U.S. Formally Begins To Leave The Paris Climate Agreement

Nov 4, 2019
Originally published on November 5, 2019 11:19 am

The Trump administration has formally notified the United Nations that the U.S. is withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement. The withdrawal will be complete this time next year, after a one-year waiting period has elapsed.

"We will continue to work with our global partners to enhance resilience to the impacts of climate change and prepare for and respond to natural disasters," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement Monday.

Nearly 200 countries signed on to the agreement in 2015 and made national pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Each country set its own goals, and many wealthy countries, including the U.S., also agreed to help poorer countries pay for the costs associated with climate change.

The U.S. is now the only country to pull out of the pact.

"The United States is not cooperating with the rest of the world on dealing with climate change," says Andrew Light, a former climate official in the State Department who helped develop the Paris Agreement.

The agreement was designed to be easier to join than to leave. The U.S. even helped spearhead language that would hold countries accountable for the promises they made, in part to help guard against regime changes and other global political turmoil.

Indeed, in the years since the pact was created, many key international players, including Brazil, China, Japan and India, have experienced economic or political upheaval, but none has withdrawn from the Paris Agreement as a result.

President Trump originally announced his intention to withdraw from the deal in the summer of 2017, shortly after he took office. At the time he said, "As of today, the United States will cease all implementation" of the agreement, including federal policies meant to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as well as U.S. contributions to the international climate fund for poorer nations.

"These agreements are just only as good as the commitments from each country," Light says.

The U.S. had pledged to reduce national greenhouse gas emissions by about a quarter by 2025, compared with 2005 levels. The country is not on track to achieve that goal.

In the intervening years, the Trump administration has systematically attempted to roll back federal limits on carbon emissions, including rules about how much pollution can be emitted by power plants, cars and trucks.

"The reality is, to really deliver on our climate goals, we do need strong federal action," says Rachel Cleetus of the Union of Concerned Scientists. "The unfortunate reality is U.S. carbon emissions actually rose last year."

This isn't the first time the U.S. has reneged on an international climate agreement. The U.S. failed to ratify the 1997 Kyoto Protocol despite being instrumental in its creation. In this case, the U.S. became a signatory to the agreement but almost immediately signaled that it didn't intend to pursue its responsibilities.

In both cases, the U.S. was instrumental in developing the international strategy.

"That's one of the ironies of all this," Light says. When the Paris Agreement was being negotiated, the U.S. delegation pushed for more transparency and accountability to make sure the countries that signed on would actually do what they promised.

"Even though we're the ones who have been pointing to these potential scenarios for problems with other countries, we seem to be the biggest problem," Light says.

"If we were a tiny country with small emissions, it wouldn't matter so much," he says. "But we're not. We're a big country with a lot of power and a lot of influence around the world. And so for us to be the exception on this issue is holding the world back."

A formal withdrawal is reversible, however, if a future administration chooses to rejoin the Paris Agreement and pick up where the U.S. left off with its emissions reduction promises.

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The Trump administration has formally told the United Nations the U.S. is pulling out of the Paris climate agreement. The State Department sent a letter to the U.N. that said, basically, we don't want to be part of this deal anymore. There is a one-year waiting period before the withdrawal takes effect, and as NPR's Rebecca Hersher reports, today's action makes the U.S. a conspicuous outsider when it comes to dealing with global warming.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: The 2015 Paris Climate Agreement was designed to be easy to join and hard to leave. In fact, the United States spearheaded the effort to make sure that's how it was. Otherwise, who knows what could happen? Another country could have an election, get a new leader who wasn't so keen on the international agreement and poof - it would all start to fall apart. And since 2015, there has been a lot of political turmoil in countries like Brazil and India and Turkey and China and Japan. But the U.S. is the only country where the new people in power have decided to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. Andrew Light is a former top climate official in the State Department.

ANDREW LIGHT: That's one of the ironies of all this. Even though we're the ones who've been pointing to these potential scenarios for problems with other countries, we seem to be the biggest problem.

HERSHER: Light helped negotiate the Paris Agreement. It took years.

LIGHT: These agreements are just only as good as the commitments from each country.

HERSHER: The American commitment under the Paris Agreement is to reduce national greenhouse gas emissions by about a quarter compared to what they were in 2005. The U.S. is not on track to do that, in part because even though the formal withdrawal has just begun, President Trump began pulling back from the commitment more than two years ago in June 2017.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The United States will withdraw from the Paris climate accord.

HERSHER: In that speech, President Trump suggested that the Paris requirements to transition to cleaner energy sources and help other countries do the same would cost too much. Rachel Cleetus works on climate and energy policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists, an American advocacy group. She says they've got the math wrong. For one thing, you have to take into account the costs of more intense and frequent wildfires and other natural disasters.

RACHEL CLEETUS: What we can't afford is runaway climate change. Just look at California right now. Tell me that this is not an economic cost. In fact, the most expensive thing we can do is not take action to limit these types of climate impacts.

HERSHER: As for what comes next, now that the U.S. has formally signalled it's done with Paris, a year has to pass before the withdrawal is final. In the meantime, a delegation from the State Department will still attend the annual meeting of the nearly 200 countries that are in the agreement. It's in early December, and if a new president were to take office in 2021 and decided to re-enter the Paris Agreement, they can.

LIGHT: On Inauguration Day 2021, you know, they can communicate to the United Nations that we want to get back in the Paris Agreement. It takes 30 days for that to happen, so that's pretty much the easy part.

HERSHER: The harder part will be pushing to get the U.S. back on track to reduce greenhouse gas emissions before the most catastrophic effects of climate change are inevitable. Rebecca Hersher, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.