‘Make Our Planet Great Again’: the Impact of Trump’s Decision to Leave the Paris Agreement


On 1 June 2017 Donald Trump, President of the United States of America (USA) announced that the USA would withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement: “We’re getting out, but we will start to negotiate, and we will see if we can make a deal that’s fair.” The Paris Climate Agreement which aims at limiting and mitigating the effect of climate change, is an agreement which builds upon the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Trump’s decision has been scorned and condemned by many.

The Paris Agreement

On June 1, 2017, Donald Trump, President of the United States of America (USA) announced that the USA would withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement: "We're getting out, but we will start to negotiate, and we will see if we can make a deal that's fair." The Paris Climate Agreement which aims at limiting and mitigating the effect of climate change, is an agreement which builds upon the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). As of June 2017 the Paris Agreement has been signed by 195 UNFCCC members (of which 148 members have also ratified the Agreement). The  agreement was adopted by consensus on 12 December 2015 and will start in the year 2020. The Paris Agreement was accepted by all but two of the 197 countries that were party to the convention (Syria and Nicaragua) but as of June 1, 2017, the government of the USA also decided to pull out of the Paris climate agreement.

A vacuum of climate leadership. Climate and geopolitics

The decision of Trump to withdraw from the Paris Accord caused anger, disappointment and also fear and has a great impact not only in the field of environmental policy (domestic and worldwide) but also on international relations, diplomacy and international law. President Trump's claims regarding the Paris Agreement have been questioned and fact-checked by journalists and experts.

Analysts and commentators suggested that Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement harms the global influence of the USA. Trump’s Paris Agreement withdrawal is said to have opened up a geopolitical vacuum in climate leadership. North Korea considered Trump’s decision as “the height of egotism” and a “moral vacuum” of leadership. A vacuum of leadership which other states such as China would gladly fill. It is said that Trump’s decision has had a beneficial effect on the diplomacy and economy of China and the European Union.

Why did Trump pull out?

According to the Paris Agreement the member states submit 'nationally determined' contributions of climate action to mitigate global warming.  These emission reduction goals are non-binding but the countries are supposed to try to meet these goals and report on their progress. In addition, wealthier nations should provide financing for developing countries to help them reach their climate goals. In Trump's words this concerns "draconian financial and economic burdens" which are imposed upon the country by the Agreement and the Paris Accord it is "less about the climate and more about other countries gaining a financial advantage over the United States".  In his opinion the Agreement "punishes" the country because the Agreement means a "massive redistribution of United States wealth to other countries" and calls the Paris Accord "unfair at the highest level to the United States".

The USA and the Paris Agreement

The Obama administration has already contributed $ 1 billion to the Green Climate Fund of the $ 3 billion it pledged. With regard to the Paris Agreement, the Obama administration submitted a goal of cutting emissions by around a quarter from 2005 levels by 2025. According to the Paris Agreement the USA should try to meet these goals and report on their progress. The Paris Agreement calls for countries to set nationally determined emissions reduction targets without setting sanctions for noncompliance. It relies on a 'name-and-shame' system of global peer pressure. The Paris Agreement is an agreement, not a treaty. In the United States it is considered an executive agreement which doesn’t have all the domestic legal effects of a treaty - they are not internationally binding. Executive agreements do not become the law of the land such as treaties.

Formal withdrawal process takes up to four years

The decision of president Trump to withdraw from the Paris Agreement is consistent with the current constitutional structure. He is quitting a sole executive agreement. But the fact that Trump decided to withdraw from the Agreement does not imply that the government of the USA can immediately stop the implementation of the Paris Agreement. The USA continues to be bound by the Paris Agreement because the formal withdrawal process outlined in article 28 of the Paris Agreement takes up to four years.

The notice of withdrawal takes effect in early November 2020, that is after the next presidential election. Until then, the USA is bound by international law to comply with the terms of the Paris Agreement. The USA would be violating international law if it chooses not to meet the nationally determined emissions reduction targets as mentioned in the goals submitted by the Obama administration. Not meeting the nationally determined targets would lead to a breach of international obligations. Daniel Bodansky, a legal expert on international climate law, states that "there aren't any specific penalties for violations, but other countries are allowed to take 'counter-measures' in response."

