Congress Environment Legality of President Trump's Actions

Trump’s Withdrawal from the Paris Agreement Might Not Mean Much

What is the Paris Agreement?

   The Paris Agreement is the first international deal on global warming. It has three main goals:

  1. Holding the global average temperature below 2 °C
  2. Increasing the ability to adapt to the potential negative impacts of climate change without threatening food production;
  3. Ensuring enough financing or funding to lower greenhouse gas emissions. Developed countries committed to contribute, collectively, $100 billion a year until 2025.

   The Paris Agreement does not really force countries to do anything. It just requests that parties to the agreement put forward their best efforts to abide by the agreement. Countries are also required to constantly monitor and report on their greenhouse gas emissions, which are a type of gas that traps heat in the atmosphere, keeping the Earth’s surface at a warmer temperature than it should be. Human activity, like the use of fossil fuel or deforestation, can cause greenhouse gases to get into the atmosphere and heat up the surface of the Earth. That, in turn, produces global warming.


Why does the President want to withdraw from it?

   President Trump called this agreement “draconian” and alleged that it hurt American businesses. Since he was campaigning, Trump claimed that he would withdraw from the Paris Agreement and would “renegotiate” a better deal for the United States (which, as many European leaders have said, won’t be possible).

   President Trump’s remarks seem to suggest that the agreement is an obstacle that interferes with the United States’ autonomy and control of its own environmental policies. Nonetheless, the Paris Agreement does not present a huge impediment on the United States. In fact, it is a voluntary pact. Perhaps there are bigger forces at play driving Trump’s withdrawal (as a favor to powerful friends?) or conceivably this is pure political demagoguery: Trump might just have done this as a symbolic, but powerful, gesture to show workers that voted for him that he cares about their interests.

   Trump claims that this withdrawal will benefit workers in the coal industry. The reality, however, is that the coal industry is dead. Even China, the largest greenhouse gas emitter, has admitted that its coal production already peaked. They, like the rest of the world, are aware of the necessity to move to environmentally sustainable sources of energy.

   The coal industry cannot be saved by Trump’s withdrawal; bigger economic forces are at play. If the United States repudiates its commitment to move to cleaner energy, other countries – like China – will take the lead and reap the economic benefits of it. The United States might not be the leader of the free world for much longer.


Does the President have the authority to do this?

   First, it is important to point out that this is not a treaty. Thus, senatorial approval was not a requirement in order for the United States to become a party to the agreement. In the past years, presidents have preferred to sign agreements like this one – which look and feel like treaties but are called “executive agreements” – in order to circumvent the constitutional requirement of getting approval from the Senate before treaty ratification. Hence, we are not dealing with a treaty here.

   This area of law is controversial and there are conflicting opinions on whether executive agreements are constitutional in the first place. The reality, however, is that many contemporary Presidents have relied heavily on executive agreements instead of treaties. Assuming that executive agreements are constitutional, then the President has the authority to withdraw from this one freely. Since the Paris Agreement is an executive agreement, for which the President did not need senatorial approval before joining, the President can also withdraw from it without the Senate’s consent.

   The good news is that the agreement has a provision, Article 28, which dictates how withdrawal is to take place. Basically, a nation that wants to withdraw needs to send a letter to the United Nations, but it can only do this three years after it joined the agreement. Hence, the United States has to wait until 2019. After this, it takes one year for the withdrawal to become effective. Therefore, the United States will be able to withdraw only after the next elections. If President Trump is no longer our president by then, we may not end up withdrawing from the agreement at all.

   But the Paris Agreement is framed within another United Nations treaty on climate change (UNFCC). If the United States withdraws from that overarching treaty, then a faster and automatic withdrawal from the Paris Agreement would take place. A withdrawal from this would be a radical action for the President to take by himself. He would need approval from the Senate.


Does the United States withdrawal matter?

   Although President Trump’s withdrawal hurts anyone with the slightest environmental and moral conscience, the harm is mostly symbolic – for now. What matters for our planet is that we keep the damaging emissions at low levels. Cities and private actors can, and hopefully will, fill in the terrible gap that our President has created.


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