Turning America into a Global Climate Outcast

Why dumping the Paris Climate Agreement would hurt the US

Like many issues, Donald Trump has given mixed signals regarding his position on the Paris Climate Agreement. He has ranged from a campaign call to “cancel” the agreement to a post-election reevaluation to “keep an open mind” about the historic pact reached in 2015 to curb climate pollution. The new Secretary of State has said that the U.S. should “keep its seat at the table”. President Trump shouldn’t decide to retreat from the Paris Agreement because it would show that America can’t be trusted by our partners to fulfill our promises and we shrink back from global challenges. Worst of all, it would fly in the face of his policy to put “America First” by actually harming our nation and its interests. It would turn the U.S. into a global pariah, which would hurt efforts by the Trump Administration to achieve its objectives with other countries.

The Paris Agreement benefits America, but here are five reasons why withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris Climate Agreement would shoot the Trump Administration and the country in the foot.

#1 – Turns the U.S. into a global pariah—abdicating American leadership

America's strongest and most steadfast partners all support the Paris Agreement. Over 125 countries have formally joined the agreement, from Australia to Zambia. Withdrawing would put the U.S. at odd with our partners, and ally ourselves with outsider countries that have not joined onto the agreement, including Russia, Iran, and Turkey. That’s not exactly a club the United States should want to be part of (see figure).

The Paris Agreement was a high water mark for international cooperation. No country can tackle the climate change challenge alone, which is why it was so vital that nearly every country in the world put their weight behind the agreement. Retreating from this cooperative spirit carries risks. If America cedes its leadership role, there are plenty of other countries eager to step into the vacuum—notably China which already employs more than four times as many people as the United States in the clean energy industry.

#2 – Makes other countries uncooperative on other important objectives

The Paris Agreement is deeply supported by world leaders, most of whom personally attended the historic 2015 conference where it was sealed. These leaders invested a lot of their own political capital in helping the agreement come into force. If the U.S. pulls out of the Paris Agreement, the international backlash would be severe. When the U.S. refused to join the Kyoto Protocol on climate change under George W. Bush, his Secretary of State Colin Powell described the swift condemnation by the global community as a “sobering experience.” Given that the support for the Paris Agreement is much deeper than the Kyoto Protocol was in 2001, one can only imagine the international blowback would be deafening.

But if you are President Trump, why care if leaders are upset at you over the Paris Agreement? You care because eventually you realize that you need the help of other countries to tackle challenges that you want addressed. Trump campaigned on a promise to make better deals with other countries, from trade agreements to alliances to fight terrorism. Withdrawing from the Paris Agreement would send a clear message that America is an unreliable partner that fails to live up to its commitments, which would handicap Trump’s ability to negotiate any future deals.

If you have just “stuck a finger in their eye” of countries on their top priority they are unlikely to want to cooperate with you on your priorities. And given the strong political support for the Paris Agreement in key capitals around the world, there will be a major blowback for any President or Prime Minister that aligns with President Trump if he withdraws from the Paris Agreement. Over 785,000 people around the world took to the streets before the Paris Agreement to urge their leaders to finalize the historic agreement. So you could imagine the citizen outrage that politicians would face if they aligned with President Trump if he withdrew. You can already see elements of this dynamic in the response in capitals around the world to Trump’s recent moves.

#3 – Handicaps American competitiveness in the global clean energy race

Withdrawing from our commitment to the Paris Agreement would hurt American competitiveness in the global clean energy race. Clean energy is a $1.3 trillion market per year—nearly the same size as the global media industry including everything from video games to movies and TV shows. Over 3 million American workers earn their paycheck in the clean energy industry. Withdrawing from the Paris Agreement would hurt these workers and their businesses. It would reduce our competitiveness to capitalize on one of the biggest economic opportunities the world has ever seen.

Places like China and Europe are aggressively investing in clean energy research and technologies, and are poised to leap ahead in the clean energy race if America stumbles. China has announced plans to invest $360 billion in clean energy in the next three years, and India has a goal to deploy 175 gigawatts of clean energy in five years. These represent massive markets for American businesses, but without leadership and engagement from the federal government their potential will never be realized. Backing away from the Paris Agreement would ensure that American companies have a harder time exporting their products and technologies around the world.

And if the U.S. is out of the global agreement on climate change, why would leaders around the world be responsive to American clean energy companies? These companies would likely face resistance to efforts to tap into a market that the U.S. President is trying to undercut. The welcome mat won’t be rolled out for those companies.

#4 – Weakens accountability of other major countries

Pulling out of the Paris Agreement would limit our ability to hold other nations accountable for their climate commitments. The agreement set up a system of reporting so that countries including China, India, Mexico, and Japan must regularly report on the progress made toward their targets. The United States has long championed a strong transparency system to ensure that everyone is doing their fair share and no country is free riding.

Leaving the agreement would mean the U.S. gives up our tools to hold other countries to their promises. By not having a seat at the table, other countries could water down the rules for accountability and transparency meaning that we don’t fully know what kind of progress they are making toward fulfilling their pledges under the agreement.

#5 – Hurts the American people and economy

In 2016, there were 15 extreme weather and climate disasters that cost the United States $46 billion dollars in losses. There were only four such events a decade ago, costing $17 billion (adjusted for inflation). Pulling out of the Paris Agreement would ignore these clear and growing dangers to our people and the economy.

In 2016 alone, some of the extreme weather and climate disaster events we witnessed included:

  • Historic flooding in Louisiana, where more than 30,000 people had to be rescued from the floodwaters, and where there was damage or destruction that resulted in $10 billion in losses.
  • A firestorm around Gatlinburg, Tennessee and wildfires across Western and Southern states that destroyed nearly 2,500 structures and caused 14 fatalities.
  • Hurricane Matthew, which caused historic levels of river flooding in eastern North Carolina where 100,000 homes, businesses and other structures were damaged, inflicting $10 billion in losses.
  • Flooding in Houston that damaged thousands of homes and businesses and required 1,800 high water rescues.

Abandoning international climate action will leave our communities at risk for even worse impacts in the years to come.


The costs of leaving the Paris Agreement could not be clearer. Retreating from the Paris Agreement would render America an outcast in the global community. Such a move would come back to haunt the Trump Administration as being a global pariah won’t bode well for his effort to achieve his priorities with other countries. Abandoning the Paris Agreement does not put America first, it puts polluters first. 

About the Authors

Jake Schmidt

Director, International program

Brendan Guy

Manager, International Policy, International program

Han Chen

International Climate Advocate, International and Climate & Clean Air programs

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