Don’t Be Fooled: the Paris Climate Accord Matters

On Nov. 4, President Donald Trump is expected to initiate the formal withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Climate Accord. This withdrawal will make the U.S. the only nation on Earth not to be part of the agreement, and serves as Trump’s latest abandonment of any semblance of American leadership on the global stage.  

In Washington and Beijing, I participated in negotiations that laid the groundwork for the Paris Accord, and as the Environmental Protection Agency’s general counsel, I helped guide the development of the Clean Power Plan, which became the foundation of our international climate commitment. American leadership was crucial at every stage, and we led by example. While the Paris Accord is clearly insufficient, alone, to address the gravity of our climate crisis, it remains an indispensable tool in the global fight to protect our planet. Trump’s retreat puts our health and prosperity at risk, and we will all pay the price.  

By now, Trump’s methods are clear. He will lay claim to unprecedented greatness, even as his actions and inactions paint a foreboding picture when it comes to our climate and environmental health. When Trump first announced his intention to withdraw from the Paris Accord on June 1, 2017, he declared “the United States, under the Trump administration, will continue to be the cleanest and most environmentally friendly country on Earth.” Just this summer, Trump gathered reporters in the East Room of the White House to extoll his administration’s environmental accomplishments. Claiming to fight every day for a cleaner planet, the president stated: “We have only one America. We have only one planet.” 

Sound familiar? Four years earlier, at that same podium, President Barack Obama announced his Administration’s Clean Power Plan, the boldest step yet to address the largest sources of carbon pollution fueling our climate crisis. There, Obama reminded us that “we only get one home. We only get one planet.” Confused? That is what the Trump administration hopes as the greenwashing of the president’s disastrous climate and environmental record is in full bloom.    

Trump is charging ahead with an unprecedented rollback of standards designed to protect Americans’ health and environment — standards that are critical if we have any hope of reversing the damage we are causing to our planet’s climate. In just the past few months, the administration has announced the rollback of standards designed to curtail the emissions of methane from oil and gas operational leaks, and fuel efficiency and tailpipe standards for cars that would save consumers thousands at the gas pump — rollbacks even opposed by some of the most-affected major industrial players. 

Earlier, the Trump administration replaced the Clean Power Plan — which would have reduced carbon emissions from fossil fuel-fired power plants by an estimated 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 — with its own rule that allows our dirtiest coal-fired plants to continue to foul our air and climate. The administration is moving forward with plans to open vast tracts of our public lands to fossil fuel drilling and has proposed to allow more logging of our national forests, proven carbon sinks and natural climate solutions, including the nation’s largest, the Tongass. This is just a fraction of the damage Trump is doing to our health and environment, as EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler proudly touts having completed 46 deregulatory actions, with an additional 45 underway.

We are already seeing the impacts of these rollbacks. Under Trump, America’s greenhouse gas emissions rose by over 3 percent in 2018, after emissions fell 13 percent from 2005 to 2017. This rise comes at a time when the impacts of climate change are already being felt in communities across the country. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, more than 3,500 Americans have died in climate- and weather-related disasters since Trump took office, double the number of Americans who lost their lives in such events in the entire eight years of the Obama administration.

For the first time in years, the U.S. dropped in the 2018 Environmental Performance Index — an overall ranking of national environmental performance produced by Yale University, Columbia University and the World Economic Forum — and ranks a staggering 114 for climate and energy performance. Just last week, researchers from Carnegie Mellon University analyzed EPA’s own data and found that fine particulate pollution increased over 5 percent between 2016 and 2018, after decreasing nearly 25 percent during the previous seven years.  So, when Trump says that he fights for a cleaner environment every day, he is either lying, losing that fight, or both.   

America, and the world, must not be fooled by baseless pronouncements of environmental leadership by this administration. Trump has made weakening environmental standards and climate protections a hallmark of his presidency, and at every turn, he has chosen to do less, not more, to protect our air, water and land. Nowhere is that more evident than when it comes to addressing our climate crisis.

Though Trump may formally notify the United Nations on Nov. 4 of the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Accord, we must not allow American leadership to wither in the face of our global climate threat. Paris still matters. Fortunately, Trump’s anticipated formal withdrawal from the Paris Accord cannot become effective until Nov. 4, 2020 — one day after the next presidential election, when we must seize the opportunity to once again lead by example.  


Avi Garbow is Patagonia’s Environmental Advocate and a nationally recognized environmental lawyer and advocate. He served as the EPA’s general counsel under President Obama.

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