02 Jun Sound and Fury on the Paris Agreement – But Does It Signify Anything?
[Daniel Bodansky is Foundation Professor of Law at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, Arizona State University.]
As usual, in his announcement yesterday about the Paris Agreement, President Trump spoke loudly but carried a small stick. Duncan laid out the options for withdrawal in his post earlier this week. Rather than choosing the “nuclear option” of withdrawing from the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which President Trump could have initiated immediately and would have resulted in US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement a year from now, he opted to withdraw from the Paris Agreement pursuant to the Paris Agreement itself – a much slower process that requires him to wait until November 2019 to provide notice of withdrawal, and another year before the withdrawal takes effect. Needless to say, a lot can happen between now and then. Whether Trump feels the same way in 2019 as he does today is by no means certain, particularly since, judging from both his words and deeds, Trump views consistency as the hobgoblin of little minds. As a result, his announcement throws red meat to his supporters and gives the finger to the rest of the world (much the same thing) – but it doesn’t do anything concrete to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement.
But if the Trump announcement was weak on substance it was strong on rhetoric. David Roberts has an excellent post over at Vox on “The 5 Biggest Deceptions in Trump’s Paris Climate Speech.” So I’ll be brief. Suffice it to say that, in justifying his decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, President Trump trotted out the same warmed-over arguments that the Bush Administration made about the Kyoto Protocol: it’s unfair to the US because it lets China and India off the hook; it’s a threat to US sovereignty, by putting the United States under the thumb of UN bureaucrats; and it would wreck the US economy. These agreements may have had a kernel of truth with respect to the Kyoto Protocol, but they are completely wrong about the Paris Agreement. The Paris Agreement was, in fact, designed to be the un-Kyoto. In contrast to Kyoto, it calls on all countries to make commitments to control emissions. Rather than imposing internationally negotiated targets on countries, it gives parties complete flexibility to nationally-determine their emission reduction plans. And rather than putting countries in a legal straightjacket that threatens their sovereignty, countries’ national emission commitments under the Paris Agreement are not legally binding.
Although the US will remain in the Paris Agreement through at least 2020, President Trump said that the US would stop implementing it in the meantime. This appears directly at odds with general rule of treaty law, reflected in the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, requiring states to perform in good faith treaties to which they are a party. So long as the United States is a party to the Paris Agreement, it is obligated to comply with its commitments under the agreement.
For Trump, announcing his intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement was a win-win-win: it shored up support among his base, diverted attention away from the Russia investigation, and allowed him to look decisive (after weeks of dithering about what to do). For the rest of the world (including non-Trump America), the announcement was a significant setback in the international effort to address climate change. But how serious a setback will depend, in part, on the reaction by other countries and by sub-national actors within the United States. So far, the response has been encouraging. Other countries, including China, Russia, India and European countries, have reaffirmed their commitment to the Paris Agreement and states and cities within the United States have created the United States Climate Alliance, dedicated to achieving the US goal of reducing emissions by 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025. If the United States reengages with the Paris Agreement after the 2020 elections, the Trump announcement may turn out to be a pothole for the United States, rather than a plunge off the cliff for the world.