Trump's Fossil Fuel Dream Team Faces Climate Change's Checks and Balances

David Hunter

May 5, 2017

Due to the blinders of his fossil fuel dream team and the industry's myths denying climate change (#ExxonKnew), President Donald Trump seems once again on the verge of withdrawing from the Paris climate change accord. That's a fool's errand.

Withdrawal from the Paris Agreement would be a major blow to U.S. standing and leadership in the world. It would also slow our country's efforts to do our part in avoiding catastrophic climate change. So why is he even considering a trip down this dangerous road?

At the significant cost of further tarnishing the United States' image abroad, Trump gets to keep a political promise and make dubious noise about aiding the domestic coal industry. But like so many other Trump actions, its rhetorical impacts (both positive and negative) will be significant, but the practical impacts will be substantially muted by systemic checks and balances – in this case, checks and balances built into the Paris Agreement that will counter Trump's parochial denialism.

First, the global climate regime is fundamentally science-driven, and the inexorable urgency presented by climate change supported as it is by an overwhelming scientific consensus is the first and most important check on the Trump fossil fuel dream team. All the current administration's denial of climate change, censorship of climate science, and rejection of carbon's social cost will not stop the climate from changing, the sea levels from rising, the heat waves from killing, or the costs on society from mounting. Climate change doesn't have to be recognized, believed, or measured – it's happening regardless of what anyone believes. 

Domestically, that change will affect more farmers, more coastal inhabitants, and more voters. Every other national government in the world (at least those not dependent on oil production) understands the urgency of climate change and rejects the industry-financed "climate change is a hoax" crowd, leaving the Trump administration isolated and ridiculed on what the rest of the world accepts as one of the most pressing issues facing humanity. Importantly, the continued attention to science will mean that the rest of the world (including a number of U.S. states) will continue to strengthen their response to climate change over time, even if our federal government chooses to live in denial.

Multiplying the U.S. isolation resulting from the evidence-based foundation of the Paris Agreement is its unique architecture. Built on nationally determined (and non-binding) commitments (NDCs), the agreement is premised on individual and mostly independent decisions of each country. Unlike most international environmental agreements, Paris is not explicitly the product of mutual promises. No country's NDC is determined by another country's promises. U.S. withdrawal from Paris would have an impact, but not as much as if the U.S. NDC was explicitly tied to other countries' commitments. The design of the agreement thus ensures that mitigation commitments will not unravel because of the policy shift of any one country.

The voluntary nature of the NDCs also belies the Trump administration's new claim that the U.S. intention to ignore its NDC will violate the Paris Agreement. The NDCs are not binding, and no sanctions attach to any country, including the United States, for missing the targets set in their respective NDCs. Thus, no legal benefit attaches to withdrawing from the agreement. The administration's view otherwise is either negligently or deliberately misreading the agreement.

Multiplying the ineffectiveness of withdrawing from the Paris Agreement is the timing requirements for withdrawal. Withdrawal would not be effective immediately; it is not permitted until three years after the agreement enters into force (November 4, 2019). Such withdrawals then take effect one year after receipt of notice (in other words, no sooner than November 4, 2020) (see Article 28 of the Paris Agreement). Thus, Trump's announced withdrawal could not take effect until just before the next U.S. presidential election – and nothing prevents the next president from reversing course immediately. The Trump administration could avoid this timing problem by withdrawing from the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), but that would be viewed as the "nuclear option" and would be met with widespread condemnation and possible legal challenges.

The most important check underlying Trump's effort to reverse the global response to climate change may be neither scientific nor political, but economic. The Paris Agreement has helped shift a global energy market that is moving away from reliance on coal, thus undermining any Trump promise to resurrect a dying U.S. coal industry. But the agreement isn't solely or even primarily responsible for the move away from coal and other sources of dirty energy. That's largely being driven by market forces. 

The trend towards cleaner energy is clear and irreversible, and clean energy is emerging as an economic powerhouse. In 2016 alone, the U.S. added 22 GW of clean energy capacity, and clean energy accounted for 61.5 percent of new generating capacity, surpassing all oil, coal, and natural gas generation. In addition, clean energy is a major job creator. A recent report by the Department of Energy found that U.S. solar alone employs more people than oil, coal, and gas combined.

These market trends may explain why Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, former CEO of the oil industry giant ExxonMobil, is apparently arguing against pulling out of the Paris Agreement. The coal industry is essentially a national industry, dependent on domestic production and consumption with aspirations of growing exports. But ExxonMobil is a global energy company, dependent on access to foreign oil reserves and pushing the shift from coal to natural gas. 

Moreover, the future of both coal and oil depends on the emergence and global acceptance of carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technologies. Being inside the talks aimed at implementing the Paris Agreement is viewed as critical for shaping the regime in a way that facilitates the emergence of CCS and thus softens the transition for fossil fuel companies. This explains why some members of the fossil fuel industry have lobbied Trump to stay inside the regime. 

Indeed, the Paris Agreement allows flexibility in its approaches – flexibility that can preference the oil and gas industry in some cases. For example, Saudi Arabia's NDC under the Paris Agreement is focused on a $3 billion investment in research and development on technologies for capturing greenhouse gas emissions from petrochemical industries. The next U.S. NDC could similarly be a lifeline to coal, oil, and gas if those industries are willing to evolve and adapt.

The Paris Agreement signaled a global shift on carbon pollution and energy production and consumption. The world recognized that avoiding the risks of catastrophic climate change required reaching carbon neutrality by 2050. If the United States withdraws from the agreement, the response to climate change may slow, but the underlying rationale for curbing global carbon emissions will not change – and the rest of the world will find leadership elsewhere and move ahead without us. But even here at home, state and local governments, nonprofit organizations, and clean energy companies will soldier on despite the denial of reality at the federal level. In the end, the most significant long-term impact of a U.S. withdrawal from Paris will only be damage to our standing in the world's collective effort to protect our planet.

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