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The Fallout from Trump’s Paris Accord Withdrawal

BU experts analyze decision to leave climate change accord


The resignation of the US lead diplomat in China Monday over President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate change accord threw added gas on the political fire Trump’s decision has ignited.

Critics condemned the June 1 announcement as a threat to the planet’s ecology and abandonment by the United States of global leadership in climate change; climate change skeptics shrugged, noting the agreement’s greenhouse gas limits were voluntary on signatories. As for David Rank, US chargé d’affaires in China, he said that having to defend the withdrawal violated what he called his duty as a “parent, patriot, and a Christian.” (His replacement, Ambassador Terry Brandstad, was confirmed in May, but had not yet been posted to Beijing.)

In announcing US withdrawal from the accord signed by 195 nations, Trump cited what he said was the potential loss of almost three million jobs by 2025 from the costs of the accord’s energy restrictions. Even farther out, he said, the job losses and hit to the gross domestic product would burgeon even more. “I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” Trump stated during his announcement from the White House Rose Garden.

Who’s right—the president or his critics? And will he pay for abandoning a deal that an overwhelming majority of Americans supported? BU experts on the environment, economy, and politics weigh in.

BU Today: Does the withdrawal from the Paris accords spell the end for mitigating emissions of greenhouse gases?

Anthony Janetos
College of Arts & Sciences professor of earth and environment and director of the Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future

I’ve argued that withdrawing from the Paris accords will ultimately damage both the United States and many vulnerable people in the developing world, specifically because it will likely result in less mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions than would otherwise occur, and because the United States is also halting payments to the Green Climate Fund, which is meant to support adaptation projects.

Does this mean that there are now no ways for the United States to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions? On that point, the answer is just as clearly no, although I think it will not happen as fast as if the federal government actually implemented constructive policy. For one thing, the US economy has been slowly decarbonizing over time. Some of this trend is likely due to structural changes in the economy, e.g., some replacement of jobs in the manufacturing sector with various jobs in service and financial sectors. Some of it is the replacement of much of coal-fired electricity generation with natural gas and increased penetration of renewable sources. Some of it is technologically and policy-driven increases in the end-use efficiency of energy. For another, there are strong alliances among some states, and now many cities, to make progress on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. They can’t do everything; there are areas, like fuel efficiency standards for vehicles, where the federal government has a critical role to play. But they can do a lot, with renewable portfolio standards at the state level and city policies at the local level, such as Boston’s commitment to be carbon-neutral by 2050.

There is no good reason to think that such measures are going to be economically harmful on national, regional, or local levels. We sometimes tend to forget that even the existing policy and regulatory environment counts benefits as well as costs, and a clean and healthy environment also has tangible benefits for our health, well-being, and the long-term sustainability of our ecosystems.

Will Trump’s decision help or hurt our diplomatic relations? What should we do going forward to improve relations with other countries and our role in the world?

Adil Najam
Pardee School of Global Studies dean and professor of international relations and CAS professor of international relations and of earth and environment

By deciding to sit out of the Paris climate accord and choosing to ignore possibly the single greatest security threat to our future, President Trump announced to the world that the United States is no longer interested in—and in his view, capable of—being a global leader. This abdication from global leadership is quite easily the greatest foreign policy reversal by any major power since Gorbachev’s decision to dismantle the Soviet Union.

This can be seen as declaring bankruptcy—stepping back from our responsibilities because we are no longer capable of meeting our obligations. In business, this is occasionally acceptable. In Mr. Trump’s own financial affairs, declaring bankruptcy has been a favored strategy. But in international affairs, it is nearly unheard of by a major power.

While the political implications of this decision are catastrophic, the climatic ones are less so.

  • Whatever regulatory damage Mr. Trump could have done to the Paris agreement, he had already done with his various presidential orders well before this announcement. However, states as well as cities seem already to be working to ignore or circumvent these edicts.
  • The real substance of the Paris accord lies not in what governments do, but in how business acts. It is already clear that key businesses will continue on a “Paris path” because that is where the big money is, especially in the historic transition to renewables that we are living through: a pie every major business wants to have a piece of.
  • No major countries are likely to join Mr. Trump or take up his disingenuous bait to renegotiate. There is already a scramble for who the new global power players will be, and Mr. Trump just banished the United States from the game. There was a time when the United States had the ability to stop the game, because it owned the ball. It no longer does. In fact, the impact of this decision may be for others to step up their game as they try to snatch away the leadership role the United States has long played.