In response to the frustration by Trump's decision to leave the Paris Agreement, several governors have joined forces to create the United States Climate Alliance. The states of New York, California and Washington have pledged to meet the commitments of the USA for cutting greenhouse gas emissions as originally submitted by the Obama administration. More states are expected to join. The United States Climate Alliance also acts as a forum to sustain and strengthen existing climate programs, promote the sharing of information and best practices, and implement new programs to reduce carbon emissions from all sectors of the economy.  It is also hoped that by working together, costs for renewable energy industry can be reduced.

Responses to Trump’s withdrawal

Secretary-General António Guterres considers the decision of Trump to withdraw from the “landmark agreement” - the Paris Agreement - a “major disappointment for global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and promote global security”. The Secretary-General is of the opinion that climate action offers an “enormous opportunity” and that the Paris Agreement “offers a meaningful yet flexible framework for action by all countries.” Guterres affirmed that it “is crucial that the United States remains a leader on environmental issues.” He is convinced that “cities, states and businesses within the United States -- along with other countries -- will continue to demonstrate vision and leadership by working for the low-carbon, resilient economic growth that will create quality jobs and markets for 21st century prosperity”. The Secretary-General looks forward to work together with the American government and all actors inside the USA and around the world in order to create a sustainable future - to safeguard our planet for future generations who depend on us.

The Head the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), Erik Solheim, also reacted to the decision of the US to leave the Paris Agreement. He states that climate change is a global challenge for which each nation has a responsibility to act. The decision of the USA to withdraw “in no way brings an end to this unstoppable effort” and that other countries, such as the EU member countries, China, India and others are “already showing strong leadership” to protect our planet. Not only states, but also individual states, cities, citizens and the private sector cooperate to combat climate change; “UNEP would work with everyone willing to make a difference.” Climate action offers opportunities, economic growth, the creation of jobs and helps save lives and combat an “unprecedented global humanitarian crisis” caused by climate change.

Trump's statement about further negotiations has not been received well. The governments of France, Germany and Italy for example have given a joint statement in response to Trump's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement: “We deem the momentum generated in Paris in December 2015 irreversible and we firmly believe that the Paris Agreement cannot be renegotiated, since it is a vital instrument for our planet, societies and economies.”

The president of France, Emmanuel Macron, appealed to a sense of responsibility and addressed a message to all "responsible citizens" to work together to make a difference and unite against climate change.  He tweeted: we will "make our planet great again." On a website specially dedicated to this slogan he stated: "On the 1st of June, president Donald Trump decided to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement, which gathered more than 190 countries united against climate change. This decision is unfortunate but it only reinforced our determination. Don’t let it weaken yours. We are ONE planet and Together, we can make a difference. France has always led fights for human rights. Today, more than ever, we are determined to lead (and win!) this battle on climate change". President Macron does not agree with Trump's isolationism. In stead of 'America First' and 'We will make America great again', everyone should take responsibility for the environment.

Trump's decision has been scorned and condemned by many. It has been called a "reckless rejection" and considered a "giant step toward turning our country into a rogue nation". And in response to Trump's statement that "climate change is a hoax":  this " [...] is the exact opposite of virtually all scientific and worldwide opinion". Trump's decision has been described as the "height of egotism" , "a moral vacuum", "a moral disgrace", "one of the most ignorant and dangerous actions ever taken by any president", just to mention a few.

The Climate and Environmental Justice

As the Secretary-General of the United Nations stated, future generations depend on our care of the planet, our ‘climate action’. The decision of Trump to withdraw from the Paris Agreement has led to a worldwide response. Many are disappointed and regret his decision. However, his decision will not diminish the sense of responsibility and necessity to protect the planet and future generations against climate change. This awareness is part of the public conscience both in the USA and worldwide and we can only hope that the awareness and sense of responsibility will continue to grow and lead to fruitful global, regional and national actions to protect the planet. We have only one planet and it is our responsibility to take good care of the earth and its inhabitants; to protect biodiversity, to protect our planet, for now and for generations to come. To speak with the words of the French president Emmanuel Macron: "Make our planet great again".

Bibliography manually