Last year around this time, environmentalists were riding high. The Paris Climate Agreement had just been signed, marking the first time that the international community united around fighting climate change. Of course, there was still a lot of work to be done, and there were serious limitations to the agreement—such as the fact that it rested on voluntary, non-binding emissions cuts—but there was also a real reason to be happy and hopeful: The world had agreed to act collectively on global warming to cap rising temperatures “well below two degrees Celsius.”
“Obviously the moment that the agreement was adopted, there was a huge sense of relief,” explained Christiana Figueres, who, as the former Executive Secretary of the the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), was the agreement’s key architect. “But that only lasted a few hours, until we all had a few hours of sleep, and I woke up realizing that the Paris Agreement is an absolutely necessary step, but is by far not sufficient.”
If Figueres had known then that Donald Trump would be elected president, she probably wouldn’t have slept at all.
The two months that Trump has been in office have been a bloodbath for climate change policy. He picked a climate denier to head the Environmental Protection Agency, purged the White House website of any mention of climate change, and his first official budget proposal was full of egregious cuts to environmental programs, including slashing the EPA’s budget by 31%, which would leave the agency basically toothless. Trump is working to roll back Obama-era vehicle fuel efficiency rules, collaborating with Congress to undo rules that monitor methane leakage from oil and gas wells, and will on Tuesday sign an executive order dismantling Obama’s Clean Power Plan and other key aspects of the former president’s climate legacy.
Fortunately, it’s not that simple. And Figueres is confident that the Paris Agreement can withstand the likes of Trump.
No, Trump Can’t “Cancel” The Paris Agreement
“It's important to understand that no single country, no matter how large or small, can cancel the Paris Climate Agreement,” explained Figueres. “The Paris Agreement is a multilateral agreement that has gone into force, and any country has the right to exit the agreement, or in fact to exit the Convention, but that doesn't mean that the multilateral structure is actually canceled.”
The Paris Agreement is best thought of as a collection of pledges from individual countries, each one spelling out how they will reduce their own emissions by certain amounts; together, these so-called “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions” (INDCs) make up the bulk of the agreement’s action plan. Any country, including the U.S., can decide to not follow through with their INDCs, but that alone wouldn’t alter the pledges from the other signatories.
So, while Trump can’t “rip up” the agreement, there are a number of ways that he can withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Agreement:
- Enact the agreement’s official withdrawal process, which would formally keep the U.S. in the agreement for four years;
- Exit the UNFCC altogether, a move that would take about one year but leaves the U.S. without a seat at future climate negotiations;
- Stay in the Paris Agreement, but since emissions reduction targets are nonbinding, undo all of Obama’s climate policy and carry on with business as usual.
Although none of these actions would cancel the Paris Agreement, they would all represent a major step backward for climate action, both domestically and globally.
Why Figueres Believes The Paris Agreement Is “Unstoppable”
“I'm not concerned about the position of the United States, for a couple of reasons,” Figueres explained. “First, because most countries will continue to decarbonize. Secondly, at least 60% of the economy in the U.S. is not directed by the White House, but rather by state legislation or the private sector itself, and that 60% of the economy will continue to decarbonize because they have already witnessed and already experienced that it is good for business.”
Figueres believes that regardless of the actions taken by the Trump Administration, the economic incentives of clean energy are powerful enough to promote the move away from fossil fuels. “That is where investment is going, that is where technological advance is going, and finally and perhaps most importantly, that is where young people want to go,” Figueres went on. “If one country decides to exit the Paris Agreement or the convention, that is actually a very sad decision for the economy of that country, because it means that that country will actually be left behind by the other countries that will continue in their technological and political development.”
It’s poignant that Figueres brings up the economic incentives of a green energy economy, as that is precisely the line of attack that Republicans have been using against climate regulations for decades.
In 1997, when Vice President Al Gore attempted to get Congress to sign onto the Kyoto Protocol, Republicans refused on the grounds that it would cause “serious economic harm to the United States.” When Obama proposed his Clean Power Plan in 2015, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell lambasted the plan as “job-killing and likely illegal.” And when President Trump announced in March that his administration would re-evaluate Obama-era fuel efficiency rules, he claimed he was eliminating “industry-killing regulations”. In short, climate change regulation has long been married to “job-killing” in the eyes of most modern Republicans.
But Figueres isn’t alone in asserting the opposite opinion: that investments in clean energy can actually create millions of jobs.
“It’s not true that there must be large, painful tradeoffs between stabilizing the climate on the one hand and supporting jobs and economic growth on the other,” explained Robert Pollin, Professor of Economics and Co-Director of the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. “My research shows that in the U.S. and in countries throughout the world, spending on building the green economy generates two-to-three times more jobs per given dollar of expenditure rather than maintaining the fossil fuel economy.” Already in the U.S. there are more jobs in clean energy than there are in fossil fuel sectors; according to recent calculations from The Sierra Club, “clean energy jobs outnumbered fossil fuel jobs 2.5 to 1” and exceeded “all jobs in coal or gas by 5 to 1.”