The president said the Paris accord would cost American jobs, although many corporate leaders supported staying in. Will leaving the accord help or hurt the American economy overall, and in what ways?

Barton Lipman
CAS professor and chair of economics

Leaving the accord definitely sends troubling signals. US businesses will be unsure what kind of regulatory actions or other kinds of support they’ll get for investments in clean technologies, making such investments riskier. It’s obvious from the initial reactions that the Europeans and the Chinese are eager to step into the gap and push the development of such technologies in their countries. So there’s a definite risk that the next big technological developments will take place in other countries, to the disadvantage of US businesses and workers.

On the other hand, a lot hinges on exactly what “leaving the accord” really means. Certainly, the United States could take steps to encourage investments even if it’s not in the accord. Also, states like California, New York, and Massachusetts, cities like Pittsburgh and Boston, and many private companies are saying they plan to proceed as if there were no changes in the US status in the accords. If they stick to this, the effects of withdrawing could be mainly symbolic.

Polls suggest most Americans support staying with the Paris accord. Politically, why did the president take the less popular route, and will it hurt or help his political capital?

Thomas Whalen
College of General Studies associate professor of social sciences

Trump really didn’t have much of a choice. While running for the presidency, he energized his enthusiastic partisan supporters by claiming climate change was nothing but a clever hoax—something the Chinese had cooked up to undermine American economic competitiveness throughout the world. The core Republican base—composed of alt-righters, gun advocates, science deniers, evangelical Christians, and fossil fuel advocates—ate it up. To them climate change and federal regulatory efforts to combat it are taking good jobs away from hardworking people. One needs only to see Trump’s popularity in the heart of coal country—West Virginia—to understand this. Up until this election cycle, it was always taken for granted that West Virginia would go blue in presidential contests. Not this time.

Trump promised to revive a coal industry that has been steadily losing jobs in recent decades. His central argument was that overweening environmental regulations were making it impossible for coal companies to turn a profit. That’s all the economically battered citizens of the Mountaineer State needed to hear. “He is a whacko; he’s never going to stop being a whacko,” one West Virginian told National Public Radio. “But I mean, the things he did say—the good stuff—was good for the coal mining community.” Indeed, Trump won the state handily, with almost 70 percent of the vote. In any sporting contest that’s called a rout. Meanwhile, Democratic presidential rival Hillary Clinton’s honest assessment that these mining jobs weren’t coming back and what was needed was a transition to a clean energy economy fell on deaf ears.

The same could be said of how the Paris Climate Agreement affected Trump’s thinking. If nothing else, the former television reality star knows his audience. Any talk of complying with the treaty and its mandated lowering of national carbon-based emissions (read coal) would be seen as nothing less than a sellout to his supporters. As one West Virginia voter revealed to Rick Hampson of USA Today, “He needs us. He got elected because of us.” And if there is anything Donald Trump appreciates it’s loyalty. Just ask former FBI director James Comey, who apparently failed that critical political test.

Douglas Kriner
CAS professor of political science

I think the key here is that this may be nationally unpopular (like much of Trump’s agenda), but it is popular with a key part of his base. With unprecedentedly abysmal approval ratings, the base is all that is keeping him even close to afloat. If he loses them, he will be in free fall.

Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

9 Comments on The Fallout from Trump’s Paris Accord Withdrawal

  • Andrew Wolfe on 06.07.2017 at 12:23 pm

    I can hardly think of a much more academically sloppy set of opinions. Why are these commentators completely refusing to address the main claims of Trump’s announcement withdrawing from the accord? Trump claimed that Paris punishes the US, and exempts China – the world’s main polluter – India, and Russia. Well, if that is true, then why should we sign it? Why should we agree to shut down our US clean coal plants, and China keep building its dirty coal-fired plants for another decade? Is the near-elimination of hydrocarbon emissions from the US the reason we focus on CO2, ignoring the whole of Asia puffing out toxins like 1950’s Pittsburgh? India will reduce emissions, but only after it receives billions in aid to do so. It’s disappointingly anti-intellectual to cite politics this and polls that when there are real claims about a real written agreement that can be scrutinized.

    • BU alum on 06.07.2017 at 12:35 pm

      Because “punish” is subjective – some see the US’s obligations under Paris as a responsibility to other countries since the US has benefited the most from fossil fuel emissions. And “clean coal” does not exist.

