Around the world, eyes are on the United States as President Donald Trump draws closer to deciding whether the nation will remain a part of the Paris climate agreement. The president is expected to announce his decision this week, and while multiple White House officials have cautioned that he’s still considering, at least one official said Wednesday that he was leaning toward withdrawal.
This news comes after Trump chose not to join other Group of Seven leaders in committing to remain within the accord at last week’s summit.
But even as climate scientists and activists continue to urge the president not to withdraw from the agreement, citing the possibility of international blowback and a potential undermining of other nations’ commitment to it, a small group of experts has begun to argue that a withdrawal may actually be for the best.
According to them, it’s clear that the Trump administration will fail to meet the climate goals that the Obama administration established under the agreement - namely, a pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent below their 2005 levels by the year 2025. And remaining a part of the accord while blatantly ignoring this commitment could do more damage than simply leaving altogether, they say.
Luke Kemp, a climate and environmental policy expert at Australian National University, made this argument in a recent comment published in the journal Nature Climate Change. There, he points out that most experts’ fears about a U.S. withdrawal revolve around its potential to inspire a kind of domino effect, in which other nations see a lack of commitment from one of the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters and also decide to pull out or backslide on their climate goals. But, he argues, this possibility may actually be heightened if the United States remains in the agreement as a laggard, weakening the compact from within.
“The success of Paris largely relies on its pledge and review process to create political pressure, and drive low-carbon investments,” he writes. “A great power that willfully misses its target could provide political cover for other laggards and weaken the soft power of process.”
It’s a clear minority opinion among experts who support action on climate change. Most other scientists, environmentalists and liberal policymakers have fiercely advocated for remaining in the Paris agreement. Because the United States is the second-largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world, and was an early leader on the creation of Paris accord under the Obama administration, many have suggested that withdrawing could have a strong demotivating effect, clearing the way for other nations to abandon their own climate goals as well.
However, Kemp suggests that if the United States simply withdraws altogether, other nations might actually be inspired to step up their game in its place. In fact, there’s reason to believe this effect might already be occurring. While the Trump administration has relentlessly worked to roll back environmental and climate-related regulations since assuming office, dashing hopes that the United States might still meet its Paris climate goals, China and India - two other major global greenhouse gas emitters - are already on track to exceed their own commitments.
“On the balance of the risks and opportunities, I think it’s clear that a withdrawal is better for the world,” Kemp told The Washington Post in an interview.
And other experts have expressed similar opinions. Kemp’s colleague, Frank Jotzo, who directs the Centre for Climate Economics and Policy at Australian National University, agrees that staying in could be worse than withdrawing — or at least that pulling out is unlikely to be the disaster scenario some experts have predicted.
“The U.S. leaving the Paris agreement is unlikely to have a domino effect,” he told The Washington Post in an email. “And it is a long game: the next president might decide to rejoin the agreement, or join a successor agreement.”
It’s true that a withdrawal from the accord isn’t necessarily a permanent death sentence for U.S. involvement. As Kemp told The Washington Post, “A future president could rejoin Paris at the flick of a pen.”
Kemp and Jotzo may not be alone in their concerns about the United States remaining. Other experts have begun to cautiously suggest that this decision could pose a problem as well.
For instance, some — Kemp included — have noted that if the United States remains, it will continue to have a voice in its proceedings and potential future updates to its terms, with possibly damaging effects. Gabriel Marty, a climate and energy expert and former negotiator for France during the proceedings that led to the Paris agreement, recently told IRIN News that “it’s in this sense that staying in and misbehaving has the potential of being worse than a clean pullout.”
And others have pointed out the more obvious problem that staying in - but doing nothing to work toward a common goal - defeats the purpose of the agreement entirely. In a recent essay published by Climate Change News, senior research fellow Joseph Curtin of the Institute of International and European Affairs weighs the potential effects of both remaining and withdrawing and notes that staying in could be seen as something of a deceitful move.
“There are legitimate arguments in favour of staying in being made by many political leaders in the U.S., NGOs and others,” he writes. “Indeed, polling suggests that the vast majority of Americans favour staying in. Should the U.S. leave, however, the moral outrage of these constituents could be a powerful catalyst for change. There is a danger remaining in could muddy the waters and allow US citizens believe they are contributing to resolving a global problem, when the opposite is the case.”
Again, this is a minority position — for now. But if the United States does stay in the agreement under Trump, but does little else to cut its greenhouse gas emissions, it could be one that gains strength.
Chelsea Harvey is a freelance journalist covering science. She specializes in environmental health and policy.