Why Abandoning Paris Is a Disaster for America

The Obama administration’s brain trust on how Trump’s rejection of the global climate change agreement is a monumental blunder.

Ever the showman, President Donald Trump tweeted Wednesday about his soon-to-be-announced decision on whether or not to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement with the air of a 1950s Las Vegas emcee building up his audience’s anticipation for an upcoming act. But the decision to remove the United States from the long-negotiated, hard-fought, international agreement is no sideshow. This is about what’s in the best interests of American prosperity and security.

As promised, Trump stepped to the podium in the Rose Garden on Thursday afternoon, announcing that the United States would leave the Paris accord. The decision will have serious, irreversible repercussions for the United States and the world.

The president’s justifications for leaving the agreement are also just plain wrong.

First, contrary to the president’s assertions, America’s hands are not tied and its sovereignty is not compromised by the Paris climate pact. The Paris agreement is an accord, not a treaty, which means it’s voluntary. The genius (and reality) of the Paris agreement is that it requires no particular policies at all — nor are the emissions targets that countries committed to legally binding. Trump admitted as much in the Rose Garden, referring to the accord’s “nonbinding” nature. If the president genuinely thinks America’s targets are too onerous, he can simply adjust them (although we believe it would be shortsighted for the administration to do so). There is no need to exit the Paris accord in search of a “better deal.” Given the voluntary nature of the agreement, pulling out of the Paris deal in a fit of pique is an empty gesture, unless that gesture is meant to be a slap in the face to every single U.S. ally and partner in the world.

The second big lie is that the Paris agreement will be a job killer. In fact, it will help the United States capture more 21st-century jobs. That is why dozens of U.S. corporate leaders, including many on the president’s own advisory council, urged him not to quit the agreement. As a letter sent to the White House by ExxonMobil put it, the agreement represents an “effective framework for addressing the risk of climate change,” and the United States is “well positioned to compete” under the terms of the deal.

Action on climate and economic growth go hand in hand, and are mutually reinforcing. That is why twice as much money was invested worldwide in renewables last year as in fossil fuels, and why China is pouring in billions to try to win this market of the future. A bipartisan group of retired admirals and generals on the CNA Military Advisory Board is about to release a report that will also spell out the importance of competitiveness in advanced energy technologies — not just to the economy, but also to the country’s standing in the world. Pulling out of climate will result in a loss of U.S. jobs and knock the United States off its perch as a global leader in innovation in a quickly changing global economic climate.

The rationale for ditching America’s commitment to the Paris accord just doesn’t hold up. Moreover, Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement comes with several serious and lasting consequences for the United States and the world:

The Trump administration is hastening catastrophic effects of climate change. Scientists and economists now state with confidence that the failure to act to arrest and mitigate global climate change will have devastating global consequences, including for young Americans alive today and for their children and grandchildren. Donald Trump himself may well live to see more climate-related catastrophes hit the homeland. His children and grandchildren certainly will.

Americans all over this country are already seeing the changes — storms are more severe, big floods come more often, and in the most extreme case, Arctic waters are melting and opening up sea lanes for the first time in recorded history. Trump saw the damage from Hurricane Sandy firsthand, a preview of what climate change has in store for future generations.

Heading off the worst effects of climate change requires global action: Action by one country alone, no matter how powerful, cannot address the threat. But our country, one of the world’s two largest carbon emitters, does have significant power to improve not just our own climate, but the world’s — and Trump’s decision takes us in the wrong direction. That’s especially tragic in light of the signature achievement of the Paris Agreement, which was to get every country on board; now China and India have made the same commitments the United States and other highly developed countries have. It binds us all together through a political agreement — but the strength of that agreement depends on all of us meeting our nationally determined responsibilities.

Put simply, the U.S. decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement will have impacts on the global climate that a future U.S. administration will not be able to undo. It will undermine the most significant and comprehensive coordinating mechanism for global action to combat climate change that we have. It will weaken an existing asset to defend present and future generations of Americans against a significant threat; it will undermine our security. Indeed, leading military experts, including Secretary of Defense James Mattis, have warned that the impact of climate change will lead to more refugee flows, more famine, more conflict, and more terrorism. As Mattis said, “Climate change is impacting stability in areas of the world where our troops are operating today.” By withdrawing from this agreement, Trump would be ignoring an issue his own secretary of defense has said is a national security threat.

Trump is abdicating U.S. leadership and inviting China to fill the void. During his Rose Garden address, the president asserted that the Paris agreement disproportionately benefits American competitors, such as China. Yet pulling out of the accord redounds to Beijing’s benefit even more.