      The reason we focus on CO2 is because of its long residence time in the atmosphere, which increases its ability to trap heat.

      I learned all this in a BU class…not sure you’ve actually scrutinized the agreement as much as I did in GE599 Science, Politics, and Climate Change. I’m not sure how you can describe these academic opinions as “sloppy” when they come from some of the best minds at BU.

      • Andrew Wolfe on 06.08.2017 at 2:31 pm

        Well, the prior Administration’s agreed to commitments that are obviously unequal and disproportionately heavy on the US. In a democracy, not all are bound by the belief of others that this disproportion is some international moral obligation; those who disagree can only hardly them as anything other punishment or reparations.

        The suggestion that a long residence time in the atmosphere increases CO2’s ability to trap heat only makes sense based on the belief that CO2 accumulates in the air faster than it is being removed. However its current level of 400ppm is not observed to increase, and that amount is insubstantial, leading to climatologists’ gyrations over “multiplier effects.” But what about the non-CO2 emissions we spent 15 years eliminating from automobile exhaust but which are still emitted freely in other countries?

        I see sloppiness because none of the respondents thoroughly engaged the justification in substance. Comparing the linked text of the President’s statement you see very little of it actually answered by these professors. If I want shallow polls about the opinions of voters, I can tune into the news.

        • BU Alum on 06.08.2017 at 4:35 pm

          CO2 reached 400 ppm in 2014. 3 years is a rather short time-horizon to decide it’s not “observed” to increase…especially when that’s blatantly false. https://www.co2.earth/ Can you show me a peer-reviewed source that says otherwise?

          It’s difficult to engage with much from the president’s statement as much of it was untrue, especially the estimations of what the Paris accord could change for global temperature increase and the idea that the agreement is heavily damaging to the US economy.

          As to the idea of an international moral obligation…No one country or person comes “first” when it comes to climate change. The accord, even in its lack of binding principles, was a serious gesture of goodwill towards others, especially those in developing countries that will be hurt the most by climate change. If you think American economic growth is worth more than access to food and water for people all over the globe, I’m not really sure how to reach you.

    • DJBK on 06.07.2017 at 4:33 pm

      A significant amount of what Trump claimed about the agreement in his speech was outright wrong. China has doubled down on renewable energy and is investing upwards of $360 Billion renewable energy/infrastructure/technology. Some of the lowest hanging fruit for Trump in terms of job creation in the US would be to invest in renewable energy technology and infrastructure in the US, over time creating hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of jobs in the US. By not investing, he is just giving these jobs to China and letting them become a global leader in renewable energy/technology.

      • Andrew Wolfe on 06.08.2017 at 2:53 pm

        Chinese “doubling down” in renewable energy – is dwarfed by the increased dirty coal energy Paris allows and, in fact, by what the US has already spent on frauds like Solyndra.

        Other energy industries rose and thrived without government subsidies and research grants, but the “renewables” thing has shown job growth almost exclusively through government spending. Every efficient energy technology will be profitable, and every profitable technology gets plenty of private US investment, apart from the overall business-hostile posture of Federal taxation and regulation.

        • DJBK on 06.08.2017 at 4:40 pm

          Federal government also subsidizes fossil fuels to the tune of billions yearly.

  • A R Ruff on 06.07.2017 at 4:38 pm

    I expected nothing less from academia “experts.” Andrew Wolfe is correct.

  • Jeff on 06.08.2017 at 12:05 am

    Ivory tower opinion. I laughed two minutes straight when I read the first guy’s job title.

    Here’s why opting out was the correct decision: $100billion per year minimum payment to China and India while they pledge to ramp up pollution to peak in 2030. That’s the text of the agreement. Seriously.

    Ok that’s the cost (not to mention the up to $3trillion detriment to the economy and,industries but that’s open to honest dispute). What’s the tea l world benefit in terms of future global temperatures? MIT studies say without the treaty the world,will warm 3.7 degrees by year 2100. With the they project the world will warm 3.7 degrees by 2100. Yes,that’s right. No change in the projected future temps. Journal of Global Policy said about 5 hundredths of one degree.

    To be fair MIT found up to 0.2 degrees of mitigatiom over 85 years. But that small mitigation washed out due to a minkr revision in their global GDP growth forecast, thus 3.7 degrees with or without Paris agreement cuts in carbon emissions.

    Big cost, big aid to out global competition, and no climate effect.

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