President Donald Trump has announced his decision to pull the United States out of the 195-nation Paris Climate Agreement. That's in spite of entreaties from everyone from former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney to Secretary of State and former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson to Ivanka Trump. Scores of business leaders, including many who are Trump advisers, signed open letters to Trump, imploring him not to withdraw. Even 70 percent of the American public--and just over half of those who voted for Trump--favored remaining in the accord.
What happens now? Not a heckuva lot, especially in the short term. Here's why U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Accord isn't as big a change as you might be thinking.
1. U.S. environmental laws are changing either way.
In order to comply with the Paris Accord (and, more importantly, in an effort to actually slow climate change) former President Barack Obama enacted a number of executive orders designed to lower emissions and preserve the environment. Those new rules weren't quite enough for the U.S. to meet its commitments under the Paris Accord and in any case, Trump is in the process of eliminating them. That's upsetting to climate scientists, but it's happening whether or not the U.S. stays in the accord. Since meeting commitments in the accord is voluntary for each signatory nation, there would have been few consequences if the U.S. had remained in the agreement but not met its commitments.
2. Even if the U.S. had stayed in, the accord wouldn't take effect for another few years.
The goal of the accord is to reduce emissions by 2025, and most nations are expected to begin reducing emissions around 2020, although China, which has a severe smog problem in some cities, may be doing so ahead of schedule. Of course, by 2021, there may or may not be a different occupant in the White House. Some have argued that it will be difficult and time-consuming to get back into the accord at that point. That may be true, but the accord is voluntary anyhow. So a new president and/or congress could simply reinstate environmental laws or write new ones, irrespective of the Paris Agreement.
3. Trump can't save the coal industry.
He seems to be trying his best, but the fact is market forces are creating big changes. Utilities are moving away from coal and replacing it with increasingly affordable renewable energy and natural gas obtained from fracking (which of course is also controversial, but that's another story). Several large coal companies urged Trump to stick with the agreement because they believed it would help them develop "clean coal" technologies that are needed for the industry's long-term survival.
Quartz has published a chart showing the difference between Trump's emissions policies and Obama's. It shows that emissions have dropped sharply in the last decade, and would have continued dropping under Obama's policies, but under Trump's they stay flat. They won't rise again. As renewable energy becomes easier to use and cheaper, some experts are predicting that emissions levels in the U.S. will fall sharply enough to meet our Paris Agreement commitments--even without regulations or commitments forcing us to do so.
4. States are stepping into the vacuum.
Several states, notably California, jump-started the electric vehicle industry in the United States by writing regulations requiring car companies to sell a certain percentage of zero-emissions vehicles. In the same way, California and other states have vowed to write laws that will replace the environmental laws that Trump is removing.
5. So is big business.
Unilever has already met its own goal to reduce its carbon emissions dramatically from 2008 levels four years early. It now has pledged to switch to all-renewable energy sources for all of its purchased energy by 2020--and it has vowed to eliminate coal as a source of energy by that day as well. Major companies from Exxon to Google to Apple are all supporting the Paris Agreement and taking voluntary steps to reduce emissions. If most businesses choose to reduce their emissions, then eliminating environmental laws may make less of a difference than you might think.
6. Other nations are going ahead without us.
Obama was instrumental during the Paris Agreement negotiations, but the Europeans and Chinese have signaled their intent to go forward with emissions reductions whether or not the U.S. joins in. The bigger concern is that abandoning the Paris Agreement may weaken the U.S. as a world leader and perhaps affect trade relations and our economy. Not to mention our standing. They say your reputation comes in part from the company you keep. Pulling out of the Paris Agreement puts the U.S. in company with...Nicaragua and Syria.