The Paris Climate Agreement’s Failure Was Structurally Inevitable

by Benjamin Studebaker

President Trump has pulled the United States out of the Paris Climate Agreement:

Unfortunately, the Paris Agreement was poorly designed from the start and never really had a chance of meaningfully addressing climate change. Trump’s decision today was produced and facilitated by these weaknesses.

Climate agreements are too weak. When the Paris Agreement was drawn up in 2015, the Obama administration was concerned that if the agreement were a legally enforceable treaty, it would be forced to put it to a vote in the senate, where it would almost certainly be defeated by Republican senators. The EU and many other countries wanted a treaty, but Secretary of State John Kerry expressly refused to do that. Kerry did an interview with the Financial Times in which he told them the agreement was “definitely not going to be a treaty” and that there were “not going to be legally binding reduction targets like Kyoto”. The EU put up a fight, but Kerry won out–the text of the agreement refers over and over to “nationally determined contributions”. It sets no firm legally binding targets and it makes no provision for handling noncompliance.

This meant that even from the start, the Paris Agreement was much weaker than the earlier Kyoto Protocols, which expressly refer to “quantified emission limitation and reduction commitments”. Individual countries have specific percentage reductions listed in Kyoto. But only developed countries had stringent commitments under Kyoto–developing countries like China and India were not given binding targets. The senate objected to that, and the Clinton administration was never able to get it to ratify Kyoto. President Bush eventually killed US participation. Bush defended the decision this way:

The world’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gases is China. Yet China was entirely exempted from the requirements of the Kyoto protocol. India and Germany are among the top emitters. Yet India was also exempt from Kyoto.

Bush believed Kyoto enabled countries like China and India to take advantage of the United States. We see the same kind of language in Trump’s rejection of the Paris agreement:

At what point does America get demeaned? At what point do they start laughing at us as a country? We want fair treatment. We don’t want other countries and other leaders to laugh at us anymore.

But of course, China and India–which are still much poorer than the United States on a per capita basis–won’t accept binding targets that Republicans like Bush and Trump consider “fair treatment”. This is the core problem with climate agreements. There are always some people in some countries who are worried, rightly or wrongly, that they’re being screwed over, that other countries are using the climate issue to pursue relative economic advantages. Periodically, these people get into positions of power and they then abandon the agreements or attempt to renegotiate them. The new terms they offer are usually unacceptable to developing countries, and even if developing countries sign onto them, factions will emerge in those developing countries which consider pro-western terms onerous and imperialistic and who will, when they get into power, pull those developing countries out of whatever new agreements emerge.

There is no global authority capable of compelling states to stay in climate agreements or even to abide by their targets, even when they are legally stipulated. There’s no agreement that feels fair to everyone, which means sooner or later someone can and will defect without any immediate political or economic consequences. Nobody gets sanctioned for pulling out of climate agreements and no one gets arrested by the world police–there are no world police. It doesn’t even have to be the United States–in 2011, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper took his country out of Kyoto. The Canadian Environment Minister, Peter Kent, defended the decision the same way Bush and Trump did–by claiming that everyone else was taking advantage of his country:

The Kyoto protocol does not cover the world’s largest two emitters, the United States and China, and therefore cannot work. It’s now clear that Kyoto is not the path forward to a global solution to climate change. If anything it’s an impediment…[Withdrawing] allows us to continue to create jobs and growth in Canada.

International climate deals are not going to work if countries can do this without paying a heavy economic price. Climate deals must mandate that whenever a country pulls out or fails to meet its target (and there should be binding targets), the remaining signatories are obliged to impose economic sanctions on it until it returns to compliance. Perhaps non-compliant countries should even be expelled from the WTO. No government should be able to imagine that it will economically prosper outside a climate deal.

But of course, most countries are serious about dealing with climate change, but not that serious. They are unwilling to pay the economic price of denying non-compliant countries access to global marketplaces. They fear being accused of having handed democratic power to unelected global bureaucrats. They won’t sign that kind of agreement, much less cede sovereignty to the supranational structures necessary to enforce it. So instead we get weak agreements that cannot be enforced, and when conservatives and nationalists win power and decide that these agreements are “unfair”, they can ditch them at zero cost. So of course they do so–why wouldn’t they, given what they believe?

These agreements enable right wing politicians to undo them easily, and no one has yet found a way to keep right wing politicians from occasionally winning power. Dealing with climate change isn’t merely a matter of convincing people it’s real or electing people who care, it’s also about making strong agreements that put a bit of stick about, so that when the wrong people do get into power, they won’t mess with our climate deals. If the rest of the world isn’t prepared to club Trump over the head for leaving, is it really any surprise that he’s bailed, given who and what he is? Donald Trump didn’t kill the Paris Climate Agreement. It was dead before it was signed.