The world would be better off if Trump withdraws from the Paris climate deal

File 20170523 7361 3pp7kn
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has argued the US should stay in the Paris climate agreement. But for the rest of the world, a US exit is better than staying reluctantly.
Carlos Barria/Reuters

Luke Kemp, Australian National University

The conventional wisdom that the United States should remain under the Paris Agreement is wrong. A US withdrawal would be the best outcome for international climate action. The Conversation

With Trump set to decide on the matter after this week’s G7 meeting, his aides are split on the issue. Chief strategist Steve Bannon heads the faction pushing for an exit. Secretary of State and former ExxonMobil chief executive Rex Tillerson has argued for the US to retain a “seat at the table”.

It is within the president’s power to withdraw from the Paris Agreement and perhaps even the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which has overseen global climate diplomacy for some 25 years.

In a commentary published in Nature Climate Change today, I argue that a US withdrawal would minimise risks and maximise opportunities for the climate community. Simply put: the US and the Trump administration can do more damage inside the agreement than outside it.

There are four key, interconnected risks related to US participation in the Paris Agreement: that the US will miss its emissions target; that it will cut climate finance; that it will cause a “domino” effect among other nations; and that it will impede the UN negotiations.

Money and emissions are all that matter

The first two risks are unaffected by withdrawal. The Paris Agreement doesn’t require the US to meet its current emissions reduction pledge, or to provide further climate finance to developing countries. The agreement is procedural, rather than binding; it requires a new, tougher climate pledge every five years, but actually hitting these targets isn’t mandatory.

The US will probably miss its climate target regardless. It would need more than just Obama’s Clean Power Plan to hit its goal of reducing emissions by 26-28% on 2005 levels by 2025. And now that Trump has decided to roll back those policies too, US emissions are set to increase through to 2025, rather than decrease.

The same goes for international climate funding, which will be cut under the “America First” budget plan. That includes funds previously earmarked for the Green Climate Fund, which has so far raised US$10 billion in climate aid. The US was to provide US$3 billion but has donated just US$1 billion so far. The remaining money is almost certainly not coming.

Domino effect?

The third risk is the domino effect: that US actions could inspire others to delay climate action, renege on their targets, or withdraw. But there is little evidence to suggest that the US dropping out will trigger other nations to follow suit.

The closest historical parallel is the Kyoto Protocol, which the US signed but never ratified. When President George W. Bush announced that the US would not ratify the treaty, others rallied to the protocol’s aid and pushed through the Marrakech Accords in 2001, to strengthen Kyoto’s rules.

What’s more likely to cause a domino effect is US domestic behaviour, rather than any potential withdrawal from the Paris deal. Other countries are more likely to delay or free-ride on their pledges if they see the US miss its target, revealing how weak the Paris Agreement really is.

Paris has little aside from inspiring public pressure and long-term low-carbon investment patterns. Neither pressure nor the “investment signal” is likely to work if a renegade US shows that Paris is an empty global show-and-tell regime. Investors and the public are likely to lose faith in an agreement that can visibly do nothing to constrain a climate laggard.

The fourth risk is that the US will act as a spoiler in international climate talks. This requires membership. If the US remains in the agreement it will retain a veto in the negotiations.

The negotiations are at a crucial juncture. The so-called “Paris Rulebook”, which details how exactly the agreement will be fulfilled, is being negotiated, with plans for it to be adopted in 2018.

The US could use its voice and veto to water down the rules. It might even stall and overload negotiations by demanding amendments to the Paris Agreement, as Energy Secretary Rick Perry has suggested. A US that has credibly threatened to withdraw may have even more diplomatic clout going forward.

Considered in this light, giving the former head of ExxonMobil a “seat at the table” is a terrible idea.

New opportunities

A US withdrawal, on the other hand, could create new opportunities, such as renewed European and Chinese leadership. In the wake of the 2016 US election, former French presidential nominee Nicholas Sarkozy raised the idea of applying a carbon tax of 1-3% on US imports. In a time of rising protectionist policies, particularly in the US, carbon border tariffs may become more politically palatable.

