US president Donald Trump just announced he will withdraw the country from the international Paris agreement on climate change. He says he wants a better “deal” for the US, and that the country will begin renegotiating the terms of the agreement immediately after exiting it.
“We will see if we can make a deal that’s fair. And if we can, that’s great. If we can’t, that’s fine,” Trump said at a press conference today (June 1).
The statement is a stark example of the president’s zero-sum thinking, and it’s wholly inaccurate. The reality is the US did not have to withdraw from the Paris agreement to renegotiate how it will participate. In fact, once it withdraws, it legally cannot renegotiate the terms of its participation. It also cannot withdraw immediately.
“There is no legal basis for what we heard. It is a political message, period. Actually, I would call it a vacuous political melodrama,” says Christiana Figueres, the former executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, who led the original negotiations of the Paris agreement. “Apparently the White House has no understanding of how an international treaty works. There is no such thing as withdrawing and then negotiating.”
In a background briefing after the press conference, two White House officials couldn’t give any details about how negotiations would work, what exactly was going to be negotiated, or what the administration’s ultimate goals for the US were.
Legally, any country can initiate the process of withdrawal only after three years have passed since the date it ratified the agreement, Figueres says. For the US, that puts the date at November 5, 2019. It then takes an additional year to finalize the withdrawal. November 5, 2020, is the earliest possible time the US can technically leave the Paris agreement.
White House officials said the US’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement would be consistent with the agreement’s rules. During that three year period, one said, “the US would not acknowledge or do anything to implement the current pledge put down by Obama.”
From now until 2020, negotiation for the US would work like any other country that signed on to the Paris agreement. While the overall structure of the agreement is not up for debate, it is designed to allow countries to adjust the contributions regularly. Participating countries come together every five years to formally adjust the levels of their commitments; the idea was that as countries neared their individual targets, they could, in theory, pressure other countries who maybe had less-strong commitments to ratchet up their own targets.
But countries could also theoretically seek to recalibrate their commitments downwards at these meetings. The US, for example, could legally abandon its plans to reduce emissions—and even quit the Green Climate Fund, which Trump called a “scheme to redistribute wealth out of the United States”—without leaving the agreement.
The problem that Trump just created for himself is that by pulling US out of the agreement, he’s spent his last bargaining chip, points out Craig Moyer, chair of the Land, Environment, and Natural Resources group at law firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips. No other country will want to move toward the US since it’s decided to pull out already.
Come 2020, once it is out, the US cannot technically negotiate at all. To have any option to renegotiate the terms of the agreement, the US would have to first rejoin. The Paris deal cannot be renegotiated from the outside, and certainly not by the will of the US alone.
“You cannot negotiate individually. No one country can unilaterally change the conditions. That is why it took six years to negotiate,” Figueres says.
Despite all this, the president is “very intent on negotiating and coming out with a better deal for the American worker,” said one White House official on background after Trump’s press conference. “That is sincere,” he said.
More than anything, the announcement prolongs uncertainty about the future of US participation. But the majority of Americans in every state saying they support staying in the Paris agreement, this decision may be ultimately up to American voters.
Figueres says Trump’s move will only serve to galvanize international support for the agreement. India, China, and the EU have all publicly pledged to strengthen their commitments to mutually reduce emissions, and Figueres expects to see more such announcements.
“It’s actually sad for the seriousness and credibility of political leadership currently in the US,” Figueres says. “It is not sad for the international community.”