What Is the Paris Climate Agreement


Before I begin, let’s agree to agree on this basic fact: Climate change is real, and it’s happening right now. Its effects have already displaced communities, caused damage to homes and cities, and threatened food and water supplies. But this is just the beginning. The year 2016 was the warmest year ever recorded, and temperatures are projected to keep rising, which means you can expect more devastating consequences to come.

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Greenhouse gas emissions (like the methane released during livestock production) directly result in a warming planet. Humans have caused all of the warming that’s happened since 1970, according to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. More specifically, Americans are responsible for a lot of the emissions that lead to climate change.

But that doesn’t mean American leaders are sold on this well-documented science. President Donald Trump has tweeted that climate change is a hoax and he put Scott Pruitt, a climate change skeptic, in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency. Since the start of Pruitt’s tenure, the EPA has removed climate change information from its website and dismissed scientists from an advisory board. Trump signed an executive order approving the construction of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines. He has wasted no time going after environmental regulations, including signing an executive order to begin dismantling the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which set forth goals to reduce emissions from coal power plants. Trump has also threatened to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement.

Should that last one freak you out? It sure freaks Tiffany & Co. out. Here’s what you need to know about the Paris Agreement:

What Is the Paris Agreement?

On Dec. 12, 2015, 195 countries, or nearly every nation that exists on this planet, agreed to the terms of a global climate pact known as the Paris Agreement. It took decades of deliberating and stalling for something like this to happen. Finally, the entire world was on the same page: Climate change is the single most important crisis facing humanity and it needs to be addressed in a massive, coordinated way.

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The Paris Agreement’s primary goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to keep global temperatures from rising above 2 degrees Celsius at the end of this century. We’re already at almost 1 degree Celsius above pre-Industrial temperatures, so 2 degrees is really not far off. Based on the pace at which things are moving now, staying below 2 degrees Celsius, or even the more desirable 1.5 degrees Celsius, seems utterly impossible.

A warming planet doesn’t just mean hotter days, unpredictable weather, and an uptick in cataclysmic weather events. “Climate change can indirectly increase risks of violent conflicts in the form of civil war and inter-group violence,” according to a report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Still, nobody likes to have to make sacrifices, even if the fate of the world is at stake. But the fate of the world is at stake, so here we are.

Here’s the thing though: No country is actually obligated to make any sacrifices. The Paris Agreement is voluntary. Individual nations came up with formal plans that include targets for emissions reduction, and those plans are known as nationally determined contributions. Because the agreement is not legally binding, there’s no material consequence a country would face if it failed to meet its nationally determined contributions. But the idea is that since everyone is involved in this enormous group project, everyone is watching.

Why Is Trump Thinking of Withdrawing?

“Canceling” the agreement was one of Trump’s campaign promises but he reportedly has yet to finalize his decision because there are two opposing groups within the White House arguing over the issue.

On Team Stay are Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner, and Rex Tillerson. Rick Perry is also on this team, though he feels the U.S. should renegotiate (before Trump, the U.S. pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 26 percent by 2025). According to multiple reports, those on Team Stay argue that pulling out of the agreement will make the U.S. look really, really bad to the international community.

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On Team Leave are Scott Pruitt; Steve Bannon, a climate change denier; and Jeff Sessions, who once said climate science was “deliberate misinformation.” According to the New York Times, Bannon’s political stake in this debate is that if Team Stay wins, his influence diminishes and the hardcore Trump supporters have to live with yet another broken campaign promise. Team Stay is also worried about the Trump administration facing lawsuits from activists if it weakens commitments to reducing emissions.

Trump stated at a rally on April 29 that the agreement is “one-sided” and that the U.S. is shouldering a burden of “billions of dollars” while other countries like China, India, and Russia “have contributed and will contribute nothing.” (Russia, it’s worth noting, is a signatory but has not ratified the agreement.)

In 2010, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change established the Green Climate Fund. Through the fund, richer developed nations contribute money for poorer developing nations to lower emissions and do more to combat climate change. According to Factcheck.org, the U.S. has paid $500 million out of its $3 billion pledge to the Green Climate Fund. Sweden, meanwhile, has paid $581 million. America’s pledge also isn’t the biggest when you look at the per-capita numbers, which amounts to about $9 per person. Here, Sweden also bests the U.S. at $60 per person. On May 13, at a climate change talk in Bonn, Germany, State Department envoy Trigg Talley said that the U.S. is not contributing to the fund this year.

Trump won’t officially decide about the Paris Agreement until the end of the month, after the Group of Seven summit in Italy. Officials from other nations and heads of corporations are urging him to remain in the agreement. And according to a Huffington Post/YouGov poll, a majority of Americans don’t want to leave the agreement either.

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What Would Happen if the U.S. Backed Out?

You mean apart from looking really, really bad to the rest of the world? A few possible outcomes:

Emissions would rise dramatically. In the first months of this administration, Trump and Pruitt have shown nothing but contempt for climate change science, clean energy, and protecting the environment, so there’s no indication that they would back out of the Paris Agreement and then take measures to drastically reduce emissions. Without the agreement to hold the U.S. accountable, polluters could go on polluting.

The U.S. could get hit with trade tariffs. If the U.S. backs out of the Paris Agreement and continues to emit carbon to the degree that it does today, other nations could impose carbon tariffs on stuff made in America, according to the New York Times, and that would be problematic for American businesses and the economy.

American workers would lose out on jobs. Many countries and corporations around the world have been investing heavily in green energy. The cost of renewable energy has gone down, making it much easier to make changes to infrastructure. Without being party to the Paris Agreement, argues Erik Solheim, the executive director of the U.N.’s environment program, the U.S. would fall behind in the job market. At the climate talks in Bonn, State Department envoy Talley would not commit to an answer about Trump’s latest position on the agreement but said that “the administration will not take actions that are contrary to the overarching focus of competitiveness and economic growth.”

China could take the lead. “There’s no space for a vacuum,” global governance expert Maria Ivanova told the Guardian, “so if the U.S. leaves the world of clean energy and energy efficiency, then that vacuum will be filled by somebody, probably China.”

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