Why Staying in the Paris Agreement Puts America First

The 2015 Paris Agreement on climate calls for all signatories (194 countries) to establish national greenhouse gas reduction targets and long-range plans for meeting them. The Trump administration is reportedly weighing three options: 1) completely withdraw, either directly or by re-classifying the agreement as a treaty requiring Senate ratification, 2) make protecting the coal industry a condition of continued U.S. participation, and 3) stay in, but abandon the current U.S. target.

As context, on the campaign trail, Donald Trump expressed concern about America’s 50,000 coal jobs and the communities they support. These jobs have been declining, and will continue to do so, from both automation and competition from fracked natural gas and renewables. The answer is not rigging the market for coal, it is helping affected communities adjust to new realities and address the economic distress imposed by market forces.

Considering the three options regarding the agreement: 1) direct withdrawal would be consistent with President Trump’s campaign rhetoric. Reclassifying the agreement as a formal treaty would be tantamount to withdrawal since some in the Senate would likely block ratification. Either way, this choice would cede global leadership on the issue and isolate the U.S. without protecting jobs in coal country. 2) Conditioning continued U.S. participation on getting other signatories to protect the coal industry reflects the president’s negotiating style; however, the U.S. may have less leverage with other signatories than it thinks. 3) Staying in but abandoning the current U.S. reduction target would be partly symbolic, because signatories are not penalized for missing or changing their targets.

Any position that results in U.S. withdrawal would be exactly opposite of the prudent approach President Ronald Reagan took when addressing an environmental problem that also required global action. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Montreal Protocol, negotiated by the Reagan administration to protect the ozone layer that shields Earth from harmful radiation. When facing that issue, which also had skeptics on the political right, Reagan rose above politics and pushed through the protocol, initiating a worldwide phase-out of ozone depleting chemicals.

In signing the protocol, Reagan called it “a monumental achievement” and “a model of cooperation.” That treaty, regarded as highly successful, was largely the result of U.S. leadership. In addition to protecting the ozone layer, the Montreal Protocol has significantly reduced potent greenhouse gasses that contribute to climate change.  Working on global agreements via the United Nations, with its bureaucratic inefficiencies and snail’s pace processes, is never easy, but that didn’t stop President Reagan.

From an America First stance, staying in the agreement offers far more positives than negatives. Having a seat at the table would protect American economic and geopolitical interests in ongoing negotiations, such as how countries document their compliance with responsibilities under the agreement. A vacuum created by a U.S. exit would be quickly filled. Staying in would prevent China, the EU, or any other economic competitor, from assuming the leadership role in the agreement, and then using it for political and economic advantage.

Moreover, there could be economic costs from exiting. For example, other signatories might treat a nonparticipating U.S. as a free rider in the global community, and thus impose border tax adjustments on U.S. goods to avoid disadvantaging their own economies.

Finally, withdrawing from the agreement would create a diplomatic backlash and reduce other countries’ willingness to cooperate with the U.S. on high-priority issues, such as terrorism and trade. After 9/11, the Bush administration sought and received multilateral support for actions to combat international terrorism. When facing other security threats, the U.S. has found value in multilateral approaches.  Secretary of Defense Mattis is only the latest in a decades-long line of defense and intelligence officials who identify climate disruption as a threat to our national security, along with epidemics (e.g. Ebola), terrorism, cyberattacks, and transnational crime.

The bottom line: Even if President Trump remains uncertain about the need to address global climate disruption, staying in the Paris Agreement would help protect America’s strategic, geopolitical, and economic interests.  To be sure, the world will also be better off if the U.S. stays in, though the agreement will continue regardless.


Keith Kozloff served as senior environmental adviser at the U.S. Treasury Department from 2001-11. David Jenkins is president of Conservatives for Responsible Stewardship, a national nonprofit organization.

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