-binding commitments to business-as-usual decarbonization

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