Things were going well in the Moroccan city of Marrakesh the day before last year’s U.S. presidential election. The United Nations was holding its first major international climate negotiations since the historic Paris climate agreement was reached in 2015, and for the first time in years, it seemed governments around the world were actually on the same page. Days earlier, the Paris accord had been officially ratified—ahead of schedule. In October, countries across the globe agreed to collectively phase out hydrofluorocarbons and reduce pollution from airplanes. Heading into Marrakesh, Patricia Espinosa, the executive secretary of U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, said she had never seen such level of cooperation: “I have spent a good part of my career in multilateral affairs and I can tell you it is really unprecedented.”
But then Donald Trump won the presidency. As the Washington Post reported at the time, the results immediately “hurled doubt” into the Marrakesh negotiations, which were intended to crank out some of the finer details of the Paris agreement. The agreement itself now seemed in danger, as Trump had threatened on the campaign trail to “cancel” it (which he can’t actually do, but could hobble it by withdrawing the U.S. commitment). And so the once-optimistic Marrakesh conference ended on a sour, uneasy note, with several leaders urging the new president to reconsider his hostile stance toward tackling global climate change.
Fast-forward to today, and the U.N. is kicking off the next round of international climate talks—the first since Trump became president. On Monday, in Bonn, Germany, negotiators from around the world will begin a 10-day conference to try and nail down the so-called “rulebook” for the Paris agreement. The World Resources Institute has described this rulebook as necessary to “create a level playing field and build trust” among the agreement’s signatories—a way to make sure that countries are living up to their commitments, and are able to strengthen them if they need to. The Council on Foreign Relations’s Varun Sivaram puts it more bluntly: “It’s a slow and boring process where we hammer out language.”
But Sivaram also says Trump is making what would otherwise appear a “slow and boring” climate conference rather unique. That’s because the president is reportedly at a critical moment in his decision-making about whether to stay in or leave the Paris agreement. Last week, the Huffington Post reported that Trump is seriously leaning toward withdrawing the U.S. from the accord altogether—and that his decision may come this week, literally in the middle of the Bonn climate talks.
“Trump announcing U.S. withdrawal from Paris would have a chilling effect on negotiations,” Sivaram said. He knows because he saw the reaction in Marrakesh to Trump’s election. “Negotiators kind of froze. They soldiered on, and that was very admirable. But we already know what kind of effect Trump’s rhetoric has. It totally saps the urgency to act.” Climate activists fear that if Trump pulls out, other countries may follow. After all, if the second-biggest carbon emitter in the world isn’t sticking to its pledge, why should they?
Even if Trump decides to remain in the Paris agreement, he could still throw off the Bonn talks. That’s because Trump has said that if he stays in Paris, he’d like to weaken America’s commitment to reducing emissions and make sure the U.S. can’t be punished if it doesn’t meet its goals. Those type of accountability questions are the ones that will come up in Bonn this week. If the U.S. succeeds in negotiating what Trump wants, that could mean a weaker agreement altogether.
All of which raises the question: In the grand scheme of solving climate change, is it better for the U.S. to remain in the Paris climate agreement if it will aggressively lobby for weak accountability rules? Or should America just leave?
In a way, Trump has already cast a dark shadow over the Bonn climate talks. That’s because this will be the first time where the U.S. will not take an active leadership role. “The U.S. used to provide a lot of diplomatic capacity to push these talks forward, and the Obama administration’s position was high-transparency, high-accountability,” Sivaram said. “Today, the situation obviously is very different.”
The Trump administration, he said, has not submitted a single suggestion of language for the so-called “rulebook” that the Bonn climate talks aim to create. And in a questionnaire that the U.N. asked the U.S. to fill out ahead of the talks, the U.S. tersely said it has no plan on how to meet the emission reductions targets it promised under the agreement.
Sivaram says the loss of America’s active leadership role already means the Paris agreement will likely have weaker transparency and accountability measures to make sure countries are meeting their emissions reductions targets. But Trump, if he decides to remain, could make those measures even weaker if that’s his priority. And that presents a valid question of whether it may just be better for the U.S. to leave the agreement altogether, said Max Holmes, the deputy director of the climate think tank Woods Hole Research Center. “Is it worth it to stay in if we are actively sabotaging it?” he said. “I really don’t know.”
What Holmes does know is that both options are terrible. “It’s like comparing two terrible diseases,” he said. “I hope we don’t elect to go down either of those roads.”
Sivaram is more certain. “I strongly believe the lesser of two evils is that we stay in the agreement,” he said, citing the common argument that leaving would be a diplomatic relations nightmare. “The damage to our reputation worldwide would be irreversible, because we will have backed out on promises twice now—first with the Kyoto climate agreement and now with Paris. This will be irredeemable.” He added, “At least if we stay in, there’s hope that we could change course four years from now” if a new president is elected. In the meantime, he said, the best hope is that Trump remains in the Paris agreement, but basically ignores it.
It’s decision time for the Trump administration. According to Axios, Ivanka Trump will meet with Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt on Tuesday to discuss the president’s plan for the Paris agreement. Pruitt, a climate change denier, has been one of the more vocal opponents of the accord, while Ivanka and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson want the U.S. to remain. Their meeting will precede “a major meeting of top administration officials and Cabinet members to discuss the future of the Paris agreement,” The Hill reported. Whatever happens, one thing is for sure: The world will be watching.