Is Withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement Merely a Matter of Optics?

Is Withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement Merely a Matter of Optics?

By Paolo Olavario, Staff Contributor 

Since President Trump assumed office, there has been wide speculation of how the President’s views on climate change will play out.[1] Recently, reports regarding President Trump’s campaign promise to withdraw the United States from the landmark Paris Agreement have stated that there is a split among the President’s advisors on whether Mr. Trump should carry out his pledge.[2] On one side of the debate, both Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the President’s daughter Ivanka Trump fear that withdrawal from the Paris Agreement “could have broad and damaging diplomatic ramifications,”[3] whereas his Chief Strategist Stephen Bannon is “pressing” the president to officially pull the United States from the Agreement. But what about the consequences for the environment, which the accord was meant to enhance protections for?[4] Based on the text of the Paris Agreement, whether President Trump ultimately decides to withdraw from the agreement or not will have little to no direct impact on the environment because the Agreement lacks an enforcement mechanism.[5]

Under general international law, a signatory is not permitted to take actions that go against the agreement’s purpose.[6] Under the agreement, Article 2 clause 1(a) states that it “aims to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change . . . by . . . pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change.”[7] The language contained in the Agreement is weak and non-binding on the parties. Ideally the parties would follow through with the goals that make up the Agreement, but as previously explained, all a party must do is refrain from conduct that conflicts with the agreement’s purpose. Even if a party does act in a way that opposes the purpose however, there are no concrete enforcement mechanisms that would result in any significant consequences.

For example, President Trump recently signed an executive order that “initiates a review of the Clean Power Plan, rescinds the moratorium on coal mining on US federal lands, and urges federal agencies to ‘identify all regulations, all rules, all policies . . . that serve as obstacles and impediments to American energy independence.’”[8] Considering that the Clean Power Plan, which required states to slash carbon emissions from power plants, was a key factor in the United States’ ability to meet its commitments under the Agreement,[9] the executive action facially contradicts the essence of the intentions of the Paris Agreement. Despite this, there has been no action in response, nor has there even been any news coverage over this very fact.[10]

This leads to the possible conclusion that the President’s threat to follow through on his campaign promise to withdraw from the Paris Agreement[11] is merely a matter of positive optics showing that the President is willing to fulfil his guarantees. However, because of the lack of concrete enforcement mechanisms that impose consequences for contravening the Agreement, as evidenced by the lack of action taken following the President’s executive order, the focus of environmental advocates should be on opposing the actions taken within the country regarding environmental regulation, rather than on the President’s actions regarding the Paris Agreement, which ultimately has little to no effect on the environment.

[1] See e.g., Coral Davenport, With Trump in Charge, Climate Change References Purged From Website, N.Y. Times, Jan. 20, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/20/us/politics/trump-white-house-website.html.

[2] See Coral Davenport, Top Trump Advisers Are Split on Paris Agreement on Climate Change, N.Y. Times, Mar. 2, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/02/us/politics/climate-change-trump.html.

[3] Id.

[4] See generally Paris Agreement, Dec. 15, 2015, https://unfccc.int/files/meetings/paris_nov_2015/application/pdf/paris_agreement_english_.pdf.

[5] See Anders Corr, Expect Climate Catastrophe: Paris Agreement Lacks Enforcement, Forbes (Dec. 1, 2016), https://www.forbes.com/sites/anderscorr/2016/12/01/expect-climate-catastrophe-paris-agreement-lacks-enforcement/.

[6] Steps to Enforcing the Paris Agreement, International Institute for Environment and Development (Sept. 21, 2016), https://www.iied.org/steps-enforcing-paris-agreement.

[7] Paris Agreement, supra note 4, at article 2.1(a) (emphasis added).

[8] Dan Merica, Trump Dramatically Changes US Approach to Climate Change, CNN (Mar. 29, 2017), http://www.cnn.com/2017/03/27/politics/trump-climate-change-executive-order/.

[9] China Says Committed to Paris Accord as Trump Undoes U.S. Climate Policy, Reuters (Mar. 29, 2017), http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trump-energy-china-idUSKBN1700RU.

[10] But see id. The article reports that China is still committed to the Paris climate change accord, despite the executive action. Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Lu Kang explained that “We still uphold that all sides should move with the times, grasp the opportunities, fulfill their promises and earnestly take proactive steps to jointly push the enforcement of this agreement.”

[11] Davenport, supra note 2.

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