A US dropout would also be an ideal opportunity for a rising China to stamp its mark on an international issue. It would give both China and the European Union a chance to jump even further ahead of the US in the renewable energy markets of the future.

The EU previously showed leadership in the absence of the US to revive the Kyoto Protocol and forge ahead with renewable energy. This time Europe could do so with the support of another great power.

Such cooperation could take numerous forms. One simple way would be for the two to put forward a stronger joint climate pledge. This could be strengthened by uniting their respective carbon trading schemes and applying a common border carbon tariff.

Trade measures and an EU-China climate bloc will be far more effective than Paris ever could have been. Yet none of these possibilities is likely to become reality without the diplomatically drastic move of US withdrawal. On balance, it is clear that a US climate exit is preferable to remaining.

It is worth stressing here the difference between pulling out of the Paris Agreement and withdrawing from the UNFCCC. The latter is far more dramatic, and more likely to trigger a domino effect. It would also mean the US would no longer be legally bound to report on its emissions and actions to the international community. It would become a complete climate pariah.

A future president could easily rejoin Paris through an executive agreement. In contrast, re-ratifying the UNFCCC might require a vote in the US Senate, which has become more partisan and divided since the convention was first ratified in 1992. However, withdrawal from the UNFCCC would lessen the threat of US obstruction, as it would lose its veto in the wider negotiations and be even more politically ostracised.

Despite this, the same basic risk-opportunity calculus applies. The domino effect may be more likely, but overall a withdrawal is still preferable.

Participation is a red herring

Wanting the US to remain is a short-sighted, knee-jerk reaction. The international community should be much more worried about the real domestic actions of the US, rather than whether it is symbolically cooperating internationally.

The international community appears to be mortally afraid that the US will make the largely symbolic gesture of quitting Paris. Yet there was less concern when Trump rolled back domestic climate measures.

EU Climate Commissioner Miguel Arias Cañete recently stated that Paris allows for the continued use of fossil fuels and provides the flexibility for a “new US administration to chart its own path”.

Is this really a worthwhile message to send to the White House: that blatantly violating the purpose and spirit of the Paris Agreement is fine, as long as you are still cooperating on paper? It is disturbing that symbolism has apparently become more important than action.

Policy, not participation, needs to be the focus of criticism. Otherwise Paris will prove itself to be nothing more than a diplomatic fig leaf.

While Paris may be weak, international climate action can still be strong. The shock of Trump’s withdrawal could make international action stronger by allowing emboldened leadership to blossom elsewhere.

Luke Kemp, Lecturer in International Relations and Environmental Policy, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Democracy needs more trees and less Trump

Image 20170306 933 18sfty
Could a randomly selected tree make a better president than Donald Trump?
Bruce Irschick/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

John Dryzek, University of Canberra

This article is part of the Democracy Futures series, a joint global initiative with the Sydney Democracy Network. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century. The Conversation

For almost all of its more than 2,500-year history, democracy has been thought of as an attribute of purely human societies. For most of that history democracy was generally reviled and excoriated; only in the late 20th century did it come to be widely celebrated, and indeed widely practised.

But now democracy seems to be on the skids. No countries are transitioning from authoritarianism to democracy anymore. Quite the reverse seems to be taking place, in countries as diverse as Russia, Turkey, the US, Poland, the Philippines and Hungary. The people once thought to be committed to democratic citizenship now all too often reveal themselves in a far less flattering light.

Today many people will happily vote for demagogues. They do not seem to care that these demagogues have no interest in the truth. Voters vent their prejudices, even if it will make them worse off – poor white Trump voters will be the first to suffer and perhaps die if Obamacare is abolished, while Brexit voters will be hurt by decline in the UK economy.

The quality of political communication is on a downward spiral as people retreat into their social media echo chambers. Truth gives way to truthiness, to use the word coined by American comedian Stephen Colbert. And, as Colbert pointed out last year, truthiness then gave way to Trumpiness, when even feeling something is true no longer matters – all that matters is the feeling.