The Paris agreement was forged in part on the backbone of a preliminary understanding between the United States and China—the two largest carbon-emitting nations. In recent days, as Trump dithered about whether or not to stay in, the Chinese quickly seized the opportunity to claim the mantle of global leadership and have made clear that they will stay in, even as the United States pulls out. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang is riding the wake of Trump’s disastrous visit to Europe, where China and the European Union are expected to release a joint statement on Friday reaffirming their commitment to combatting climate change. This follows Xi Jinping’s defense of globalization and the importance of countries’ looking beyond their own national interests at Davos earlier this year. Beijing will win an Olympics-sized soft-power boost by staying in while the Washington reneges.

Ceding U.S. leadership to the Chinese on this issue is likely to have political and economic costs. China, like Russia, sees value in any division between the United States and Europe — as a rising power it would rather negotiate with us separately rather than collectively. Europeans grateful to China for its continued partnership on climate will be less concerned to take account of U.S. interests with respect to, say, China’s harmful industrial policy, human rights violations, or economic and military coercion expansionism in Asia. European deals with China for the production of infrastructure and equipment related to renewable energy will surely follow. Pulling out of Paris will weaken our geopolitical standing – and complicate our efforts to work with our partners and allies to manage a rising China. Other nations that see themselves as bearing the brunt of climate change, including those of strategic importance to the United States — such as Vietnam, the Philippines, or much of Africa — will now see China as part of the solution to their problem.

Pulling out of Paris will likely result in creating jobs in China that could have been created here in the United States. It will give Chinese and other countries’ companies a leg up in the growing and competitive green economy, putting U.S. companies at a serious disadvantage. The industry and the jobs of the future are in renewables — why would we cede any of that ground to Chinese, Indian, and European companies? The United States will be relegated from a global leader, economically and otherwise, to a member of a lonely camp of pariah countries that haven’t signed this global pact, together with only Syria and Nicaragua. America First? Hardly.

Withdrawing from Paris will damage U.S. standing in the world. Pulling out of Paris will call into question the word of the United States and weaken our ability to call on other countries to work with us on other global threats, such as global terrorism and global pandemics. International agreements are not irrevocable; indeed this one, which the United States had a heavy hand in creating, was crafted carefully as a series of nationally determined, voluntary commitments precisely in order to gain worldwide support, and with the understanding that countries can adjust their commitments as needed. Walking away from that agreement sends a clear — and foolhardy — message to all other countries around the world: Don’t trust the United States.

And why should they, if we so evidently signal that U.S. foreign policy is utterly politicized, and that agreements signed with one administration will not be honored by the next. It is firmly in the U.S. interest to have others’ trust — and for us to be able to demand in return — the durability of agreements, even when governments change. As a chief architect and moral leader of the post-World War II order, our own behavior with respect to agreements and international law sets the example. If the most powerful country in the world has suddenly decided that signing and living up to an agreement no longer matters, why should it matter to other states?

Why should Russia, for example, fear any sanction for invading the sovereign territory of another country, or North Korea fear any reaction to flouting U.N. Security Council resolutions? Why would other countries look to the United States to lead — or choose willingly to follow our lead — when we come asking for commitments, to counter the Islamic State or to address the next global pandemic?

In the wake of the president’s disastrous first foreign trip, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Director for the National Economic Council Gary Cohn were dispatched to attempt to reframe the trip on the Wall Street Journal op-ed page. There they gave perhaps the clearest and most alarming explanation of what America First means as a foreign policy and how it applies to the Paris Agreement. A key passage reads:

The president embarked on his first foreign trip with a clear-eyed outlook that the world is not a “global community” but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors, and businesses compete for advantage. We bring to this forum unmatched military, political, economic, cultural, and moral strength. Rather than deny this elemental nature of international affairs, we embrace it.

McMaster and Cohn are wrong. To be sure, the world is a competitive arena that has at times throughout history turned into bloody conflict and ruin. That is precisely the reason the United States has always looked for alliances and partnerships grounded not only in common interests, but common values and commitments. It is also why wise presidents have long recognized that even as the most powerful nation on Earth — and in many cases precisely because of our global reach — the United States has an interest in a rules-based system. That system protects our citizens living overseas, our businesses operating overseas, and our military operations around the world. We threaten the underpinnings of that system at our peril.

Pulling out of Paris means Republicans own climate catastrophes. Just as President Barack Obama bequeathed to the Trump/Paul Ryan/Mitch McConnell team a workable framework for ensuring health care coverage, President Trump inherited a workable framework for global climate action. The Republicans have chosen to pour sand in the gas tank of Obamacare, using the levers of government to attempt to make the Affordable Care Act fail even as they themselves fail to deliver a real alternative. Polls show that Americans — even Republicans — understand that the GOP now owns health care as an issue. They will similarly own whatever disasters befall the United States if they do nothing to be part of the solution. They are ignoring the scientific evidence and turning their backs on the best chance to address this global challenge. In fact, the majority of the population of every state in the United States supports staying in this agreement. The president and his Republican allies are flouting the will of the American people as our country walks away.

