In what could be the Trump administration's final blow to reversing climate change, President Donald Trump today made the unprecedented decision to break from the rest of the world and pull out of the Paris Agreement.
The landmark Paris Agreement sets goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and preventing global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees F). Trump promised during his presidential campaign to "cancel" U.S. participation in the deal despite many world and business leaders urging him to stay, including Tesla founder Elon Musk, who tweeted he was leaving the president's advisory councils because "Climate change is real. Leaving Paris is not good for America or the world."
A total of 196 countries ratified the Paris Agreement in 2015, and it went into effect in November 2016. Only two nations currently are not part of the agreement: Syria and Nicaragua, countries that produce nowhere near the greenhouse gas emissions of the United States. Because President Barack Obama joined the Paris accord without a vote by the Senate, Trump can also remove the U.S. from the agreement without a vote. But it won't be quick. The terms of the agreement say the U.S. can't withdraw until November 2020.
"With limited federal action on climate change, there are huge concerns," says Keya Chatterjee, executive director of US Climate Action Network, via email. "Now only the states with progressive governments will receive the solar and wind jobs that are growing so fast. Trump's actions will leave a lot of America behind."
Chatterjee says the impacts of climate change will continue, and that's the biggest worry. "We do not have a functional federal government capable of preparing for those impacts and protecting lives," she says.
Ben Sanderson, a project scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and co-author of a commentary on the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement published in the journal Nature Climate Change in February 2017, says this move signals that the current administration doesn't consider climate change to be an urgent or pressing issue. "This is at odds with the vast majority of other countries," he says via email, "and also with a number of states and leading businesses within the U.S."
Sanderson and his co-author, Reto Knutti, determined a withdrawal by the United States or a failure to meet its targets would "present severe challenges for the international community to meet its emissions goals."
"The 2 degrees Celsius target is incredibly difficult to achieve, even in ideal conditions where all major emitters are unified in their resolve to rapidly reduce emissions," he says via email. "Most future scenarios that achieve the 2 degrees Celsius target require global emissions to reach zero by mid-century, with net negative emissions after that. This requires two things: rapid decarbonization (beyond the levels in the Paris Agreement) by all countries in the near future, and also the development of technologies to remove carbon from the atmosphere at large scales by mid-century. Without U.S. participation, this would likely be impossible."
That's due in part because the U.S. is the second worst contributor in the world of carbon dioxide — only China emits more. In 2015, the U.S. released nearly 5.2 million kilotons of carbon dioxide, more than all European Union countries combined. That accounts for about 18 percent of the world's global emissions. If other countries follow the U.S., Sanderson and Knutti surmise that as much as 350 million kilotons of additional carbon dioxide would be emitted into the atmosphere.
That could lead to higher temperatures, rising sea levels, changes in weather patterns, heat waves, crop damage and flooding in coastal cities.
Not everyone is disappointed by the news of the U.S. pulling out the Paris Accord. More than 20 U.S. senators sent a letter to Trump urging him to withdraw from the agreement, writing "remaining in it [the Paris Agreement] would subject the United States to significant litigation risk that could upend your Administration's ability to fulfill its goal of rescinding the Clean Power Plan."
The Heritage Foundation also has been vocal in its opposition against the agreement for being nothing more than symbolic.
The biggest question remains whether the remaining countries will stay committed, and so far it appears they will. But Chatterjee thinks now is the time for cities, states and businesses to also step up and take leadership roles.
"It's always wise to act, no matter how late we are. I use the analogy of a sunburn when thinking about transitioning off fossil fuels," she says. "You should get out of the sun when you start to feel the burn, but it is never too late to get out of the sun, and you might just save your life. Similarly, it's always a good idea to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels, and now is the time for every person in this country who cares about the future to take action to do so."