“We’re getting out.”
Donald Trump’s June 1 announcement in the White House Rose Garden seemed unambiguous and utterly final. The president decreed that the Paris climate accord “demeaned” American sovereignty and unfairly burdened the U.S. economy. The United States was saying goodbye.
So said the president. Yet it takes more than a few complaints to withdraw a country from an international agreement. When the sun rose on June 2, the United States remained a party to the Paris climate accord.
Then, on August 4, the Trump administration delivered written notice to the United Nations that America intended to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. This withdrawal had an official feel—a resignation letter handed directly to the person in charge. Surely the nation was out then?
Nope, we still weren’t. Trump’s letter to the United Nations was duly received, and nothing happened. The United States remained a party to the Paris climate accord on August 5, and in fact it is still a party to the agreement today.
Just as there is a process to accede to the Paris Agreement, there is a process to withdraw. And that process has a timetable. The United States cannot officially announce its plan to withdraw from the agreement until November 4, 2019. At that time, if Donald Trump is still president and hasn’t changed his mind, he can send a letter to the U.N. secretary general notifying the organization of America’s intent to leave. There is a one-year waiting period before that withdrawal takes effect, which means the earliest the United States can officially exit the Paris accord is November 4, 2020.
While few people foresaw a Donald Trump presidency when the agreement was adopted in December 2015, everyone recognized the chance that a candidate hostile to climate action could come to power―in the United States or elsewhere. By setting out a four-year time line for withdrawal, the Paris Agreement ensured that any country that had officially joined would not be officially withdrawing until November 2020. In doing so, the framers of the agreement gave it the best chance for near-term survival against impulsive decisions by government officials.
American participation was considered crucial. The United States is the second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, behind China, and wields outsize diplomatic influence. For that reason, the framers of the Paris Agreement were willing to sculpt the accord around U.S. interests.
In addition to preventing an easy out from the Paris Agreement, the authors also made sure the process for rejoining it would be straightforward. Meaning, if America is out of the agreement on inauguration day 2021, the new president can immediately notify the United Nations of its intention to reenter. And after a 30-day period, we would be back in the fold.
The ongoing U.S. participation in the Paris Agreement is more than a mere technicality. Despite all of his bluster about the pact’s terrible unfairness, President Trump will continue to send U.S. representatives, currently led by Trigg Talley, deputy special envoy for climate change, to all Paris Agreement negotiations. And that’s something he could not do if the country had officially withdrawn. (It’s notable that mere days after Trump gave his Rose Garden speech, Talley attended a meeting in Manila on achieving emissions reductions in Asia.)
“The U.S. delegation is still participating in the negotiations,” notes Han Chen, an international climate advocate at NRDC. “For example, China and the United States are leading the discussion of transparency requirements and how reporting under the Paris Agreement will be done after 2020.”
And the United States will still report its own carbon emissions to the United Nations; those reporting obligations arise from our membership in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change rather than from the stipulations of the Paris Agreement.
None of this signifies that President Trump’s repeated announcements about withdrawal are meaningless. Nor does it counteract the administration’s other domestic policies that have made America increasingly vulnerable to the worst impacts of climate change. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt is attempting to repeal the Clean Power Plan, to undo an agreement to improve automotive fuel efficiency, and to revoke methane emissions limits—among other attacks on our country’s environmental rules. And in one of his latest efforts to undo President Obama’s climate actions, Trump has decided to revoke a rule that safeguarded public housing, hospitals, fire stations, highways, and other federally funded infrastructure from flooding. Moreover, the Trump administration is hostile to virtually any effort to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. It appears intent on making sure the country does not meet the emissions reduction targets set by the previous administration.
The commitment of corporations, states, and individuals to uphold their promise to reduce emissions despite Trump’s abdication of responsibility is significant and promising, but there’s only so much those groups can accomplish on their own. “The contributions of these groups are recognized and highly encouraged as part of a country’s effort to meet its emissions reduction target,” says Brendan Guy, NRDC’s international policy manager. However, although dozens of local governments and businesses are stepping up, Guy says, “it’s very unlikely that the United States could meet its 2025 emissions reduction target without leadership from Washington.”
Hopefully that leadership will reemerge by November 4, 2020.