Paris discord
Luca Bruno/AP

On June 1 Trump announced something he really can’t do overnight – pull out of the Paris Accord – and he dumped a ton of erroneous statistics on listeners that came from a front group for the coal industry.

The day before, the president of the European Union, Jean-Claude Juncker, patiently tried to explain to Trump “that’s not how it works.”

“The Americans can’t just leave the climate protection agreement,” he said in a speech. “Mr. Trump believes that because he doesn’t get close enough to the dossiers to fully understand them. It would take three to four years after the agreement came into force in November 2016.   The law is the law and it must be obeyed.”

Legal experts actually cite November 2020 as the earliest day of departure though announcement of his intent does huge damage to the climate change accord. It has already been formally ratified by 144 out of 195 agreeing countries and now it looks like China, India and the European Union are going to step up to be the leading ships, which might translate into more jobs and technology advances for their countries, leaving the US swimming in their wake.

The psychological damage as well as the economic repercussions remain immense. Some smaller countries may pull back because the US is not taking the lead.  But, even aside from that, the working group Trump has assembled to leave the accord has several problems.

Obama signed an executive order but the underlying root was a convention the US Senate reaffirmed (advice and consent) under President George H.W. Bush. It is known as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

The Paris Accord stems from that and is totally voluntary – except for legal requirements that countries publicly monitor, verify and report what they are doing, and also put forth updated plans on their initial pledges. There was clearly a shaming pressure to not seem the international laggards, which Trump has now enthusiastically embraced. Any suggestion by him that he’ll renegotiate was immediately scotched by Europe’s biggest powers in a joint statement.

As the New York Times noted in 2015, there was a political shrewdness in Obama’s involvement.  The hybrid legal structure of the Paris Agreement was explicitly designed to accommodate the political reality in the United States. A deal that would have assigned legal requirements for countries to cut emissions at specific levels would need to go before the Senate for ratification. Such language would have been dead on arrival in the Republican-controlled Senate. So Obama set standards to match or lead the world.

Trump can pull back on those standards, but not on the five year reporting agreement, so his failures will be universally seen and shamed.

To get out, he has assembled a working group under Scott Pruitt, his bizarre climate-denialist choice to head the Environment Protection Agency, that has to decide whether to just pull out of the Paris Accord, which takes years to unwind, or try to pull out of the underlying UNFCCC treaty, which would technically require advice and consent from a Senate growingly uneasy about Trump’s machinations.

In his speech, Trump wielded a much outdated and debunked report by the National Economic Research Associates (NERA), which researchers have long uncovered as funded by a front group for the coal industry.

Coal, incidentally, doesn’t benefit from Trump’s pullout – its problems are economic competition. But Trump is exploiting the industry’s fears.

The statistics Trump pounded out as justification in a rambling speech offered paragraph after paragraph about job losses and economic costs that have been refuted since by respected studies on both the left and the right – as well as by scientific groups directly.  Many scientists actually thought the Paris Accord not strong enough.

From California to New York to the mayor of Pittsburgh, there were initial reactions from many businesses and states that despite Trump they are moving ahead with action on greenhouse gas emissions.

Obama could have expressed anger at the attack on one of his prime achievements, but he took the high and thoughtful road:

“The nations that remain in the Paris Agreement will be the nations that reap the benefits in jobs and industries created. I believe the United States should be at the front of the pack. But even in the absence of American leadership; even as this administration joins a small handful of nations that reject the future; I’m confident that our states, cities, and businesses will step up and do even more to lead the way, and help protect for future generations the one planet we’ve got.”

In contrast, when criticizing the US commitment to improve the climate globally, Trump seemed most concerned at being jeered at: “We don’t want other countries laughing at us anymore,” he said. But they are only getting warmed up.


Dominique Paul Noth
Dominique Paul Noth

Dominique Paul Noth for the past decade was editor of the Milwaukee Labor Press and website, He now writes as an independent journalist on culture and politics.