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Trump’s decision to break away from climate change agreement not so simple

A collapsed block of ice-rich permafrost along Drew Point, Alaska. Coastal bluffs in this region can erode 20 meters/year (65 feet). US Geological Survey, February 2017

With his announcement to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate accords, President Donald Trump will discover taking such action is neither simple nor immediate.

Given that the U.S. is one of the leading greenhouse gas emitting countries, pulling out of the Paris accord will make it incredibly difficult for the world to reach the goal of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Trump’s decision to abandon the pact signed by his predecessor Barack Obama has everyone hopping mad, but more importantly is also prompting some experts to explain the basics of international treaties and accords to the controversial American leader.

“That’s not how it works. The Americans can’t just leave the climate protection agreement,” European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, said yesterday.

“Mr. Trump believes that (he can just walk away) because he doesn’t get close enough to the dossiers to fully understand them,” Juncker said. “So this notion ‘I am Trump, I am American, America First and I’m going to get out of it’ – that won’t happen. Not everything which is law and not everything in international agreements is fake news, and we have to comply with it.”

It does appear that the Trump administration is aware of what it will take to withdraw, however. Trump pledged to break away from the Paris accord if elected, during the presidential campaign. There is apparently an internal divide in the White House regarding the Paris accords with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson a vocal proponent of the deal. However their efforts did not win over Trump.

Trump can get out of the Paris deal one of two ways. The first option offers a slow exit from only the Paris agreement that would not happen until late 2020 at the earliest. It would be a setback for the Paris deal, but keep the U.S. at the negotiating table. The second option involves removing the U.S. from long-standing climate agreements and essentially withdrawing from major international climate change talks.

The Paris Agreement says that countries are eligible to withdraw 3 years after the agreement is entered into force. Then there is a 1 year waiting period before the withdrawal is official. If Trump chooses that option, the earliest the U.S. can get out of the deal is November 4, 2020 – the day after the next U.S. presidential election.

To get out faster, the U.S. must leave the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). It is a treaty negotiated in 1992 that serves as the guiding force for major international meetings and negotiations on climate change for the past quarter century. Leaving the treaty would mean that the U.S. would no longer attend the annual Conferences of the Parties meeting.

The Paris agreement treats leaving the UNFCCC as withdrawing from the deal. That process would take only a year, meaning Trump could get out of the deal by the middle of 2018. It achieves the goal of leaving the deal but does the most harm to U.S. standing in global climate change negotiations.

That is likely why the administration is trying to avoid leaving the UNFCC. Trump instructed the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, to develop an exit strategy that does no involve withdrawing from the UNFCC, according to Climate Change News. France’s new president Emmanuel Macron encouraged the large community of climate scientists to move to a country more interested in an evidence-based approach:

There is another way the administration can get what it wants. The Paris accords are not a legally binding agreement, something many countries tried to achieve during the negotiations, which leaves wiggle room for Trump not to comply. There are no consequences if the U.S. does not meet its greenhouse gas emissions target.

The uproar over the fact that it is considering leaving the Paris accords reflects a general consensus on the need to act to limit global warming.

“Let me be blunt, the world is in a mess,” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, said at an event at NYU. “Climate change is undeniable. Climate action is unstoppable. And climate solutions provide opportunities that are unmatchable…The message is simple: The sustainability train has left the station. Get on board or get left behind.”


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]