A little over a week ago, the Trump administration finally documented President Trump’s previously stated intention to withdraw United States support from the Paris climate change agreement in an official notice delivered to the United Nations. The President announced his intention on June 1 that the U.S. would withdraw from the agreement. A presumably unintended consequence, however, is that President Trump’s comments prompted 237 cities and counties, thirteen states, the District of Columbia, 323 universities and colleges, 1,666 businesses and investors, and 23 foundations to commit themselves to the Paris climate agreement since June 1, 2017. This begs the question whether President Trump may have done more to further the Paris agreement than President Obama.
Under former President Obama, the United States had pledged as part of the Paris agreement to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from 2005 levels by as much as 28 percent by 2025. The Paris agreement was designed to prevent the earth from warming by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and President Obama confirmed U.S. adoption by Executive Order, instead of congressional approval, since the agreement did not include binding emission targets or financial commitments beyond what the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) provided for. The UNFCC was a 1992 treaty aimed at avoiding “dangerous human interference with the climate system” and which committed all countries to mitigating climate change by reducing or avoiding greenhouse gas emissions. President Trump is now able to withdraw from the Paris agreement because Congress never approved it, much like the Kyoto Protocol, itself an extension of the UNFCC.
President Trump has moved forward with the U.S. withdrawal despite support for the Paris agreement from a number of major companies, who sent the President a letter in April urging him not to withdraw, and numerous polls showing that increasingly large percentages of the U.S. population are concerned about climate change. In their letter, Apple, BHP Billiton, BP, DuPont, General Mills, Google, Intel, Microsoft, National Grid, Novartis Corporation, PG&E, Rio Tinto, Schneider Electric, Shell, Unilever and Walmart pointed out that U.S. participation in the agreement would strengthen competitiveness, support sound investment, create jobs, markets and grown, minimize costs and reduce business risks. They noted that climate change presents risks for U.S. companies, and the Paris agreement is a framework within which to address those risks.
While President Trump and members of his administration have said they favor shifting power to the states, especially related to environmental protections, they likely did not envision a large number of states, cities and counties, including two states with Republican governors, committing themselves to upholding the Paris agreement. President Trump’s efforts also sparked a pledge of $15 million from former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg to the UNFCC to help fill any funding gaps caused by the Trump administration’s departure. In addition, Bloomberg spearheaded a coalition called We Are Still In, made up of states, cities, counties, businesses, universities and foundations, which represents 120 million U.S. citizens and $26.2 trillion in contributions to the U.S. economy. The United States Climate Alliance, aiming to uphold U.S. commitments under the Paris agreement and meet or exceed the standards of the Clean Power Plan similarly encompasses states and territories representing over 100 million Americans.
The level of support from states, cities, counties, businesses and investors for the goals of the Paris agreement and the public disavowal of President Trump’s withdrawal of the U.S. prompts the question of whether the Trump administration has inadvertently furthered the Paris agreement more than President Obama could have hoped to accomplish. Increased attention to climate change, and examination of what a large number of states and businesses expect to happen in coming years have led to broader public discussion of the effects of climate change and what the Paris agreement and other measures can do to mitigate those effects.
President Trump’s recent references to renegotiating the terms of the agreement, despite declarations from other countries that the agreement is no longer up for negotiation, lead to uncertainty about what the earth’s second largest greenhouse gas emitter will ultimately do about climate change and the agreement itself. Regardless of the outcome, it is clear that President Trump’s position has opened a wellspring of support in the U.S. for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and taking active steps to address the effects of climate change.