Is the Paris deal better off without Trump's America?

US President Donald Trump shakes hands with French President Emmanuel Macron. Picture: Getty Images

Given President Donald Trump’s views on emissions policy, and his past claims that climate change is a Chinese hoax, I can’t shake the feeling that the Paris agreement on climate change is better off without him, and without us, participating.

The Paris agreement itself doesn’t do much — it allows countries to set their own emissions targets and prescribes no mechanism to enforce those targets. The agreement’s symbolic nature is a major reason nearly every country in the world was willing to join it, and its effectiveness depends on the willingness of national leaders to take concrete steps to meet the nonbinding goals.

Symbols are important. The voluntary targets under the agreement may create political pressure within countries to reduce emissions, and may help countries put pressure on each other to reduce emissions.

But the key question now: If Trump really does withdraw the United States from the agreement, will that reduce the global effectiveness of the agreement’s symbols? My suspicion is it would not.

Obviously, taking the US out of the accord reduces our ability to lead on reducing carbon emissions — but the US wasn’t likely to provide much leadership on that under Trump, in or out of the accord.

Trump’s choice to exit might increase political pressure within other countries to act on climate change. This effect would be similar to the surprising way Trump seems to be strengthening the European Union and depressing support for Euroskeptic parties in Europe.

Trump is globally unpopular, and he tends to bring discredit on the causes with which he associates himself. When Trump endorses nationalist political parties, voters become less inclined to support them. And if Trump is against the Paris agreement, that could increase support in other countries for adhering to Paris — and for the economically challenging steps those countries might have to take to reduce emissions.

A lot of commentators have been pointing out that even major energy company CEOs support remaining in the Paris Agreement. The CEO of Exxon personally appealed to Trump to plead a case for staying. But as Robinson Meyer writes for The Atlantic, energy company support might not be the argument in favour of our participation that political advocates take it to be.

If the US remains in the agreement, we could blast past our own emission targets and show the agreement to be toothless. The Trump administration could also seek to further weaken the agreement in negotiations over its implementation.

Given these facts, why wouldn’t Exxon want Trump to stay in? Right now, Trump is inside the climate change tent pissing in. If we pull out of the agreement, he’ll be outside the tent, pissing somewhere else.

If the US leaves Paris, the agreement will be left with members who are, on average, more committed to following it and more likely to take actions unfavorable to companies like Exxon — and Trump won’t have any influence over how the agreement works.

I don’t think a nonbinding agreement on emissions was going to save the world, with the US is in or out. But with Trump as president, there’s reason to think the agreement will have more useful effects without us involved.

We could always rejoin in the future when we have a president who is more interested in addressing climate change.

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