This week, there was news that this year’s peach crop in South Carolina and Georgia was ruined by the extreme temperature swings — unseasonably hot in late winter, and a cold snap in late spring. As extreme weather events like this and other phenomena associated with climate change accelerate, when we confront our next Katrina or Sandy, people will remember that it was Trump and the Republicans who did nothing. Make that worse than nothing: They lost ground and put their party ahead of the country.

Trump’s pulling out of Paris means that the rest of us are called upon to do more — and we will. Even as the White House abandons the pact, there are plenty of ways for Americans to advance its goals. Many state and local governments are already tackling energy efficiency and emissions reductions. California, the sixth-largest economy in the world, will not abandon its emission standards. And many U.S. cities are a locus of both great innovation and high-impact investments. That is why Mayor Bill de Blasio announced this week that he will sign an executive order for New York City to uphold climate commitments even if the United States pulls out. Major corporations across this country have recognized the opportunities in clean energy and energy storage, and see the risks of inaction to their long-term profitability. ExxonMobil’s shareholders even voted this week in support of more open and detailed analysis of the threats posed by climate change to the oil business. Entrepreneurs, investors, and researchers will continue to press forward with the next generation of innovations that can reduce carbon emissions. And we can all continue to pressure our political leaders to take serious action to confront this threat. If Trump ditches Paris, there’s no time for despair — it’s a time for action.

There are many reasons why pulling out of Paris is a bad idea. (In addition to those above, there’s the fact that, like most divorces, this is a yearslong legal process that requires more than a tweet or a speech.) Trump can bluster that he’s putting America first, but climate change is real and will become far more dire in the coming years. The need for action to address it will remain urgent. The rest of the world won’t be standing still and neither should we if we want to advance American security and prosperity.

Photo credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Daniel Baer is diplomat in residence at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. He was U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe from 2013 to 2017. He previously served as a deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor from 2009 to 2013. Baer was an assistant professor at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business, a faculty fellow at Harvard’s Safra Center for Ethics, and a project leader at the Boston Consulting Group. (@danbbaer)

Daniel Benjamin is director of the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He served from 2009 to 2012 as ambassador-at-large and coordinator for counterterrorism at the U.S. State Department. During more than five years on the National Security Council staff in the 1990s, Benjamin served as a foreign policy speechwriter for President Bill Clinton and director for transnational threats.

Hal Brands is the Henry A. Kissinger distinguished professor of global affairs at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. He is the author of several books, including Making the Unipolar Moment: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Rise of the Post-Cold War Order and What Good Is Grand Strategy? Power and Purpose in American Statecraft From Harry S. Truman to George W. Bush. He served as the special assistant to the secretary of defense for strategic planning from 2015 to 2016. (@HalBrands1)

Reuben Brigety is dean of the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University and is an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. From 2013 to 2015, he served as the U.S. ambassador to the African Union and U.S. permanent representative to the U.N. Economic Commission for Africa. Previously he served as the deputy assistant secretary of state for African Affairs and also for population, refugees, and migration. He is the author of "Ethics, Technology, and the American Way of War." (@RealDeanB)

Sharon E. Burke is a senior advisor to New America, where she focuses on international security and resource security.

Derek Chollet served in the Barack Obama administration for six years in senior positions at the White House, State Department, and Pentagon, most recently as the U.S. assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs. Currently the executive vice president at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, his books include The Long Game: How Obama Defied Washington and Redefined America’s Role in the World, America Between the Wars: From 11/9 to 9/11 (co-written with James Goldgeier), and The Unquiet American: Richard Holbrooke in the World (co-edited with Samantha Power). A native Nebraskan, he lives in Washington, D.C., with his family. Chollet is a co-editor of Shadow Government. (@derekchollet)

Bathsheba ("Sheba") Crocker was the assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs from 2014 to 2017. Earlier in the Barack Obama administration, she was the principal deputy director in the State Department’s office of policy planning and chief of staff to the deputy secretary. Prior to this, Crocker was a senior policy and advocacy officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, senior advisor in the U.N.’s peacebuilding support office, and deputy chief of staff to the U.N. special envoy for tsunami recovery. She also worked on post-conflict issues at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and was a Council on Foreign Relations international affairs fellow. Previously, Crocker was an attorney and deputy U.S. special representative for Southeast Europe affairs at the State Department; she also served as executive assistant to the deputy national security advisor. (@shebacrocker)

