Trumping the climactic exit

U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement could help galvanise greater global action and cement new alliances

Updated - December 04, 2021 10:45 pm IST

Published - June 03, 2017 12:02 am IST

American President Donald Trump announced on June 1 that the U.S. would exit the Paris Agreement on Climate Change , stating he was putting America first. Remarkably for a country that has unambiguously contributed most to causing climate change, Mr. Trump’s speech was cloaked in victimhood. He argued that the agreement is unfair to his country because it hurts American jobs, is a disguised form of income redistribution, and impinges on the country’s sovereignty.


What, practically, does the U.S. exit imply for the battle against climate change? How do we unpack and counter the world’s sole superpower’s scarcely believable claim to victimhood? And how might India most usefully engage, given our deep vulnerabilities to the impacts of climate change?

In practical terms, the withdrawal of the U.S. from the Paris Agreement is an enormous setback to effective climate action. As the largest historical emitter and the second-largest current emitter of greenhouse gases, the U.S. has a huge role to play in reducing emissions. It also has obligations to provide finance and technology support to developing countries, from which it will now walk away. Indeed, Mr. Trump even cited India’s financial needs as a reason for inaction, despite the fact that India has moved further and faster down the path of clean energy than most, based entirely on domestic resources. Other, smaller countries, less responsible for the problem, could justifiably now wonder why they should act when the U.S. has chosen to abdicate responsibility. Meeting a two degree temperature limit target just got much harder.

While it would be irresponsible to suggest this action is anything other than a huge setback, there are also three important caveats, which provide a glimmer of a silver lining.


Three silver linings

First, this was the second-worst, not the worst, outcome. More damaging would have been the other option Mr. Trump was reportedly considering: stay in the Paris Agreement, but substantially lower the U.S. pledge. Until this decision, the EU and even American environmentalists favoured this option, as a way of keeping the U.S. at the table. But as my colleague Lavanya Rajamani asked in a CPR blog post, “at what cost?” Sanctifying a weaker U.S. pledge would have violated the principle of ‘progression’ that lies at the heart of the Paris Agreement — while countries pick their own pledge, they cannot backslide from that pledge, thereby enabling a virtuous cycle over time. Accommodating the U.S. once again — they also walked away from the Kyoto Protocol — would have sent a signal that any country, at any time, could legitimately weaken an inconvenient pledge. While countries may also mimic the U.S. in walking away, the political cost of doing so is much higher than lowering a pledge, and so a domino effect is less likely.

Second, the U.S. exit reduces the likelihood that the Americans will play a destructive role in the further elaboration of the agreement’s mechanisms. These negotiations are important. They will determine transparency provisions on countries’ policies and achievements, the extent and means of attention to adaptation concerns, and other issues that are central to building a virtuous cycle. Better to have an angry and scornful U.S. outside a robust agreement, with the prospect of re-entering at a future date, than to have it in, but at the cost of an eviscerated deal.


Third, the U.S. exit makes more transparent the political stakes on climate change in the U.S., and is more likely to force a national conversation in that country on where its interests lie. The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication reports that a majority of voters in every state say that the U.S. should participate in the Paris Agreement. States, cities and communities across much of the U.S. are staunch supporters of action, irrespective of federal leadership. If so, these heartening signs offer climate-concerned American citizens an opportunity to more productively engage, and transform, U.S. domestic climate politics. Doing so would be far more productive, in the longer term, than perpetuating a trend of accommodating the U.S. and dragging down global action.

An open and engaged political debate on climate change in the U.S. is also needed to query the language of victimhood that pervades Mr. Trump’s speech. Left unchallenged, it risks propagating a perspective that is deeply corrosive, and makes international cooperation in the future, including a future U.S. re-entry, much harder. There are two elements to the Trump narrative.

Challenging the narrative

First, and more challenging, is the appropriation by Mr. Trump of the language of fairness. In his telling, responsibility for causing the problem and different levels of capacity of countries to act, both of which are bedrocks of the UN climate agreement, are entirely ignored as salient factors. Yet, twenty years of climate negotiations have agreed that these two aspects form the basis for deciding which countries should act first, and which should help with finance. This principle was reinforced at Paris as part of a collective bargain, albeit in more nuanced language and after stiff negotiation. In the Trump retelling, the past is irrelevant, and so are differential levels of poverty and wealth. This cannot go unchallenged.


Second, and less difficult, is the rejection of clean energy as promoting national interests. Instead, Mr. Trump’s policies are based on turning back the clock to prioritise coal and other fossil fuels. This is at least partly informed by narrow party politics in the U.S., and is unlikely to stand the test of time and empirical scrutiny. It is, therefore, an easier, if still challenging, political battle to win in the U.S. than the issue of fairness. But both issues need to be honestly discussed in the U.S. if it is to eventually re-engage productively in global collective action. Well utilised, Mr. Trump’s actions may be the opportunity to truly energise the many American citizens who do care about responsible stewardship of the planet.

The urgent task at hand for the rest of the global community, however, is to ensure that the Paris Agreement remains in place and even wins renewed support.

India’s role going ahead

Re-negotiating an agreement, which Mr. Trump has demanded, should be entirely taken off the table through robust diplomatic activity. And here, India’s role could be potentially crucial. During his recent visit with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, Prime Minister Narendra Modi clearly and usefully articulated India’s support for climate action. Now, in the wake of clarity about Mr. Trump’s intent, India could go further. India could, for example, play a leadership role in mobilising the climate-vulnerable countries in our region and beyond, to recommit to and buttress the Paris Agreement. India could also explicitly and formally make common cause with countries such as China and the EU, which have reportedly planned an alliance to lead implementation of the Paris Agreement. Based on our recent track record of falling solar prices and declining estimates of coal needs, India is also well placed to forcefully make the case for the merits of a clean energy transition.

Mr. Trump’s actions to exit the U.S. from the Paris Agreement are undoubtedly a huge shock to the established regime for global climate protection. But, it is also the case that the grinding, technocratic and legalistic process of global climate negotiations can obscure the underlying issues at stake. The U.S. exit from the Paris Agreement could help bring back into focus these stakes, particularly for the poorest, galvanise greater action at multiple scales, help bring together unlikely bedfellows and cement new alliances. These would be appropriate responses to an otherwise destructive and irresponsible act.

Navroz K. Dubash is a Senior Fellow at Centre for Policy Research

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