The U.S. just left the Paris climate accord, even as the presidential race is undecided

Source: By Dino Grandoni, Washington Post • Posted: Wednesday, November 4, 2020

On Wednesday morning, the result in the race between President Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden remains unclear.

But here is what is certain: The United States officially pulled out of the Paris climate accord, the landmark international agreement to combat global warming, on Wednesday, the day after voting ended in a tumultuous race for the White House marked by sharp disagreement over climate change.

With the move, Trump finally fulfills a campaign pledge set five years ago during his first run for president to end U.S. involvement in a climate accord he considered an unfair deal for the country.

Biden, by contrast, has promised to reenter the accord on “day one” should he take the White House. He has vowed to make a main tent of his foreign policy the jawboning China, Brazil and other countries into cutting their own emission and preserving their forests, which keep carbon our of the atmosphere.

“The U.S. leaving the Paris climate agreement demonstrates what’s at stake in this election,” said May Boeve, executive director of 350.org, an international environmental organization. “What we need now is all hands on deck for global climate leadership.”

The outcome of the 2020 race will determine whether such an exit lasts only for a few weeks — or persists for at least the next four years.

If Trump wins and the U.S. withdrawal becomes permanent, it would undermine momentum for other countries to commit to their own cuts. In recent weeks, Japan and China, for instance, vowed to become carbon neutral by 2050 and 2060, respectively.

Trump announced he would remove the United States from the accord during a high-profile Rose Garden speech just four-and-a-half months into his presidency.

But that was largely for show. In a twist fit for 2020, the exit was not final until now — the day after Election Day and the earliest day possible under U.N. rules. Exactly one year ago — on Nov. 4, 2019 — the United States began the process of officially withdrawing from the Paris agreement by submitting a formal notification it was leaving.

The withdrawal officially takes effect on Wednesday, according to a State Department spokesperson.

Regardless of the election result, Trump’s decision makes the United States the only country to leave the global climate accord.

The tight, uncertain election outcome doesn’t change anything about the scientific reality of rising temperatures: That the burning of fossil fuels and other human activity is warming the Earth at a dangerous rate that U.N. scientists say needs to be reined in over the coming decade.

Since the late 1800s, the world has already warmed by 1 degree Celsius. The Paris accord aims to use voluntary commitments made by nations to keep that warming well under 2 degree Celsius, a threshold beyond which scientists say Earth’s ecosystems would suffer irreparable harm.

The agreement has nearly 200 signatories. The United States is currently the world’s largest contributor to the problem, after China. Biden has said he would compel other countries to accelerate their commitments. Historically, the United States had been the top greenhouse gas polluter.

“No country can withdraw from the reality of climate change, and no country bears greater responsibility, or possesses greater capacity, to lead the world in confronting this reality head on,” said Bob Perciasepe, head of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.

Trump went forward with announcing a withdrawal from the Paris accord in 2017 despite the objections of virtually every Democratic lawmaker, as well as a number of members of Trump’s inner circle, including his then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and his daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner.

“While the Trump Administration pulled out of the Paris Agreement, the American people never supported that decision — and cities and states and businesses across the country resolved to do their part to stay in,” billionaire and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has made fighting climate change a plank of his philanthropy, said in a statement.

Without the White House, local politicians have stepped in with their own commitments to reduce climate-warming emissions.

After Trump made clear his intention to withdraw from the agreement, Bloomberg and former California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) launched America’s Pledge, an effort to keep the United States on track with the goals of the global accord and encourage municipalities and businesses to help make up for the lack of federal action.

To that end, California, New York and 21 other states, as well as the District of Columbia, so far have set economy-wide greenhouse gas emissions targets, according to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. Some of those commitments were done through executive orders from governors, while others are legally binding.

“Despite the White House’s best efforts to drag our country backward, it hasn’t stopped our climate progress over the past four years,” Bloomberg said.

Even if Biden wins, it remains to be seen how much clout the United States can bring to negotiations after four years of Trump, who at times has dismissed climate change as a “hoax.”

Ernest Moniz, who served as Barack Obama’s energy secretary during his second term, said Biden should be able to rebuild U.S. leadership on climate change relatively quickly, given the state-level promises.

“Clearly there’s been an absence of national leadership,” he said in an interview. “But with Biden, I think that will come back. Frankly, I think it will come back maybe faster than the trust-rebuilding in other dimensions of national policy and security policy, foreign policy, et cetera.”

The Trump administration is still taking heat abroad about leaving the Paris agreement.

Mike Pompeo — Tillerson’s replacement as secretary of state — encountered the latest plea for U.S. leadership on climate action last week during a trip to the low-lying Maldives.

“Without the U.S. and the other larger countries, countries like the Maldives will not be able to do much. Our carbon footprint is very small, but we are going to be the first to suffer,” Maldives Foreign Minister Abdullah Shahid said in at a press conference alongside Pompeo. “You can see the islands are very low, the sea is threatening us.  It’s an existential threat to us.  And so we have full confidence that the U.S. administration will help us in working closely and finding acceptable ways of addressing these issues.”

Pompeo assured him that U.S. help would come, though he reiterated the administration’s criticisms of the Paris accord.

“Everybody seems focused on the Paris climate accords, and yet the countries that have signed onto the Paris climate accords haven’t begun to do what ingenuity has led to from the United States of America,” he said, singling out China’s growing emissions.

Pompeo also said the Trump administration believes “human innovation and creativity” are the key ways to combat the risks posed by more extreme weather and rising seas, even as he defended the nation’s own track record on reducing its emissions.

The United States itself is not immune to climate-related disasters. This year alone, they included record-setting wildfires in California and the most prolific hurricane season in the Atlantic on record.

 “The decision to exit the Paris Agreement leaves the United States globally isolated in its defiance of scientific realities,” said Rachel Cleetus, a policy director and economist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, “and causes real harm to people, the planet and the economy.”

Brady Dennis contributed to this report.