Dan Feldman spent more than six years at the State Department in the Barack Obama administration helping to lead civilian efforts on Afghanistan and Pakistan, including serving as special representative for those two countries, with the rank of ambassador, from 2014 to 2015. His prior government positions included serving on the National Security Council staff for multilateral affairs in the Bill Clinton administration and on the staff of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. He is currently a partner at the law firm Akin Gump, a senior advisor at the Albright Stonebridge Group, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. (@FeldmanDF)

Jon Finer was the chief of staff to Secretary of State John Kerry and director of policy planning at the State Department. He also spent four years in the Barack Obama White House, serving as a senior advisor in the offices of the national security advisor and the middle east advisor, as a foreign-policy speechwriter in the office of Vice President Joe Biden, and as a White House fellow in the office of the chief of staff. Before serving in government, Finer was a reporter at the Washington Post, where he covered conflicts in Iraq, Lebanon, Georgia, and Gaza. (@jonfiner)

Nina Hachigian served as the U.S. ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations from 2014 to 2017. During her tenure, the United States established a strategic partnership with ASEAN, held the first leaders' summit in the United States, and launched a presidential initiative for economic cooperation. Earlier, Hachigian was a senior fellow and a senior vice president at the Center for American Progress. Prior to that, she was the director of the RAND Center for Asia Pacific Policy. Hachigian served on the staff of the National Security Council in the Bill Clinton White House. She is the editor of "Debating China: The U.S. — China Relationship in Ten Conversations." She also wrote "The Next American Century: How the U.S. Can Thrive as Other Powers Rise." (@NinaHachigian)

Colin H. Kahl is an associate professor in the security studies program at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and a strategic consultant at the Penn-Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement. From 2014 to 2017, he was deputy assistant to President Barack Obama and national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden. From 2009 to 2011, he served as the deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East. In 2011, he was awarded the Secretary of Defense Medal for Outstanding Public Service by Secretary Robert Gates. He lives in Washington, D.C. with his wife and two children. Kahl is a co-editor of Shadow Government. (@ColinKahl)

Kelly Magsamen served as the principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs from 2014 to 2017. Prior to joining the Defense Department, Magsamen served on the National Security Council in various positions, most immediately as special assistant to the president and senior director for strategic planning from 2012 to 2014. During her years at NSC, she also served as the director for Iran, from 2008 to 2011; and then as director and senior advisor for Middle East reform in the wake of the Arab Spring, from 2011 to 2012. (@kellymagsamen)

Tom Malinowski was assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor from 2014 to 2017. He previously served as Washington director for Human Rights Watch, as a senior director on the National Security Council staff, as President Bill Clinton’s chief foreign policy speechwriter, and as a speechwriter and member of the policy planning Staff at the State Department under Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Warren Christopher. (@Malinowski)

Jeffrey Prescott served as a special assistant to the president and senior director for Iran, Iraq, Syria, and the Persian Gulf states on the National Security Council. He joined the Barack Obama administration in 2010 as a White House fellow and was Vice President Joe Biden's deputy national security advisor and senior Asia advisor. Previously, he was a senior research scholar and lecturer at Yale Law School and deputy director of Yale’s China Center. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife, Susan Jakes, and two daughters.

Ely Ratner is the Maurice R. Greenberg senior fellow in China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was deputy national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden from 2015 to 2017 and previously served in the Office of Chinese and Mongolian Affairs at the State Department and as a professional staff member on the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee. His current work focuses on U.S.-China relations, regional security in East Asia, and U.S. national security policy in Asia. (@elyratner)

Vikram J. Singh is senior advisor for national security, democracy, and technology at the Center for American Progress. He was previously vice president at the center and deputy assistant secretary of defense for South and Southeast Asia. (@VJS_Policy)

Julianne ("Julie") Smith is director of the strategy and statecraft program at the Center for a New American Security. Prior to joining CNAS, she served as the deputy national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden from 2012 to 2013. Before going to the White House, she served as the principal director for European/NATO policy at the Pentagon. Smith lives in Washington with her husband and two children. Smith is a co-editor of Shadow Government. (@Julie_C_Smith)

Jake Sullivan is a Martin R. Flug visiting lecturer at Yale Law School. He served in the Barack Obama administration as national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden and director of policy planning at the State Department, as well as deputy chief of staff to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Jim Townsend just completed eight years as President Barack Obama’s deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO. This capped more than two decades of working with European allies and partners to build a post-Cold War transatlantic community. Along the way, he worked on issues that ranged from NATO enlargement to managing coalitions for military campaigns in Libya, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, rebuilding U.S. force presence in Europe, and NATO reform. His greatest accomplishment is being married to Joan Townsend and having three wonderful children: Carolyn, Jimmy, and Beth.