News - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Harvard Kennedy School Faculty React to President's Call to Withdraw from UN Climate Agreement

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  • Doug Gavel
| June 02, 2017

President Donald J. Trump announced yesterday (June 1, 2017) that the United States will withdraw from the landmark international climate change agreement reached by 195 countries in Paris in December 2015. The president stated that the agreement threatens U.S. economic interests and American sovereignty. The announcement, applauded by some, was denounced by many others, including Belfer Center faculty members Nicholas Burns, John P. Holdren, Meghan O'Sullivan, Cristine Russell, and Robert Stavins, and the Kennedy School's David Gergen.

Nicholas Burns, Roy and Barbara Goodman Family Professor of the Practice of Diplomacy and International Relations; faculty director of the Future of Diplomacy Project; and former U.S. undersecretary of state, and U.S. Ambassador to NATO, as quoted by ABC News

“It will threaten our credibility in the world…It may begin to create the impression that China is a more responsible country than the United States, and it might give a real boost to the Chinese because we will be seen as not doing our part on the biggest global problem.”

David Gergen, Public Service Professor of Public Leadership; co-director of the Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership; and former presidential advisor, on CNN Television, June 1, 2017

“Seventy years ago the United States entered an international agreement called the Marshall Plan, when we came to the aid of Europe, and it was one of the noblest acts in human history. Today we have walked away from the rest of the world, and it is one of the most shameful acts in our history. I think it will be widely seen around the world as a terrible, terrible setback for the planet.

“We represent as a country four percent of the world’s population, but we represent about a third of all the excess carbon dioxide that is now warming the planet. We are the largest contributor to carbon dioxide in the world, and…as this carbon dioxide threatens the future of our grandchildren, for us to walk away from that is grotesquely irresponsible. It is also true that the nations that are going to pay the greatest price for global warming are the poor nations of the world, and they have contributed the least to global warming. We have contributed the most. For us to walk away from that is immoral.”

Statement by John P. Holdren, Teresa and John Heinz Professor of Environmental Policy; and former senior advisor on science and technology issues to President Barack Obama

“President Trump’s misguided action withdrawing the United States from the Paris Accord is a blow to the prospects for limiting the damage from global climate change and a blow to U.S. leadership on the world stage. 

“It will probably take days to parse the profusion of misleading, hypocritical, and outright false statements in the President’s attempt to justify his profoundly counterproductive decision. Here I will make just a few overarching points.

“First, the President focused exclusively on the purported economic harm to the United States from remaining in the agreement, never once addressing the harm that human-caused global climate change is causing and will continue to cause in increasing measure to life, health, property, our national security, and the environmental conditions and processes that underpin much of our economy.  But the fact is that virtually every respectable analysis suggests that the costs associated with the damages from unabated climate change will be far larger than the costs of abatement would be. 

“Second, for all his emphasis on U.S. jobs, the President neglected to mention that there are many more U.S. jobs in the renewable-energy and energy-efficiency industries that have helped put this country, up until now, on a path toward meeting our emissions-reduction target under the Paris agreement than in the U.S. coal, oil, and natural gas industries combined.  And jobs in these “clean energy” industries have been growing much faster than the economy as a whole.  Withdrawing from the Paris agreement is likely to cause more harm than good to the U.S. economy.

“Third, the President’s assertion that the Paris agreement leaves U.S. industry ‘tied up and bound down’ while other countries can do what they want is manifestly false. All commitments under the Paris agreement are voluntary, and the agreement contains no penalties for failing to meet those voluntary commitments. Other countries are no more and no less bound by their commitments than is the United States. But all (except evidently the Trump Administration) understand that the real penalty for falling short on those commitments is the increased damage from global climate change that shortfalls in emissions reductions is certain to entrain.

“Fourth, there will be a penalty to be paid by the United States for its unilateral and objectively unwarranted withdrawal from one of the most consequential and universal international agreements in history. That penalty will be paid in widespread and well deserved opprobrium and in future non-cooperation of other countries with whatever international agenda President Trump believes he will be able to pursue going forward. He apparently thinks he is putting America first, but he is putting this country on a steep downhill slope in terms of international influence and the willingness of others to collaborate with us when we need them.”

Commentary by Meghan O’Sullivan, Kirkpatrick Professor of the Practice of International Affairs; former special assistant to President George W. Bush and Deputy National Security Advisor for Iraq and Afghanistan, titled “How Trump Is Surrendering America's Soft Power,” published by Bloomberg News, June 2, 2017

President Donald Trump's decision to remove the U.S. from the Paris climate agreement is yet another manifestation -- alongside the budget submitted to Congress and the president's speech at NATO headquarters in Brussels -- of how he continues to see U.S. interests as narrowly economic, and U.S. influence as exerted solely through hard power.

