In the five decades since the first Earth Day was celebrated in 1970, remarkable economic growth around the world has been accompanied by significant environmental challenges. Great progress has been made to address many of these challenges, but leaders around the world continue to struggle to address global climate change due to the accumulation of greenhouse gases.
There is broad scientific consensus that human-based emissions of greenhouse gases — including carbon dioxide from fossil-fuel combustion — will change the earth’s climate in ways that will have serious environmental, economic, and social consequences. Reducing emissions will not be cheap, but the greatest obstacles are political. This is because greenhouse gases mix in the atmosphere, and so any country that takes action incurs the direct costs of that action, but the climate benefits are spread globally. Therefore, for any country, the direct climate benefits of taking action will likely be much less than the costs. Hence, meaningful international cooperation is necessary.
After 20 years of negotiations, a breakthrough came with the Paris climate agreement of 2015, increasing participation from countries accounting for just 14 percent of global emissions under the Kyoto Protocol to countries accounting for 97 percent under the Paris Agreement. Contrary to some claims, China, India, Brazil, Korea, South Africa, Mexico, and other large emerging economies do have obligations under this new approach. Far from being a “bad deal” for the United States, the Paris Agreement is the answer to US prayers going back to the Senate’s bipartisan (95-0) 1997 resolution, rejecting the Kyoto approach and calling for an agreement that includes not only industrialized countries but the large emerging economies as well. That is precisely what the Paris Agreement has delivered.
This is a pivotal moment. President Trump’s executive order, specifying plans to roll back the Obama administration’s climate policies, was silent on the Paris Agreement, reportedly reflecting disagreements among the president’s closest advisers. During the presidential campaign last year, Trump said he would “cancel” the accord. But because it has already come into force, parties must wait three years to request withdrawal, followed by a one-year notice period. The United States is part of the agreement for the next four years. Any White House announcement to pull out of the pact will have no direct effects for this presidential term.
In theory, the president could try to bypass that four-year delay by taking the one-year route of dropping out of the overall United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change — signed by President George H.W. Bush and ratified by the Senate in 1992. But that would be unwise in the extreme, as the United States would then be the only country among 197 countries in the world not to be part of the Climate Convention.
Fortunately, key voices in the administration have argued for remaining in the Paris Agreement. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has stated that it is better for the United States to be at this table of ongoing negotiations, and, more broadly, Secretary of Defense James Mattis said in congressional testimony that he views climate change as a national security threat.
Support for the accord is broad-based within private industry — from electricity generators such as PG&E and National Grid, to oil companies such as Exxon-Mobil and Shell, mining companies such as Rio Tinto, and manufacturers such as General Motors. Even some of the largest coal producers, such as Cloud Peak Energy and Peabody Energy, have told the president about their support for remaining in the agreement. This broad support is due to a simple reality — leaders of successful businesses make decisions based not on ideology but on available evidence.
There is, however, also opposition from some especially vocal coal industry executives, and the president seems to have shaped his domestic climate policies around their interests, with his repeated pledge to “bring back coal.” But the job losses in coal mining over the past decades have been due to technological change, and, more recently, low natural gas prices, not environmental regulations.
Staying in the Paris Agreement would not prevent the administration from seeking to revise the Obama target of a 26 percent reduction in emissions below 2005 levels by 2025, an approach recommended by Republican Representative Kevin Cramer of North Dakota. However, energy-related emissions are already down 14 percent below 2005, so the existing pledge may not need to be reassessed. Also, state climate policies in California, Oregon, Washington, and the Northeast will remain and likely be strengthened. And just since Election Day, Republican governors in Illinois and Michigan have signed legislation to increase solar and wind generation. At the federal level, wind and solar tax credits continue to receive bipartisan support in Congress.
Considering the diverse set of considerations that should bear upon this US decision, we find the arguments for the country remaining in the Paris climate agreement to be both multifaceted and compelling.
Ban Ki-moon was secretary general of the United Nations from 2007 to 2016 and is the Angelopoulos Global Public Leaders Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School. Robert Stavins is professor of business and government at the Kennedy School and was coordinating lead author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.