Today on Take Care, Professor Ann Carlson offers a provocative idea. She suggests that we should be rooting—alongside EPA administrator Scott Pruitt—for the Trump Administration to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accords.
Here’s a less provocative take: No, we shouldn’t.
I don’t dispute many of Professor Carlson’s points. As she correctly notes, the Trump Administration is likely to prove environmentally catastrophic—whether or not America remains a party to the Paris Agreement. Donald Trump has proved committed to rolling back climate regulations. He wants to decimate EPA’s budget, and obscure decades of its climate-change research. Staying in the Paris Agreement is unlikely to change any of that. Indeed, even if the United States remains a party to the Paris Agreement, we will almost certainly renege on emissions commitments it previously made under that pact.
So, as Professor Carlson says, remaining a party to the Paris Agreement may largely be a “symbolic gesture.” But sometimes gestures matter. And this one is critical. The Paris Agreement was the result of a Herculean effort to get nearly every country on the planet to address the looming catastrophe of climate change. When cobbling together that international coalition, the United States took the laboring oar. Withdrawing from the Paris Agreement now—just months after it was finalized—sends a message that America’s long-term commitment to fighting climate change is entirely dependent on our quadrennial elections.
If sent, that message could prove disastrous. The Paris Agreement was just the start of a decades-long cooperative effort to combat climate change. To have any chance of success, that effort will require the continued buy-in of countries across the world. And if the Trump Administration sends a message that participation in the Paris Agreement is a revolving door—amenable to entry and exit every time each of its 195 signatories has a change in leadership—its cooperative framework could quickly become unworkable.
By contrast, remaining a party to the Paris Agreement will send a reassuring message to our partners around the globe. Our partners will know that the strength of America’s commitment to combatting climate change might ebb and flow—but that it will never disappear entirely. They’ll have assurance that we’ll always be at the table, even if our specific emissions commitments are less than ironclad. And they’ll have the hope that normalcy will be restored in four years, and that America will soon reclaim its role as a global leader on climate change. That, alone, could hold together the international climate-change coalition.
There is thus much to be gained from remaining a party to the Paris Agreement. And unlike Professor Carlson, I’m skeptical that withdrawal from the pact will spark a successful movement to “actually do something about climate change.” Anyone who cares one iota about climate change is already deeply disturbed by the Trump Administration’s policies. There have been multiple marches. State attorneys general—the front line of defense against federal attacks on the environment—have pledged to fight Trump’s climate-regulation rollbacks. The climate-change forces, in short, have already galvanized.
And for those who aren’t yet up in arms about climate change, it’s not clear to me that withdrawal from the Paris Agreement will push them over the edge. Yes, Trump is very bad on climate change. But he is also very bad on a host of other critical issues: children’s healthcare; wage and labor protections; criminal justice reform; voting rights; and keeping state secrets. With so much else going on, I just can’t see Paris withdrawal being an issue that dominates headlines, sparks a furious response, and ultimately moves us forward on climate change.
At bottom, Professor Carlson is correct that we’re stuck with several less-than-ideal options. But from my perspective, the best path forward is clear. We should be rooting for the United States to remain a party to the Paris Agreement—even if our participation over the next four years is going to be less than robust.