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Exiting Paris Climate Accords Would Exact a Steep Global Cost

The Trump administration may withdraw from the landmark deal, despite dangerous impact on allies, trading partners, and the climate.
President Donald Trump has said the Paris climate deal is unfair to the United States.

The Trump administration is reportedly on the verge of withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement, threatening to undermine a fragile accord and the nation’s status as a world leader even as the dangers of global warming grow.

The long-awaited decision on the landmark 2015 agreement, ratified by 144 parties around the world, could come as early as Tuesday.

Factions within the White House are warring over how to wriggle out of commitments to cut greenhouse-gas emissions as much as 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, with some arguing that the U.S. should simply modify the deal or ignore its nonbinding provisions. But the other group, led by White House chief strategist Steve Bannon and EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, are pushing hard for a complete exit, according to the New York Times and other publications.

That option “would have almost no upside for the United States, and lots of downside,” says David Victor, co-director of the Laboratory on International Law and Regulation at the University of California, San Diego. “We’re going to look back on the direction of foreign and economic policies of the Trump administration as a parade of self-inflicted wounds.”

Indeed, environmental groups, institutional investors, and hundreds of large businesses, notably including major players in the oil industry, have all urged the administration to stay in the deal.

The only apparent argument for exiting is a political one: throwing red meat to the nationalistic contingent of Trump supporters opposed to any international accords.

But the negative consequences of actually exiting, rather than just coming up short on voluntary emissions reduction targets, would be extensive and costly. Such a decision would inflict “gratuitous damage” on the United States’ relationships with critical allies and trading partners, including the European Union, India, and China, Victor says. It would also make it more likely that other countries would back out of the deal or shirk their pledges, weakening an accord that already doesn’t do enough to avoid dangerous levels of climate change.

Robert Stavins, an economist at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, says an exit would strengthen the hands of the compact’s political opponents in large emerging economies like India and Brazil, which could push to roll back their commitments. It also provides a wide opening for China to strengthen its status as the emerging world leader on climate and clean energy, the issues likely to define international politics, business, and innovation in the century ahead.

“They seem to be quite delighted to take on global leadership, rather than co-leadership with the U.S.,” Stavins says.

Leaving the deal would also suggest that the United States wouldn’t follow through on its commitment to provide another $2 billion to the Green Climate Fund, set up to help poor nations deploy clean energy technologies and adapt to climate change. Trump has specifically said the United States pledged more than its fair share to the fund.

That could slow the spread of renewable energy in other nations, particularly if the U.S. actions prompt other contributors to pull back. Total funding to date is well below the stated goal of $100 billion in private and public funds per year by 2020.

Poor nations “are going to be livid, and they’re going to really question whether it makes sense to participate in this process,” Victor says.

Observers say leaving the Paris accords would have less impact on technology development and deployment in the United States, but only because other Trump energy policies are likely to have bigger effects. Specifically, the administration has made clear it hopes to undo the Clean Power Plan, roll back vehicle mileage standards, and slash federal funding for energy research, among other changes.

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