“Remember, elections aren’t about what voters think – it’s about what voters feel.”

Political identity determines what people believe: so a large proportion of Republicans in the US still believes Barack Obama is a Muslim who was born outside the country, even though they know it to be untrue.

The democratic virtues of trees

If people are starting to look much worse in democratic terms, trees are starting to look much better.

In The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohleben explores the subtle ways in which trees communicate with each other to their mutual advantage. Acacia trees, for example, give off ethylene if giraffes start eating them, as a warning to other trees to start pumping toxins into their leaves to deter the giraffes.

Both plant and animal societies feature meaningful communication, as do ecosystems of multiple species. Underground fungal networks transmit chemical signals even between trees of different species.

Trees do not lie. They do not disseminate or believe fake news. Neither do they believe things that are manifestly false, or try to undermine and destabilise science with well-funded misinformation campaigns.


We can further explore the relative democratic virtues of trees and Trump by examining recent interest in sortition, or random selection of panels of citizens as an alternative to voting for political representatives. This is the way juries in criminal cases have long been selected, and we entrust them with some very important decisions.

We do this because we know that juries are good at listening, reflecting and weighing evidence. Which is precisely what elected politicians are bad at – even when they are good at making arguments. The solution is surely that we need more and better listening and reflection in government, perhaps through a randomly selected upper house to replace the Senate.

I used to think that sortition would be a bad way to select prime ministers or presidents. Now I am not so sure. There is probably about a 90% chance that a randomly selected US citizen would make a better president than Donald Trump. There is about a 40-50% chance that person would actually make a good president.

I would argue further that there is a 100% chance a randomly selected tree would make a better president than Trump.

Now, one might think that there is zero chance this tree would actually make a good president. But that is to take a human-centred, anthropocentric view of the matter. Things might look different from the point of view of trees, which work on a much longer time scale.

Pay heed to nature’s screams of pain

A post-truth political world yields the unexpected benefit of enabling re-assessment of the relative merits of human and non-human communication. And if we attend to the latter, we might find that nature is screaming in pain at what we humans are doing to it – and ultimately to ourselves, for we are ecologically embedded creatures.

The screams might be from local extinctions, crashes in species diversity, drastic changes in the nitrogen cycle, climbing concentrations of greenhouse gases, acidic oceans, or the death of once-healthy waters. We do not hear because (with the exception of some indigenous societies) we are such bad listeners.

We’d better start listening to the Earth, and responding to its screams.
Duncan Hull/flickr

Earth scientists now think we are entering a new epoch of the Anthropocene – an epoch of human-induced instability in the Earth system – which replaces the past 11,000 years or so of the unusually stable Holocene. As my colleague Will Steffen puts it, the Holocene is the only state of the Earth system we know for sure can support human civilisation.

We can no longer assume that the Earth system is fixed and forgiving. Climate change is just a foretaste of the catastrophes in store if we do not find a way to better listen to its screams, and act in response.

If we can listen better and reflect upon non-human communication, we might also do better in listening and reflecting upon communication with other humans.

In 1927, American philosopher John Dewey famously wrote that “the cure for the ailments of democracy is more democracy”. Today, we can see that one cure for the ailments of democracy is a more ecological democracy. Democracy now needs more trees and less Trump.

This article comes from a talk given at the Sydney Environment Institute’s Ecological Democracy: Looking Back, Looking Forward event on February 20. The event was co-sponsored by the University of Canberra and Stockholm University.

John Dryzek, Centenary Professor, ARC Laureate Fellow, Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

President Trump threatens to undermine key measure of climate policy success

David Hodgkinson, University of Western Australia

One of the key measures President Barack Obama used to develop climate policy could be under threat under President Donald Trump. The “social cost of carbon”, a dollar measure of how much damage is inflicted by a tonne of carbon dioxide, underpins many US and other energy-related regulations (and in the UK too, for example).