Had the president a more expansive view of both the nation's interests and influence, he would have kept the U.S. in the accord. Instead, he not only harmed global efforts to address a pressing problem, but also deprived the U.S. of an important source of so-called soft power. In a world in which military might is increasingly difficult and costly to use, America will suffer from this loss.

My Harvard colleague Joe Nye coined the term soft power, defining it simply as "the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments." According to Nye, the soft power of a country depends largely on three components: its culture, its political values, and how it conducts itself in the world and at home. To the extent that these three factors are attractive to others, a country can wield considerable sway abroad. This soft power complements more traditional notions of hard power: the military, the economy, and coercive elements of policy.

Contrary to a view in which the U.S. cows or pressures others into doing its bidding through its military power alone, it has long relied on soft power to shape the world in a way conducive to its interests. For instance, this year marks the 70th anniversary of the Marshall Plan, an initiative the U.S. took to help rebuild Europe, including Germany, after the devastation of World War II. During the Cold War, the attractiveness of U.S. ideas, values, and policies helped inspire those living under Soviet rule to oppose it, and allowed the U.S. to sustain alliances in the face of decades-long pressure from Moscow.

The U.S. had, and continues to have, many sources of soft power, be it our technologies, universities that attract hundreds of thousands of foreign students each year, or many elements of our popular culture. But a new and significant source of soft power was U.S. leadership on an issue that virtually every country in the world cares enough about to have devised a national action plan: climate change.

While the U.S. cannot claim all the credit for producing the Paris accord, the Barack Obama administration was widely seen as having been a critical driver. America became the champion of many countries that view climate change as an urgent, if not existential, problem. This global goodwill was extinguished overnight with Trump's announcement -- and with it, the countless ways in which the U.S. could have leveraged it to achieve other, non-climate related goals.

The most specific and likely most important example of how this will affect tangible American interests is with the relationship with China. Much has already been said about how Washington, in withdrawing from the Paris agreement, has handed China a geopolitical gift by ceding global leadership role to Beijing. Trump's abdication is no doubt welcomed by Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is making a big push to increase Chinese soft power in the world -- even speaking of it in these terms.

But what few appreciate is how climate was one of a perilously small number of issues on which Washington and Beijing had managed to build a cooperative relationship.

Perhaps ironically, the boom in U.S. shale gas production helped the U.S. bring down the country's 2015 per-capita carbon emissions to a level not seen since the early 1960s. This helped give the Obama administration credibility when it approached Chinese officials to forge a bilateral agreement in which both countries would commit to reining in carbon emissions.

This 2014 agreement was followed by three additional joint climate pacts and other initiatives -- such as the U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Center -- that have been the basis for constructive cooperation between two countries otherwise mired in tense and suspicious relations.

The hope was not only that the partnership between the U.S. and China would be good for the environment and climate, but that the personal relationships and mechanisms built through this engagement would have positive spillover effects into more tendentious issues. With tensions high on the Korean Peninsula and in the South China Sea, and with Russian President Vladimir Putin aggressively seeking to position Moscow as a better partner than Washington, removing one of the few points of common interest and real cooperation between the U.S. and China is nothing short of folly -- even if you cared not an iota about climate.

President Trump had other options than simply declaring the costs of meeting climate targets too high for the U.S. Given the inefficiencies and costs associated with Obama's Clean Power Plan, Trump might have instead galvanized Americans -- through more funding for research and development and other policies -- to find better ways of meeting U.S. pledges made in Paris.

Such innovations could have themselves been both an economic boon to the U.S. and a source of soft power if shared with countries struggling worldwide to meet climate challenges. Now that would have truly made America great again.

Reaction from Cristine Russell, Senior Fellow, Environment and Natural Resources Program at the Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science & International Affairs

"President Trump’s drama-filled announcement of U.S. withdrawal from the groundbreaking 2015 Paris climate agreement is a major, though not unexpected, setback for the concerted global effort to curb global greenhouse gas emissions. It flies in the face of fact-based scientific evidence of devastating climate change impact in terms of rising seas, heat waves, the melting Arctic, and endangered species. The planet is not political. Yet Donald Trump’s politically calculated decision puts campaign promises ahead of international action and cedes U.S. climate leadership to other countries.

“International media coverage will undoubtedly be resoundingly negative, cementing an image of an isolated country in full retreat from robust climate change commitments by the Obama Administration. Pulling out of the Paris accord goes against American public opinion, as well as strong support from many U.S. big business and public leaders. Despite the Trump Administration’s resistance, renewable energy growth is likely to march forward around the world.” 

