Event Recap | The Impact of the U.S. Leaving the Paris Agreement

US leaving Paris Agreement
Jonah Busch, Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Development, gives a lecture at the SMU Tower Center Dec. 8.

Jonah Busch, Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Development, gave a lecture at the SMU Tower Center on the impact of the U.S. leaving the Paris Climate Agreement Dec. 8.

The Paris Agreement is a universal global climate deal that allows each country to determine its own pledge to reduce carbon emissions, with the goal to limit climate change to below 2 degrees Celsius. The agreement, first established at the Paris climate conference in 2015 and ratified in 2016, is now signed by every country (except for the United States) and has been ratified by 170 countries. President Trump announced the United States withdrawl from the agreement in June.

Brief Background on Climate Change

Busch opened his talk with an introduction about science of climate change and its global impact. Perhaps most importantly, as the planet becomes warmer, natural disasters become more devastating. This means larger forest fires, bigger hurricanes, the sea level will continue to rise, and more.

Busch also presented graphs that illustrate the costs of climate change. They showed developing countries carry more than 75 percent of the costs, while developed countries, until recently, were responsible for a vast majority of emissions. He recognized that while the costs of global warming are increasingly dire, it’s a complicated problem because of all the comforts and benefits society has gained since harnessing fossil fuels for energy.

Effect of U.S. Leaving the Paris Agreement on the Agreement

Busch argued that the effect on the agreement itself would be negligible, since it is an international agreement that is moving forward without the United States.

Effect on the U.S. Government

The impact of leaving the agreement on the U.S. government is devastating, Busch says. The Trump administration has rolled back all of the protections President Obama issued through executive action, such as regulations on drilling and limitations on emission levels. The new leader of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Scott Pruitt, is skeptical of human contribution to climate change and the research behind it and is also rolling back regulations on polluters. Busch adds that Rick Perry, now Secretary of Energy, once vowed to abolish the department he now leads (though he’s since said he regrets saying that) adding to the direness of the situation.

Effect on Cities and States

Withdrawing from the Paris Agreement has had an energizing effect on local governments, according to Busch. With the inaction of the federal government, many state governors and city mayors have pledged to do their part to keep up with the Agreement and then some. More than 30 states have adopted renewable portfolio standard policies and California along with most of the North East has cap and trade policies. Cap and trade policies place a cap on the total amount of emissions businesses can have, allowing businesses that have reduced emissions to below the cap to sell their surplus to another business that isn’t able to meet the cap.

Effect on Other Countries

Leaving the agreement has led to two reactions from other countries. According to Busch, most other countries are still holding up their end. Some countries, such as China and India, are stepping up to fill the leadership vacuum with ambitious pledges going well past the expected minimum. Other countries, such as Turkey, have said that if the agreement isn’t a priority for the U.S., it’s not a priority for them. While countries haven’t left the agreement, Turkey for example, has stopped efforts to ratify it in its country.

Pessimism vs. Optimism

To conclude his talk, Busch laid out cases for both optimism and pessimism in regards to fixing climate change. He said there’s reason to be pessimistic because there’s not enough time to completely reduce the heating of the planet to less than 2 degrees Celsius. If Earth does warm by even this much (and it’s predicted to warm by 3.5 degrees) then humans will be in uncharted territory. While humans have survived on an Earth three to five degrees cooler, humans and their crops have never seen a planet two degrees warmer.

He said there was also reason to be optimistic because markets are changing. Natural gas is now cheaper than coal, and as renewable energy becomes more cost efficient, consumers and corporations will eventually follow the most cost-efficient path to renewables.

For further reading, check out Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, edited by Paul Hawken, or Busch’s latest book, Why Forests, Why Now?