The latest estimates from William Nordhaus, one of the best-known economists dealing with climate change issues (together with Nicholas Stern), put the social cost of carbon in 2015 at a baseline of US$31.20. This rises over time as the impacts of climate change worsen.

Conversely, the social cost of carbon is also the “government’s best estimate of how much society gains over the long haul” by reducing CO₂ emissions.

Nordhaus uses an economic model known as the Dynamic Integrated Climate-Economy (or DICE) model, which he developed in the 1990s. I understand it’s one of the leading models for examining the effects of climate change on the economy. Other researchers have adapted and modified DICE to examine issues associated with the economics of climate change.

Social costs of carbon estimates have been – and remain – helpful for assessing the climate impacts of carbon dioxide emission changes, but perhaps not for the incoming Trump administration in the US.

‘More bad news than good news’

First, though, let’s consider the update to Nordhaus’ DICE model. He finds that the results strengthen earlier ones, which indicate “the high likelihood of rapid warming and major damages if policies continue along the unrestrained path” – his view of current policy settings. He revises upwards his estimate of the social cost of carbon by about 50% on the last modelling.

Further, Nordhaus argues that the 2°C “safe” limit set under the Paris Agreement seems to be “infeasible” even with reasonably accessible technologies. This is because of the inertia of the climate system, rapid projected economic growth in the near term, and revisions to the model.

His view is that a 2.5°C limit is “technically feasible” but that “extreme virtually universal global policy measures” would be required. By implication, such measures could refer to geo-engineering and, in particular, removing CO₂ from the atmosphere.

Nordhaus also notes:

Of the six largest countries or regions, only the EU has implemented national climate policies, and the policies of the EU today are very modest. Moreover, from the perspective of political economy in different countries as of December 2016, the prospects of strong policy measures appear to be dimming rather than brightening.

As a result of the DICE modelling, Nordhaus states that there is more bad news than good news and that the need for effective climate change policies is “more and not less pressing”.

His results relate to a world without climate policies, which, as he says, “is reasonably accurate for virtually the entire globe today. The results show rapidly rising accumulation of CO₂, temperatures changes, and damages.”

An end to the use of the social cost of carbon?

As well as the definition earlier of that cost, it could also be described as a government’s best estimate “of how much society gains over the long haul by cutting each tonne” of CO₂ emissions.

While the Obama administration relied on the DICE model (and others) in arriving at a social cost of carbon – such cost is already important in the formation of 79 federal regulations – it appears that the incoming Trump administration might modify or end this use.

It has been argued – by Harvard’s Cass Sunstein and the University of Chicago’s Michael Greenstone – that such action would defy law, science and economics. It is probably unlikely that use of the social cost of carbon would be done away with completely (lowering the operative number might be more likely), although Greenstone and Sunstein do contemplate it.

Sunstein and Greenstone conclude that, without it, federal regulations would have no quantifiable benefits. And that would have implications for emission reductions and assessing progress on dealing with climate change.

And Nordhaus concludes:

The future is highly uncertain for virtually all variables, particularly economic variables such as future emissions, damages, and the social cost of carbon.

That’s definitely the case for climate change policy and action in the US following the election of Donald Trump. For President Trump’s supporters, it appears that “turning back the clock is the most important thing the president-elect can do to help businesses succeed”.

And the president may well do that. He has argued for an increase in coal use and suggested that, under his administration, the US would withdraw from the Paris climate change agreement.

The Conversation

David Hodgkinson, Associate Professor, University of Western Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The view from Marrakech: climate talks are battling through a Trump tsunami

Robyn Eckersley, University of Melbourne

Stunned. Shocked. Speechless. Devastated. Political tsunami. These were the key words rising to the surface of the babble of conversations that took place in the corridors of the climate negotiations in Marrakech on Wednesday 9 November – the day Donald Trump won the US presidency.