Statement issued by Robert Stavins, Albert Pratt Professor of Business and Government; and director of the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements

"The announcement by U.S. President Donald Trump that he would withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement was both confused and misguided, and the justifications he provided were – at best – misleading, and for the most part, simply false.

“Let’s start with a few numbers. The USA accounts for about 14% of global greenhouse gas emissions, with China the largest emitter at 30%, followed by the European Union (10%) and India (7%).  In terms of cumulative emissions since 1850 (climate change is a function of the accumulated stock in the atmosphere, not emissions at any moment in time), the USA is first with 29% of the total, then the EU with 27%, Russia at 8%, and China at 8%.  Now, the USA will join Syria and Nicaragua as the only United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) countries that are not Parties of the Paris Agreement.

“With the USA out of the Paris Agreement, it cannot pressure other countries, such as the large emerging economies, to do more. Worse yet, the announced departure may encourage some countries to do less than they had anticipated. In the worst possible outcome, the U.S. announcement could eventually even lead to the broad Paris coalition unraveling.

“The President’s comments were confused and confusing. He said that the USA was open to rejoining, and would renegotiate for a more ‘fair’ agreement. He said that the country ‘will withdraw from the Paris climate accord but begin negotiations to re-enter either the Paris accord or an entirely new transaction on terms that are fair to the United States.  We are getting out. But we will start to negotiate, and we will see if we can make a deal that’s fair. And if we can, that’s great.’

“What does that mean? According the Paris Agreement’s rules, there is a required three-year delay from November, 2016 (when the Agreement came into force) before any Party (country) can even begin the process of withdrawing, and then there is another year delay before that process is complete.  So, the President – in effect – actually announced the U.S. intention to begin the process of withdrawing about 2.5 years from now, and also said that the USA will negotiate in the meantime for fairer treatment. 

“Thus, the announcement was equivalent to stating that the U.S. will remain a Party to the Agreement for the time being (which it will); and that the administration will submit a revised Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) that is consistent with what the country will accomplish in emissions reductions (perhaps a 16-19% reduction by 2025 compared with 2005, instead of the Obama NDC of 26-28%), due to the broad rollback of Obama-era climate regulations that Trump has initiated.  Only the country-specific NDC can be thought of as affecting “fairness” of the U.S. role under the Paris Agreement.

“Having said this, keep in mind that the structure of the Paris Agreement is truly the answer to U.S. dreams, going back to the Byrd-Hagel Resolution of 1997, in which the U.S. Senate -- in a 95-0 vote -- said that it would not ratify an international climate agreement that did not include the large emerging economies (China, India, Brazil, South Africa, Mexico, and Korea). The Paris Agreement does just that, with countries accounting for 97% of global emissions having signed up for NDCs (as opposed to the 14% of global emissions associated with the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol – the EU and New Zealand).

“Furthermore, in addition to including all countries, the Paris Agreement answered U.S. requests by granting all countries the right to determine their own targets and their own paths of action (through their respective NDCs). And the third of three U.S. wishes was granted by providing for transparency regarding how countries report their emissions and demonstrate progress toward their respective targets.

“Thus, the Paris Agreement was the answer to U.S. prayers going back at least twenty years, and was eminently ‘fair’ to the United States. What, then, can renegotiation produce that would make this President happy? Perhaps rename precisely the same agreement the ‘Mar-a-Lago Accord’ (or simply the ‘Trump Agreement’)!

“Mr. Trump’s decision is a remarkable rebuke to heads-of-state around the world, as well as corporate leaders in the USA, and some key high officials of the Administration. However, the announcement does attempt to fulfill the President’s campaign pledge to ‘cancel’ the Agreement that he said would destroy American jobs. 

“But dropping out of Paris will have no meaningful employment impacts. Trump has already begun the process of undoing domestic climate regulations from the Obama administration. More to the point, the much-talked-about coal jobs are not coming back. The losses that have taken place over decades are due to increased productivity (technological change) in the coal sector, and more recently, market competition from low-priced natural gas for electricity generation.

“The potential damages to U.S. international relations are immense, but should we be surprised? After all, this is the same President who withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership shortly after inauguration, thereby handing over to China economic leadership in Asia; and the same President who just last month dismissed and diminished NATO and our key European allies, thereby granting Russian President Vladimir Putin his greatest wish. 

“So, the announcement by President Trump that he would withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement was confused, misguided, and – in many ways – simply dishonest. Sadly, that makes it fully consistent with the President’s behavior (across the board) during the campaign and since he has assumed office.”

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Gavel, Doug, ed. “Harvard Kennedy School Faculty React to President's Call to Withdraw from UN Climate Agreement .” News, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, June 2, 2017.

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