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Trump is pulling the US out of the Paris climate agreement. Some men just want to watch the world burn.

It’s official. But why? He wants a better deal.

burning earth. (Shutterstock)
Brian Resnick is Vox’s science and health editor, and is the co-creator of Unexplainable, Vox's podcast about unanswered questions in science. Previously, Brian was a reporter at Vox and at National Journal.

The United States will be withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement, President Donald Trump announced Thursday from the White House Rose Garden.

“In order to fulfill my solemn duty to protect America and its citizens, the United States will withdraw from the Paris climate accord,” Trump said. Withdrawing, he said, “represents a reassertion of America's sovereignty.”

He added that he hoped to “begin negotiations to reenter either the Paris accord or really entirely new transition on terms that are fair to the United States.”

(Read the entire transcript of Trump’s announcement here.)

The withdrawal process takes four years (so we’d withdraw around the time of the 2020 election). But when it’s complete, the United States will join a lonely club. Just two other countries — Syria and Nicaragua — have rejected the nonbinding agreement.

The US is the second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, right behind China. The decision to leave the agreement is a message to the world: We’ll take the lead on contributing to the problem, but not fixing it.

Trump actually could have gone further: He did not say he was taking the US out of the underlying United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, a global agreement that predates the Paris treaty. Leaving that would mean abandoning all international cooperative efforts on climate change.

In the Rose Garden, Trump said he “cares deeply about the environment.” But this move shows quite the opposite.

A quick reminder of what the Paris agreement does

The Paris agreement, signed in 2015 by 195 countries, does four simple things.

  1. It sets a global goal of keeping global average temperatures from rising 2°C (compared to temperatures pre-Industrial Revolution) by the end of the century.
  2. It sets a nonbinding agreement for countries to reach peak greenhouse gas emissions “as soon as possible."
  3. It adds a framework for countries to become more aggressive in reaching those goals over time. In 2020, delegates are supposed to reconvene and provide updates about their emission pledges, and report on how they’re becoming more aggressive on accomplishing the 2 degree goal.
  4. It asks richer countries to help out poorer countries: to give them capital to invest in green technologies, but also to help them brace for a changing world. (This is the point that Trump seemed to take the largest issue with. Trump called the $100 billion fund for less wealthy countries a “scheme.”)

And it’s important to remember: The Paris agreement, as it currently stands, won’t stop global temperatures from rising. The point of Paris was to create incentives for countries to voluntarily grow their efforts to avert a warmer future.

“Today, the United States will cease all implementation of the nonbinding [agreements],” Trump said, adding that they imposed a “draconian” burden on the United States.

Why there isn’t a “better deal”

Trump says the Paris deal unfairly puts constraints on the United States coal industry, and unfairly allows some countries to continuing to pollute at a greater rate than others. He also complained that it was a threat to our sovereignty. “Believe me, we have massive legal liability if we stay in,” Trump says.

But as Vox’s Dave Roberts has written, these arguments don’t make any sense. Namely: The Paris treaty was voluntary. How much of a better deal can you get than “nonbinding”?

“It imposes absolutely no practical or legal constraint on [Trump’s] actions — not on trade policy, not on domestic energy policy, nothing,” Roberts writes. “That means all talk of Paris being a ‘bad deal’ for the US, or hurting US trade, or affecting the US coal industry in any way, is nonsense.”

It’s also the case that Trump has just made a vastly unpopular decision. According to the Yale program on climate change communication, majorities in every US state support the US participating in the Paris agreement. A total of 69 percent of Americans say we should stay in the agreement.

(The withdrawal, though, is a fulfillment of a Trump campaign promise, and a win for the Steve Bannon, i.e., nationalist, faction of the Trump White House.)

What happens next?

There’s a lengthy four-year process for exiting the agreement. As Brad Plumer wrote for Vox, the thing to look for now is how other world leaders react:

Of course, no one knows for sure what will happen. It’s possible that a US withdrawal could have a galvanizing effect on the rest of the world, and other governments would redouble their efforts to promote clean energy and curb emissions. Most nations still have a vested interest in avoiding drastic temperature increases. But there’s a real risk that momentum for stronger action would be blunted.

There’s also the prospect that the US could face serious diplomatic repercussions for leaving. Europe, China, and other countries could threaten to withhold cooperation on other issues the US cares about. In the most extreme scenario, other countries could threaten to impose carbon tariffs on the US, sparking a trade war. In 2020, delegates are supposed to reconvene and provide updates about their emission pledges, and report on how they’re becoming more aggressive on accomplishing the 2 degree goal.

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