Getting out of the Paris climate treaty is the single biggest and most important deregulatory action taken by the Trump administration. The Obama administration in its “nationally determined commitment” pledged to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by at least 26% below 2005 levels by 2025. But that’s just the start. Parties to the treaty agreed to make further commitments to reduce emissions every five years.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Republican candidate Donald Trump promised that if elected he would take the U.S. out of the Paris climate treaty. But in the months after taking office in January 2017, a massive campaign was mounted to force the president to break his promise. Opponents included several key White House staff, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, many heads of state, scores of corporate CEOs, assorted billionaires, entertainment celebrities, prominent scientists and scientific institutions, and nearly every environmental pressure group in the world. The conservative movement, led by groups in the Cooler Heads Coalition, engaged in a counter campaign to convince the president to keep his promise. These efforts included a joint letter from 44 groups, a thirty-second television ad, and a significant policy study.
President Trump, in a Rose Garden speech on June 1st, 2017, announced that he would withdraw the United States from the Paris climate treaty. The treaty, which was negotiated in December 2015 at the twenty-first Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change meeting in Paris, went into force on November 4th, 2016. Under the terms of the treaty, parties can give notification of their withdrawal beginning three years after it goes into force—that is, on November 4th, 2019. Thus the State Department gave the UN notice of withdrawal on the first day that it was possible to do so. As Secretary Pompeo noted, official withdrawal will take place one year after notification—on November 4th, 2020.
It is ironic that after all the drama leading up to the president’s June 2017 speech, the decision to get out of Paris has proved to be wildly popular with the entire range of Trump supporters. The president acknowledged the irony in his speech at the Shale Insight Conference in Pittsburgh on October 23rd. He said: “I withdrew the United States from the terrible, one-sided Paris Climate Accord. It was a total disaster for our country. (Applause.) And I thought when I did that, it would be very tough. And all I do is get applauded for that move, so much.”
Although it’s a good sign that the administration has acted expeditiously to get out of Paris, the president, in my view, has chosen the least satisfactory method for doing so. Using the withdrawal procedure specified in the treaty means that the Trump administration agrees that President Barack Obama constitutionally and legally entered the U.S. into the treaty by his signature alone and without the consent of the Senate.
This is to say that President Trump agrees with the fiction created by the Obama administration that Paris is just an executive agreement and not a treaty (i.e., a pact that cannot be ratified until the Senate has given its consent by a two-thirds vote). However, it clearly is a treaty according to the State Department’s criteria. Every other country has joined the treaty through its normal treaty ratification process. By not submitting Paris to the Senate for its advice and (non-)consent, the administration leaves open the possibility that a future president, say on January 20th, 2025, can rejoin Paris simply by sending a letter to the UN.
But perhaps by 2025 Paris will be just a bitter memory. This week the Universal Ecological Fund released a report by a distinguished group of authors on The Truth Behind the Climate Pledges that concludes: “An environmental and economic disaster from human-induced climate change is on the horizon. To achieve the Paris Agreement’s most ambitious goal of keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial levels requires reducing global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 50% by 2030. An analysis of current commitments to reduce emissions between 2020 and 2030 shows that 75% of the climate pledges are partially or totally insufficient….”