May 3, 2017
The world continues to wait nervously for US President Donald J. Trump’s promised decision, one that could have global implications for decades to come—will the United States pull out of the Paris climate agreement?

Agreed to by 197 parties in 2015 and entered into force one year later, the Paris agreement set forth the first truly global climate deal. Participating countries have submitted concrete greenhouse gas emissions reductions targets with the aim of strengthening the global response to climate change and keeping global temperature increases well below two degree Celsius. However, Trump vowed to withdraw the United States from the accord.

Despite the false alarms thus far, Trump has promised to make up his mind before the G7 meeting in Italy in late May. The decision, which would be one of the more contentious ones of the administration’s opening months, hinges in part on which camp within the Trump administration prevails: the so-called globalists, who warn of the diplomatic fallout withdrawal will bring, or the “America First” camp, who see the agreement as a bad deal and withdrawal as a campaign commitment the president must deliver.

While the battle is portrayed as a relatively clear-cut struggle between those who support the United States keeping a “seat at the table,” and those unconvinced of the link between human activity and climate change, the reality—and the potential outcomes—is more complicated. Even if the “stay” camp prevails, it is unlikely to be the victory climate supporters hope for—and may offer little in the way of policy certainty. 

Despite Trump’s rhetoric during the campaign, the administration cannot “cancel” the agreement, nor quickly extricate the United States from it. Signatories must wait three years after entry into force to formally request withdrawal, meaning that the United States cannot ask to leave until November 2019. Withdrawal would take another year. The only immediate option is formally exiting the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the organizational backbone of the climate deal, which the United States signed in 1992 under President H.W. Bush. This is an unlikely outcome as it would preclude US participation in the UNFCCC process.

A public reversal of the commitment to the Paris deal in the face of near global consensus on the reality and impact of global warming would likely undermine international partners’ perceptions of the credibility of US commitments.

Trump’s decision requires weighing international backlash against the potential criticism from his supporters who might be angry if he were to abandon a campaign promise. The question is just how strongly his voter base feels about this promise, and whether they will hold him to it—an answer Trump voters may not be sure of themselves. According to the Yale survey on Climate Change in the American Mind, nearly half of surveyed Trump voters think the United States should remain in the agreement, and roughly half believe global warming is occurring. However, Pew found that nearly half of Trump’s supporters believe global warming is the result of natural causes, not human activity, while 30 percent do not think there is solid evidence suggesting that the climate is changing at all.

Uncertain public opinion and an unclear exit path could tip the scale in favor of the stay camp, which includes key members of Trump’s inner circle, namely his daughter Ivanka Trump, assistant to the president; son-in-law Jared Kushner, senior adviser; Secretary of State Rex Tillerson; Secretary of Defense James Mattis; and even (to a degree) Secretary of Energy Rick Perry. Powerful US companies, including many energy and coal companies, have also come out in favor of staying in the Paris agreement. Warning of international repercussions—ceding leadership in the fight against climate change to China and blowback for US companies operating internationally—this group is a powerful lobbying force.

By contrast, White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt have mounted a campaign for the United States to withdraw from the deal.

However, while powerful, the stay camp is far from monolithic. The arguments for continuing commitment to the agreement differ, and there is little consensus on how the United States should handle its responsibilities under the agreement should it remain. Thus, the question may not be whether the United States stays in, but under what circumstances.

The fact that most backers of the agreement in the administration have argued their case based on the United States’ diplomatic reputation and economic competitiveness does not necessarily suggest an aggressive US commitment to climate mitigation, and may enable a more superficial one. Some who suggest remaining, like Perry, want the administration to renegotiate the terms of US commitment to the deal, which could mean submitting a new nationally determined contribution (NDC)—a roadmap of intended emissions reductions—promising fewer emissions reductions. Whether this is in accordance with the agreement’s allowance for NDC adjustments in instances of “enhancing ambition” is unclear.

What is clear is the Trump administration has effectively killed the Clean Power Plan, the key policy framework undergirding the US’ NDC, through his “Energy Independence” executive order. Based on the endangerment finding, which defines carbon dioxide as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act (and assuming the finding holds), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will likely have to replace the regulation. However, there is almost no chance the resulting rule would include the previously promised emissions reductions, or that Pruitt—a stalwart of the “exit” camp—would spearhead efforts to ensure the that the United States meets its commitments.  

Whatever Trump decides—or should deciding prove too difficult and the administration instead follows the path of least resistance, which entails no exit but also no action—achieving the agreement’s aims will likely become more difficult. Two of the agreement’s key goals—limiting global temperature increase to below two degrees Celsius and making financial flows consistent with low-carbon growth—will be complicated either way. Should the United States retain its seat at the table but abstain from taking meaningful steps to achieve its NDC, this could reduce other nations’ ambitions to meet their own goals, undermine the legitimacy of the process, and prevent policy signals to incentivize investment. The Trump administration’s intentions to cut funding for climate mitigation and end contributions to the Green Climate Fund could also slow progress. Many developing countries have promised ambitious emissions reductions, but lack the expertise and resources to achieve them, a mismatch addressed by provisions requiring developed countries to provide financial assistance to developing countries. 

Ultimately, indecision on the Paris agreement sheds light on a broader challenge: while Trump’s campaign rhetoric was unequivocal, he now faces a more complicated political reality. As lawyers, advisers, cabinet officials, and family members continue to debate the options, Trump’s campaign promise could go the way of others before it—abandoned in favor of the preferences of the establishment he ran against. After all, the difference between campaigning and governing is often stark, and the potential impacts of a decision more severe than initially thought. As the president put it himself after discussing North Korea with Chinese President Xi Jinping, maybe it is not so easy after all.

Ellen Scholl is an associate director at the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center. You can follow her on Twitter @EllenScholl.

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