“So you can understand that that makes the Paris Agreement actually unstoppable,” asserted Figueres. “Because all of these countries will continue to transform their economies, they will continue to clean up their transport, they will continue to clean up their energy, they will continue to improve their waste management, plus all of the other sectors that are embedded in the Paris Climate Agreement, because it is in their own interest.”
The U.S. Has A Reputation For Messing Up International Climate Agreements
“I'm actually always amused by people who are shocked by the current political environment,” said Figueres. “Because one has to remember that certainly in the democratic world…these political ups and downs and rights and lefts are always in the making…we had some in the past, and we got through them in the past, and we will have them again in the future.”
In 1997, the UNFCC held negotiations for the Kyoto Protocol, with the aim of curbing global greenhouse gas emissions. Even before the negotiations began, Congress passed a resolution stating that the U.S. wouldn't agree to any protocol that would “result in serious harm to the U.S. economy,” or that didn’t include deep emissions cuts from developing countries. Unsurprisingly, this made the U.N. climate negotiations a grueling process. Figueres attended Kyoto with the Costa Rican delegation, and described the process to the The New Yorker as “an absolutely harrowing experience.”
Still, the negotiations succeeded in producing the Kyoto Protocol, a treaty that pledged to reduce emissions from industrialized countries by about 5.0% against 1990 levels. The agreement was praised by then-President Bill Clinton as a “historic agreement” that “reflects a commitment by our generation to act in the interests of future generations.” The only problem was that Congress never ratified the treaty.
And so, once President George W. Bush took over the oval office in 2001, he announced that the U.S. wouldn’t be abiding by the terms of the agreement. Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s national-security adviser, framed it like this: “Kyoto is dead.”
While the U.S. certainly hurt the Kyoto Protocol, it didn’t kill it. It was still adopted by the European Union and a few other countries, becoming the first major international treaty to curb emissions. And so it carried on, a sort of half-treaty and a testament to the difficulty of international climate negotiations.
Despite Trump’s recent actions, Figueres doesn’t believe that the Paris Agreement will go the way of Kyoto; now, as opposed to in 1997, climate change policy has gone beyond the ideological sphere, and will prevail as an economic issue. “It is actually not as important that we have these political ups and downs, which we have now and will continue to have,” explained Figueres, “because the economy will continue to be decarbonized.”
There are hard facts that support Figueres’ view: In addition to increased employment in renewable energy, the total investments into renewable energy have gone up nearly every year this century, and, in 2016, investments in renewable energy were more than double the total investments in coal and gas-fired electricity generation. “So I am concerned about the expressions coming out of the U.S. government, concerned for the U.S. economy,” said Figueres. “I am not concerned for the world.”
The Main Way That Trump Can Really Do Some Damage
Still, there is one place that Figueres is worried when it comes to the actions of the Trump administration: money. As part of the Paris Agreement, developed nations pledged to annually make $100 billion in climate financing available, starting in 2020. The U.S. is a major part of this financing, and has already given $1 billion in aid. But Trump’s recent budget proposal called for eliminating all “payments to the United Nations’ (UN) climate change programs by eliminating U.S. funding related to the Green Climate Fund and its two precursor Climate Investment Funds.”
“If the United States pulls its funding from the United Nations, as a whole, or from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or from its pledges to climate finance…that will make it politically very, very difficult for developing countries, in particular, to move forward,” said Figueres. A U.S. retraction of funding would send a very clear message to other countries, and potentially make the rest of the developed world less likely to pay their share. The domino effect would ultimately make it much harder for developing nations to finance their transition away from fossil fuels.
Still, backing away from the U.N or withdrawing U.S. funding isn’t a decision that Trump will take lightly; such a move would come at a huge political price, damaging U.S. relationships with key allies and reducing the country’s credibility on foreign policy issues. This is one of the reasons why some key Trump advisors, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, have been advising Trump to stay in the Paris Agreement.
Figueres explained that one of the keys to getting 196 countries to sign onto the Paris Agreement was respecting the needs of each individual country, to have “contextual conversations” regarding what each country wants and what they can give. And so Figueres views economics as the crux for keeping the U.S. in the Paris Agreement. “If there is a conversation with the Trump administration, that conversation should focus on a single question: What are the economics of decarbonizing the economy in the United States?” said Figueres. “It is not about whether you believe in climate change, as a religion, as science, as a natural environment, it is not about any ideology. It is sheerly a very blunt conversation about what is good for the U.S. economy, today and tomorrow… any leader, of any country, who is only looking at a four-year period, is not doing his job.”