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Donald Trump's rogue nation

The US has joined Syria and Nicaragua in rejecting the Paris climate agreement

On international efforts to deal with climate change, the US has long been a feckless partner, its position flipping with the political winds. George W Bush flouted international consensus in rejecting the 1997 Kyoto climate accord when he took office, arguing that the deal would hamstring America's economy. Barack Obama lobbied hard to pull the community of nations together for the Paris agreement. Now, reversing course again, President Donald Trump is pulling the US out of the deal, joining Syria and Nicaragua on the sidelines.

Trump's 1 June Rose Garden speech laying out his argument for leaving Paris shed little light on his reasons for the decisions. It was at certain points muddled and contradictory, betraying Trump's ignorance of the Paris accord's basic precepts. "As of today, the United States will cease all implementation of the non-binding Paris Accord and the draconian financial and economic burdens the agreement imposes on our country," he said at one point.

To get as many nations on board as possible, Paris' negotiators set up the system with maximum flexibility in mind, allowing nations to determine their own targets and not imposing any penalties if those targets aren't met. So, it is true that the targets are "non-binding", but how they could possibly also be "draconian" is anyone's guess. In fact, a major criticism from environmental groups after the agreement is that it wasn't draconian enough.

Elsewhere, Trump simply went for hyperbole. He warned, implausibly, that if the Paris agreement was implemented, America would be at "grave risk of brownouts and blackouts, our businesses will come to a halt in many cases, and the American family will suffer the consequences in the form of lost jobs and a very diminished quality of life." Yet America's commitment under the agreement was not especially ambitious, and largely reflected trends already being driven by the market and technological innovation.

Politically motivated

The real reason Trump pulled out of the Paris agreement seems to be rooted in politics. A guiding principle for Trumpian diplomacy and policymaking has been to defy the "elites", wherever they may take him. In this case, the fact that myriad global leaders, corporate titans, including a number of oil executives, and even many of his own internationally-minded advisers and family pushed for him to stay in the accord only hardened his position. The president's advisors say the condescending tone many European leaders took with Trump on his recent trip to the G7 conference in Italy got under his skin. The swift condemnation from nearly all corners outside the Republican party will only add fire to Trump's grievance-fuelled diplomacy on climate, trade, security and other international issues.

There is also his long-held denial of the basic science behind climate change. Vox's Dylan Mathews put together a handy compendium of president Trump's climate change tweets over the years. Many are mindless quips about how it's cold outside so global warming surely can't be real. "It's freezing in New York—where the hell is global warming," is just one example. Another favourite theory that comes up repeatedly is that the idea that climate change was a concept invented by the Chinese to harm America's manufacturers.

A new deal?

Trump did hold out the flimsiest of olive branches, saying he was open to negotiating a new climate deal. But this makes little sense in the context of the Paris agreement. If Trump thought America's carbon-cutting goals went too far he could have resubmitted new less-ambitious targets, or even simply ignored them at little cost. Exiting altogether, however, was a far more potent message for his political base and adversaries on the global stage.

In practical terms, Trump's speech doesn't mean that the US is exiting the accord anytime soon. Instead, he is triggering a four-year process laid out in Article 28 of the agreement. The US will be able to give notice of its intention to withdraw from the accord three years after its implementation date, which was 4 November 2016. The withdrawal then would take effect one year later, on the 4 November 2020 at the earliest. That date falling the day after the next US presidential election is no coincidence. Paris' negotiators were aware the US' involvement in international climate efforts would be at risk if a Republican took the White House after the Obama administration. This ensures that the Paris agreement, and broader action around climate change, will be a touchstone issue in the next election.

In the meantime, it is likely that America's carbon emissions will continue to fall in spite of Trump's actions. The president's cheerleading for the coal industry won't protect it from cheap natural gas' continued onslaught, while wind and solar will continue to gain market share thanks to plunging costs. However, while the direction of carbon cutting is important, so too is scale. And it seems unlikely these market forces on their own will deliver the level of reductions the US pledged under the Paris Agreement. A 2016 study from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found that the US would have to go even further than the Clean Power Plan, and other carbon-cutting measures that the Obama administration rolled out, to hit its targets. The Trump administration, however, has set about dismantling these Obama-era regulations targeting carbon emissions.

Moreover, it's hard to see how the US' exit doesn't undermine Paris' efforts to mitigate climate change. In the immediate wake of Trump's decision, leaders from Europe to China promised to forge ahead and redouble their efforts. Even many US states, cities and corporations promised to fill the gap left by Trump's decision. However, the voluntary nature of Paris' climate pledges mean that public persuasion and naming and shaming were always going to be the most effective way of keeping countries to their word. That will be much more difficult with the US not taking part. Still, international climate diplomacy carried on without the US during the Kyoto years, and it will continue now. Trump promised an America First approach to the world. On climate, America is alone.

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