The U.S. appears poised to remain in the Paris Climate Agreement in name only, after senior members of the Trump administration met on Thursday to decide on the landmark agreement’s fate.
The treaty, which went into effect in November 2016, sets a goal of limiting global warming to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, above preindustrial levels through 2100.
Trump told Reuters on Thursday that he is inclined to stay in the pact, provided the U.S. is “treated fairly” in its obligations. Trump’s eventual decision on what to do about the agreement — which will come to a head in about two weeks — will help determine how much global warming the world will experience during the coming decades.
The U.S. is the world’s second-largest emitter of planet-warming greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane, and any changes in the country’s emissions could make other countries think twice about enacting potentially expensive plans to transition to renewable sources of energy, like solar and wind power. However, a rapid transition is what’s needed to avert dangerous climate change effects, from sea level rise to deadly heat waves.
One thing is clear: The Obama-era target of cutting domestic greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 is now dead, due to the Trump White House’s infatuation with fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas.
Yet the U.N. agreement contains no mechanism to punish America (or any country, for that matter) for failing to meet its emissions goals or revising them.
The voluntary and non-punitive nature of the agreement was a major reason why it was so successful in getting countries to sign onto it after decades of frustrating climate talks.
In an interview with Reuters, Trump said it is not fair that the U.S. has been paying more to other countries to help them adapt to global warming, while China and other nations are not paying as much.
“It’s not a fair situation because they are paying virtually nothing and we are paying massive amounts of money,” Trump told the news service.
However, under former president Barack Obama, the U.S. gave $1 billion to it to the Green Climate Fund, with the second installment of that money coming just before he left office. Obama had pledged a total of $3 billion to the fund, but that full sum is unlikely to be achieved anytime soon.
Developed nations that emitted the vast majority of global warming pollutants in the first place have pledged at least $100 billion per year collectively in climate aid by the year 2020, but the resources provided so far have fallen far short of this goal.
Trump is wrong in thinking that major developing nations, such as China, are not doing their part to help others to adapt and mitigate global warming. In fact, China has pledged $3.1 billion in climate assistance funding, outdoing the U.S.
While the fate of the Paris Climate Agreement might seem like an arcane international relations matter, it’s success or failure will help determine the fate of our planet and the quality of our lives for decades to come.
The emissions cuts pledged under the agreement are not enough to meet the treaty’s temperature target, meaning that even more ambitious cuts are needed.
However, with the U.S. turning away from ambitious action and more toward a stance of, “we’ll do whatever we want,” it could encourage other nations to do the same. That would yield even more global warming than what is currently projected to take place
If such a knock-on effect takes place, then the planet will warm much more than the 2-degree target, yielding far more damaging climate change consequences, such as sea level rise.
A report released in March by Climate Analytics found that if Trump’s emissions policies, including a planned rollback of Environmental Protection Agency regulations, take place as planned, then the country’s emissions in the year 2025 would be roughly equal to what they are today. This contrasts sharply with the 13 percent cut the U.S. committed to at the Paris talks.
The danger isn’t so much that U.S. emissions would drastically accelerate global warming, but that Trump’s actions would turn into a contagion, ratcheting down worldwide ambition to tackle climate change.
This outcome would have severe consequences.
“If all other countries were to follow the United States in lowering the level of ambition and rolling back action on climate change, the world would warm by around four degrees over this century, a warming rate and level not seen on the planet for 55 million years,” said Bill Hare, CEO of Climate Analytics, in a statement.
In other words, there is a lot more riding on Trump’s ultimate decision than you might think.