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Leaving the Paris Agreement Won’t Doom the Planet

Trump reportedly is on the brink of withdrawing from the deal, prompting widespread hysteria. But it's not the most damaging thing he can do to Obama's climate legacy.

Kena Betancur/Getty

Axios’ Jonathan Swan reported on Wednesday that President Donald Trump, after months of waffling, had decided to withdraw the United States from the historic Paris climate agreement. The revelation, based on two anonymous sources “with direct knowledge of the decision,” was tempered later in the day by other news organizations. The New York Times reported that, while Trump is “expected” to withdraw from the agreement, he had not made his final decision. Bloomberg’s reporters echoed that sentiment, as did Trump himself, who tweeted:

Still, all signs point to an imminent withdrawal from the landmark, 197-nation accord that many consider one of President Barack Obama’s greatest foreign policy successes. “Pulling out of Paris,” Swan declared, “is the biggest thing Trump could do to unravel Obama’s climate legacy.” Many reporters, environmentalists, and Democratic politicians seemed to agree; the hyperbolic reaction to Swan’s report suggested that, with this single decision, Trump would doom the planet:

But pulling out of Paris is not “the biggest thing Trump could do to unravel Obama’s climate legacy.” That honor would probably go to unraveling the endangerment finding, which is just one of many ways Trump can unravel Obama’s climate legacy regardless of the Paris agreement. As climate policy analyst Oliver Geden told the Washington Post this week, Trump and his advisers have “already said they won’t do anything substantial on climate policy, and that’s what matters.” Trump has already started the process of rolling back Obama’s regulations to limit carbon emissions; kickstarted production of more fossil fuels like oil and coal; and appointed climate deniers to the key environmental positions in his cabinet. Paris agreement or not, climate-change denial is official administration policy.

There are countless reasons that America should keep its Paris commitments, which is why the deal is supported by the environmental, business, military, and foreign-policy establishments. Under Paris, 21 percent of the total emissions cuts by the year 2030 are supposed to come from the U.S. But the U.S. was never going to meet that non-binding goal under Trump. And if Trump did decide to remain, it could make for a weaker overall agreement because he would attempt to lower emissions reductions requirements for the U.S., which could inspire other major polluters to do the same.

Leaving, on the other hand, could be the wake-up call the country needs. Americans are notoriously apathetic about climate change. Perhaps abandoning our commitments will finally generate the widespread moral outrage and fear needed to effectively address the crisis. Perhaps a lack of federal government action will motivate state and local governments to amp up their own emissions-reduction efforts. And perhaps the absence of the U.S. in climate negotiations will strengthen the resolve of the rest of the world to fight this existential problem.

There is already some evidence that Trump’s expected withdrawal from Paris is motivating local governments to step up in the fight against climate change. On Wednesday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio condemned Trump for potentially pulling out of the deal. “Climate change is a dagger aimed straight at the heart of New York City,” he tweeted, and promised that the country’s largest city would keep reducing emissions.

Todd Stern, who led the U.S. negotiating effort for the Paris deal, wrote in The Atlantic that leaving the agreement would be “indefensible,” but expressed hope that cities and states could play a large role in keeping momentum going. He noted that climate collaborations like the C40, which includes 90 city leaders such as De Blasio, could work directly with the UNFCCC, the parent body for the Paris agreement. As Mashable noted, hundreds of different states, cities, and localities have pledged to keep reducing emissions even if Trump doesn’t keep America’s promise.

As I’ve argued before, it’s unlikely that local and state actions alone would be enough to meet America’s aggressive goals under the Paris agreement. Something else needs to change—and if it’s not the federal government’s attitude, perhaps it’s the general public’s. While most polling shows that the majority of Americans believe climate change is real and problematic, it also shows that they don’t consider it a priority, or believe it will impact them in their lifetimes. Perhaps that’s why Americans keep electing climate-change deniers to represent them in office.

Pulling out of Paris could finally make climate change a voter priority—a controversial, minority argument cited by The Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer earlier this week. Maybe the public believes America is doing its part to fight global warming, but if Trump withdraws from the agreement, perhaps they’ll realize that there is essentially nothing the federal government is doing to address the problem anymore—no more regulations, no more federally-funded climate science, no more Paris. “The moral outrage of these constituents could be a powerful catalyst for change,” Joseph Curtin, an Irish climate policy expert, told Meyer.There is a danger remaining in [the agreement] could muddy the waters and allow U.S. citizens to believe they are contributing to resolving a global problem, when the opposite is the case.”

Trump’s uncertainty about the Paris deal was already casting a dark shadow over the ongoing international negotiations. Many fear that if Trump pulls out of the agreement, other countries will follow. But China and the European Union—two of the other three biggest emitters—are expected to reaffirm their commitments to the deal even if the U.S. leaves. There will be other consequences if the U.S. leaves, both diplomatic and environmental. Allies will no longer trust America to keep its promises; China will likely become the world’s leader on climate change negotiations; and the federal government will no longer have the pressure of an international treaty to enact policies to reduce pollution. Make no mistake, leaving the Paris climate agreement will be bad for the U.S. But it’s not the end of the world, at least not yet.