In late 2015, representatives of 195 countries came together in Paris, France, to adopt the most forward-thinking climate accord in world history. The Paris Climate Agreement was historic for bringing the needs of both developed and developing countries to the table while foregrounding the communities at the front lines of environmental destruction, and it set global benchmarks to reduce or mitigate greenhouse gas emissions while incentivizing the expansion of renewable energy alternatives. It was a big deal — as the biggest leap forward the world has taken to curb climate change. Countries that signed and ratified the Paris accord include: Afghanistan and Argentina, Iran and Iceland, Papua New Guinea and Pakistan. Also, the United States.
And yet Donald Trump is reportedly set to withdraw the United States from this historic accord — his latest step to further isolate the United States from the rest of the world. What’s at stake? What exactly is Trump withdrawing from? Here are five things to know about the Paris Climate Agreement and what it does — and DOES NOT — do:
1. It doesn’t change planetary warming targets.
Scientists have shown over and over again that if our planet warmed by 2 degrees Celsius, the effects would be disastrous. In the 2009 Copenhagen accords, the world’s nations concurred with that assessment and set the 2-degrees target. The Paris accords didn’t change that. All the world’s nations did was agree to “pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase” to 1.5 degrees Celsius. But it was an aspirational statement, not a requirement.
2. It doesn’t expand climate rescue financing.
Countries at the front lines of climate-related disasters — like island nations that are disappearing as ocean levels rise — wanted the world’s wealthy nations, which contributed the largest share of the globe’s greenhouse gases, to shoulder a large share of the costs and aid for climate impact. But they couldn’t get agreement on that, so all the Paris deal does is say that $100 billion will eventually be needed and “strongly urges developed countries to scale up their level of financial support" (the U.S. had pledged $3 billion). It’s not a binding commitment. But it does suggest that when octopi start appearing in Miami parking garages, it’s a sign we should start preparing for the worst.
3. It calls for gradually reducing emissions over time.
But here, too, nations couldn’t agree on strong wording so the commitment is vague. The accord calls for nations to “aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible” and eventually, after 2050, reduce such emissions more dramatically as new technology allows. The U.S. had pledged to cut its emission levels by 26-29%, but it's non-binding. This doesn’t exactly force the United States to shut down its oil and gas industry tomorrow, as the Trump Administration has implied.
4. It isn’t the reason America’s coal industry is struggling.
Much of the pressure for Trump to pull out of the Paris agreement has come from coal state politicians like the attorney general of West Virginia and businesses like Murray Energy Co. , who say the agreement hurts their industry. But the real enemy of coal is progress — both the progress of science that has taught us the harm of coal mining and energy to both miners and our planet, the progress of technology that has invented cleaner and cheaper forms of energy, and the progress of time as coal sources have been depleted. In fact, in a September 2015, research note, Goldman Sachs told investors that we may have already reached “peak coal” — which means that we’re now running out of coal in the earth to be mined. Pulling out of the Paris accord is throwing a bone to an industry that is dying not because of anything Barack Obama did, but because of its own obsolescence.
Sadly, though, the dirty-energy lobby is still disproportionately more powerful than the healthy-future-for-our-grandchildren lobby.
5. It DOES represent the future of global cooperation.
In an era where business and information is increasingly globalized, governance hasn’t kept up. Money and goods now flow with ease across national borders, as do gigabytes and molecules of air — but our public policies have remained fixated at the national level, often irrelevant. The Paris Climate Agreement is by no means perfect — as the above examples show — but it represents a major breakthrough in the diverse nations of the world coming together to proactively and peacefully solve a problem that threatens us all. That’s the kind of globalization we should be encouraging and celebrating, not backing away from. And yet Trump’s promise of an “America First” policy increasingly looks like “America Only” — a troubling turn away from constructive global engagement into dangerous, radical isolationism. That’s bad for America and bad for the world.
The climate accord wasn’t as muscular as many island nations and environmental advocates had hoped. Which makes it all the more ridiculous for the Trump Administration to withdraw from it. The accord set out basic agreements and aspirations based on basic science. Then again, when only 13% of “conservative Republicans” believe the scientific consensus on climate change, apparently even the most basic accords are a step too far.