Under President Obama, the United States was seen as a leader on climate change, forging alliances with China and other big polluters that were pivotal to an agreement reached in Paris two years ago that aims to avert the most dangerous effects of global warming.
The election of President Trump, who has called climate change a “hoax” and threatened to “cancel” U.S. participation in the Paris accord, had many wondering whether the deal could survive without the participation of the world’s largest economy and No. 2 emitter of heat-trapping greenhouse gasses.
Last week, Trump signed an executive order that seeks to roll back many of the regulations adopted by his predecessor to fight climate change, signaling that he has no intention of honoring U.S. commitments to reduce emissions from coal, oil and other fossil fuels.
Trump’s main target is Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which requires states to sharply curtail carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. His order also takes aim at a requirement that all government agencies factor climate effects into their decision making and calls for the lifting of a moratorium on new coal leases on public lands.
We spoke with Obama’s former climate envoy, Jonathan Pershing, to find out what this means for the Paris agreement. He now heads the environment program at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation in Menlo Park.
Does this spell the end of U.S. participation in the Paris agreement?
I don’t think we know yet. I think the answer is probably not. It was interesting that the executive order did not include a mention of Paris.
It’s also, I think, very important to note that the process of beginning the examination of the rules, which is what the executive order calls for, is not the equivalent of rescinding the rule. That’s going to require an entire legal exercise, and there are a number of procedures they are going to have to go through.
So for example, one of the things the Clean Air Act is built on is a Supreme Court decision that says that carbon dioxide is a pollutant. And under the Clean Air Act, the Environmental Protection Agency is required to regulate pollutants. So how they do that, and what they do if it’s not going to be the Clean Power Plan, remains to be seen.
We’re already beginning to see states’ attorneys general beginning to put forward objections to the idea of it being rolled back. There will be litigation like crazy. It will take a long time to move away from this, if they are even successful in doing so.
The second thing is, will we withdraw from Paris? That turns out to be within the control of the administration, but what are the political consequences? What’s the rationale?
What the president said during his campaign was that he didn’t believe in climate change and wanted to tear up the agreement. Well, one of the ways to do that is to say the United States will change the target it has set for itself, because the targets were built by each country.
So the administration could change its targets but not withdraw from the deal. There’s certainly talk about that happening.
You had to reassure a number of anxious allies at the climate talks in Morocco last November. Could we see other countries begin to rethink their commitments?
The U.S. is one of only 197 countries that are party to the Paris agreement. Our decision to meet our pledge or to change our goals will not fundamentally alter the actions of other countries which, in Morocco at the meeting after the U.S. election, publicly pledged to stand by their own commitments.
Let’s use India as an example. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has this massive, massive problem in terms of access to electricity for his population. There’s at least 300 million people in India who do not have electricity. That’s a clear political problem for him, and he wants to fix it. But he doesn’t want the air quality in Delhi to be as bad as it is in Beijing. So for him to build a whole lot of new coal-fired power plants is not going to be attractive. What he’s going ahead and doing is making a massive, massive commitment into renewables.
So here he’s able to comply both with his primary political objective, which is to provide energy access to his community, and a secondary one, which is being a good player on the climate front. Why would he back off because the U.S. has backed off? He’s not doing it for the U.S.
One of the things that I think is going to be interesting for the United States is that I think we’re missing the boat.
There’s a massive market waiting in these alternatives. Most of our own domestic utilities, when you ask them what the fuel mix is going to be in 25 or 30 years, they say mostly renewables.
Even if countries were to fulfill the commitments they have made, scientists say it won’t be enough to achieve the goal of limiting the average global temperature rise since preindustrial times to well below 2 degrees Celsius. Can others be persuaded to do more if the U.S. isn’t leading the way?
The science is quite clear: This iteration of action is insufficient. But I want to add one addendum to that, which is we knew that when we did the agreement. So there is a system to review progress and ratchet up commitments every five years.
We don’t have that first five-year period for a little while. So I think people are going to give it at least a wait-and-see attitude, in terms of how far they are willing to go if the U.S. doesn’t move further.
If the U.S. does choose to walk back from its pledge, it is highly likely that the rest of the world will hold us to account, and public political pressure will begin to build for a reinvigorated U.S. effort. And there will be political support at home as well; polls indicate that 69% of voters in the U.S. want us to stay in the Paris agreement.
I would also note that the Paris agreement is broader and longer lasting than only a first round of nationally determined contributions for 2025 or 2030, and here the consequences of a U.S. withdrawal from the process are likely to be more significant.
It is not likely that other countries will easily be able to make up for U.S. emissions reductions forgone by inaction, and they may even be reluctant to take the aggressive steps needed if the U.S. merely stands by and does nothing. And that would both harm American lives in very real ways as well as lead to substantial global damages.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
10:30 a.m.: This article was updated with additional comment on the future of the deal.
This article was originally published on April 5, 2017, at 4:50 p.m.