A climate denier, Trump has vowed to tear up the historic Paris Agreement along with the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which seeks to slash greenhouse emissions from power plants. He has also given the green light to renewed fossil fuel exploitation in the United States.

Oil and gas stocks unsurprisingly rose, and coal stocks soared, on his victory day. If implemented, Trump’s promises would make it impossible for the United States to reach its national pledge under the Paris Agreement to reduce emissions by 26-28% relative to 2005 by 2025.

At the moment, Trump’s previous declaration of climate change as a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese to undermine US industry looks particularly poignant.


His election is a dramatic turnaround from the years of constructive bilateral climate diplomacy by the Obama administration with China, which culminated in the joint US-China statement on climate change in November 2014. This joint announcement of the headline national action plans by the world’s two biggest emitters (together covering 40% of global emissions) injected significant momentum into the negotiations leading to the Paris Agreement in 2015.

But now the US elections have delivered not just a presidential victory against action on climate change, but made it much easier for Trump to deliver on his plans than it was for Obama. The Republican Party is now set to control all four branches of government: the House of Representatives, the Senate, the Presidency and soon the Supreme Court (once Trump nominates a new judge following the death of Justice Scalia, bringing the number of judges back to nine, with a conservative majority). This leaves only the media and civil society to speak up for a safe climate in the face of the national government’s agenda.

Turning back time

Seasoned negotiators and observers at Marrakech with long memories recalled the moment in 2001 when former president George W. Bush declared that the United States would withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol, the predecessor to the Paris Agreement. This withdrawal cast a long shadow over the negotiations, which was finally lifted with the Obama administration’s re-engagement with climate change that made the Paris breakthrough possible.

Yet the world today is very different to what it was in 2001. The Paris Agreement is now in force after a speedy ratification, the US share of global emissions has declined, and renewable energy is now much cheaper. Many US states, cities and businesses will continue to work towards reducing emissions, and many Republican politicians have let go of their aversion to renewable energy in response to public and business pressure.

In short, much of America and the rest of the world will continue to build momentum under the Paris Agreement, despite the changing of the guard in Washington DC.

Given Trump’s record of policy flip-flopping, it also remains an open question as to how far he will actually go to undo the diplomatic climate legacy of the Obama administration. Much will depend on who takes over as Secretary of State, and how the State Department assesses the broader diplomatic consequences of withdrawing from the Paris treaty, particularly in terms of transatlantic relationships. European Council president Donald Tusk has already invited Trump to attend a US-EU summit. We might therefore see some easing of Trump’s hard anti-climate talk, much as his social rhetoric softened on election night. Trump the President may not be quite the same as Trump the candidate.

Moreover, under Article 28 of the Paris Agreement it will take a total of four years for any formal withdrawal by the United States to take effect. If the US were to turn its back on these legal niceties and abandon its obligations during this period, it would be widely regarded as a climate pariah state. In contrast, China will enjoy its rising status as a climate leader.

Meanwhile, after the initial pause to digest the shock of Trump’s victory, the negotiators at Marrakech have got back down to their business, which is to fill in the implementation details of the Paris Agreement.

The Conversation

Robyn Eckersley, Professor of Political Science, School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

President Trump could kill the Paris Agreement – but climate action will survive

Luke Kemp, Australian National University

November 9 will likely become the day that the Paris Agreement died, but not when the goal of limiting warming to 2℃ slipped out of reach.

President Donald Trump can, and likely will, drop out of the Paris climate agreement. Direct withdrawal will take four years.

But Trump could instead drop out from the overall climate convention under which the agreement operates. That would only take one year and would result in automatic withdrawal from the Paris Agreement.

It would shortcut any hopes that Paris would bind Trump’s hands for some time.

As I’ve argued in my research, a US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement would be its death knell.

A predictable loose cannon

Trump has also promised a range of further destructive international and domestic actions on climate and energy. These include cutting all international climate financing, rescinding energy regulations, reopening federal and offshore areas for coal and oil development and abolishing the clean power plan.

