Climate change is one of the issues where President-elect Trump could make some of the most profound changes to existing policies. He and two of his top appointees reject the scientific consensus that climate change is real and human-cased. During his campaign, Trump promised to withdraw from the international climate agreement reached last year in Paris. The global business community has been voicing opposition to that idea this week.
The first question to consider is whether or not the next president could, in fact, follow through on his promise to get the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement. At first glance, the answer is not within a presidential term. The Paris Agreement went into effect on November 4th, with the U.S. as a ratified member. That agreement stipulates a three-year waiting period before any party can express intent to withdraw, and then one year for that withdrawal to take effect. That’s four years.
Here’s the catch: Since the treaty that established the entire United Nations climate change negotiation process — the U. N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC — is more than two decades old, Trump could withdraw from that in just a year. And that would remove the U.S. from all resulting agreements, including the Paris Agreement.
Of course, the Trump administration doesn’t need to do anything official to take the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement in a de facto way. All that’s needed is to reverse President Obama’s executive actions on greenhouse gas emissions — something Trump has pledged to do in his 100-day plan — and not enact policies that would meet the commitments the U.S. has made under the Paris Agreement
There are no penalties or enforcement mechanisms in the Paris Agreement, but some analysts predict that pulling back from our climate commitments could have economic and diplomatic repercussions. If the U.S. falls behind in the renewable energy race, many fear it would be impossible to catch up. In addition, backing away from climate action could make it more difficult to negotiate trade deals with countries who are carrying through on their climate pledges.
The prospect of Trump’s presidency does not seem to have weakened the will of other parties to the agreement. The message coming from attendees of this year’s U.N. climate talks in Morocco has been one of dismay, to be sure, but also of determination.
“Nobody I talked to had any suggestion that any U.S. withdrawal would be in any way contagious,” said Phil Duffy, director of the climate change think tank Woods Hole Research Center. “I think just the opposite. I think other nations will step up and want to do more. And I talked to a lot of folks who said, ironically, that China is really showing a lot of leadership on this subject.”
If China taking leadership on climate change seems ironic, the business community pushing for climate action seems equally so. And yet, businesses have been vocal in support of the Paris Agreement this week.
The World Resources Institute announced that two hundred companies, collectively worth $4.8 trillion in market value, have committed to emissions reductions that would be consistent with the goal of the Paris Agreement. That list includes household names like Coca Cola, Walmart, General Mills, and Dell.
Separately, some 365 companies issued a statement to President Obama, President-elect Trump, and the U.S. Congress calling for continued commitment to the Paris Agreement, arguing that. “Failure to build a low-carbon economy puts American prosperity at risk," they argued. "But the right action now will create jobs and boost U.S. competitiveness.”
Of course, the strong economic case for climate action raises the question of why it matters if we pull out of the Paris Agreement.
“It sent an essential market signal throughout the world and throughout the U.S.,” explained Anne Kelly, senior program director for policy with CERES, a Boston-based non-profit that helped organize the business statement. “It offered a clear direction of travel of net zero emissions by the end of the century. So we think that would be a tragic move and a real setback.”
There is currently a lot of fear, concern, and uncertainty among climate scientists and policy experts regarding the direction the incoming administration may take.
Some advocacy groups have stepped up fundraising and vowed to fight Trump with all they have. Others are starting to think creatively about how to work with the new administration — and Congress — to address the economic concerns that were so dominant in this election cycle and marry that with a clean-energy agenda. While emphasizing opportunities for job creation and economic growth isn’t new for CERES, Kelly says they’re considering novel twists, like a carbon tax that could raise revenue for the infrastructure investments Trump has promised.
A Republican in the White House may also give conservative leaders who do accept climate science a chance to take ownership of a clean energy agenda, accoring to Andrea Strimling Yodsampa, chief executive officer of the advocacy group DEPLOY/US.
“One of those opportunities, as I see it, is for Republican members of Congress ... to take action that is on their own terms and not seen as caving to pressure from liberal activists or caving into a liberal climate agenda,” Yodsampa said. “All hope is not lost.”