There is some hope that Trump is a loose cannon who may renege on his previous promises. Such hope is ultimately false. Trump has already appointed noted climate denier Myron Ebell as the head of his Environmental Protection Agency transition team.

More importantly, the Republican establishment supports this approach to climate policy. The agreed Republican platform of July rejects the Paris Agreement and calls for it to be submitted to the Senate (where it would be defeated) as well as an end of all funding to the UN climate convention. Their domestic policies are best summarised as “drill, baby, drill!”

It is foolish to believe that Trump would oppose his own party, and many of the voters of the US “rust belt” whose support he relied on, in an attempt to save the Paris Agreement.

Trump may be unpredictable in some regards, but his approach to climate change is not.

Counting the losses

Trump’s climate policy would lead to the US overshooting its already inadequate 2030 climate targets. The US needs additional measures on top of the Clean Power Plan to meet the targets established by Obama.

The US withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, or blatantly missing its climate targets, could be near fatal for a deal which relies on global ambition. The Paris Agreement relies on two things: increasing ambition through peer pressure, and a signal to markets and the public.

Both peer pressure and the signal will be shredded by a rogue, Trump-led United States.

States will be unlikely to feel pressured if the world’s second largest greenhouse emitter is polluting unabated. The effects of US recalcitrance were all too clear in the case of the Kyoto Protocol, which the United States simply refused to ratify. Trust would be undermined and excuses for inaction amplified if the US abandons international efforts again.

Any signal that existed from the framework of Paris would be largely extinguished. Already fossil fuels stocks have surged post-election despite a downturn in the rest of the market. Renewable energy share prices have plummeted. The idea of the signal hinged on broad participation creating investor confidence in international law. US withdrawal and the breaking of commitments will shatter any belief that investors may have had in Paris.

The Paris Agreement sacrificed binding emissions cuts and finance in order to ensure US participation. The few benefits it had were derived from broad participation, including from the United States. Such benefits will be lost by a US dropout.

Paris will likely survive as a structure. Countries will continue with the global show-and-tell, trading unbinding pledges every five years for some time to come. It will go on, but it will cease to be a large source of hope or change.

Opportunities for the future

A Trump presidency will also create opportunities for renewed action internationally.

Trump promises to usher in an age of protectionism, scrapping free trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). He has vowed to brand major trading partners such as China as “currency manipulators”.

At the same time nationalism and discontent with free trade have surged in Europe. China has scaled up its domestic renewable energy and climate policies and is looking to formally establish a national emissions trading scheme next year.

Both a protectionist Trump administration that has dropped out of Paris and trends in the European Union and China could bring the idea of climate trade measures back to the table.

The Paris Agreement could be amended to use trade measures against countries who are not part of the deal. Such a move could not be adopted until the next conference in November 2017. Amending the agreement would only require a three-quarters majority vote, but is still unlikely to garner the support to be adopted under the painfully slow and convoluted UN process.

Climate trade measures from the EU and or China are much more likely. The EU may be pushed by Trump’s trade policies towards imposing a carbon price on imports (carbon border tax adjustments) from the US and others. China may consider a similar move. The two could even act in tandem, creating their own bilateral climate club outside of the Paris Agreement. Such material penalties would likely force the US to eventually shift and reengage with international efforts.

Such an outcome seems unlikely for now, particularly in the politically paralysed Europe. But Trump at least opens the opportunity for such change.

The much maligned Trump will supercharge climate civil disobedience in both the US and around the globe.

The world’s best chance of avoiding dangerous global warming are a climate trade war and rampant climate disobedience.

Such actions will be more beneficial for the climate than the current Paris Agreement ever could have been. The incremental and baseless pledge and review of Paris Agreement would have never been enough to trigger the herculean transition needed.

The 2016 US election will almost certainly become the epitaph for the success of the Paris climate agreement. But it does not mean that 2℃ is necessarily out of reach; the future may not depend on the actions of an ageing superpower.

The Conversation

Luke Kemp, Lecturer in International Relations and Environmental Policy, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.