Donald Trump is moving to formally exit the Paris climate agreement, making the United States the only country in the world that will not participate in the pact, as global temperatures are set to rise 3C and worsening extreme weather will drive millions into poverty.
The paperwork sent by the US government to withdraw begins a one-year process for exiting the deal agreed to at the UN climate change conference in Paris in 2015. The Trump administration will not be able to finalize its exit until a day after the presidential election in November 2020.
The French presidential office said Emmanuel Macron and Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping would sign a pact in Beijing on Wednesday that makes reference to the “irreversibility” of the Paris climate accord.
The Élysée palace official expressed disappointment at Trump’s move, saying: “We regret this and this only makes the Franco-Chinese partnership on the climate and biodiversity more necessary.”
The US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, announced the development on Monday afternoon, saying the agreement would be an “unfair economic burden imposed on American workers, businesses and taxpayers” and that the US has already reduced its heat-trapping emissions.
But organizers of local city and state efforts to curb the crisis across America say the US is still trying to play a role in fighting the climate crisis, despite the actions of the federal government.
Carl Pope, vice chair of the group America’s Pledge, said its members – who are vowing to keep fighting the climate emergency – produce more than half the country’s heat-trapping emissions and represent about 70% of the US gross domestic product. Another organization, the US Climate Alliance, includes the governors of 25 states, representing 55% of the US population.
In the Paris agreement, the US agreed to cut its heat-trapping pollution at least 26% below 2005 levels by 2025.
Dozens of countries are also pursuing goals to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. But they represent only about 11% of the world’s climate footprint and exclude the biggest emitters: China, the US and India.
Staying on par with those more advanced countries would require the US government to eliminate pollution from coal and natural gas powered electricity plants, transportation, manufacturing facilities and agriculture. Local action by itself is not likely to be enough.
“We don’t think it’s likely just with the states we have, we think we need the whole country to be moving together,” Pope said.
Criticism from prominent political and environmental figures was swift and forceful.
The former vice-president and climate campaigner Al Gore said in a statement posted on Twitter: “No one person or party can stop our momentum to solve the climate crisis. But those who try will be remembered for their complacency, complicity, and mendacity in attempting to sacrifice the planet for their greed.”
Gore, a Nobel prize co-recipient (with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) for his efforts to raise awareness of the climate crisis, described Trump’s policy as “reckless” but also noted that the withdrawal process cannot start until after the 2020 election.
“Even if [Trump] follows through, it would take just 30 days for a new president to get us back in,” Gore added. “This decision is ultimately in the hands of the voters.”
The speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, called Trump’s move a “disastrous decision that sells out our children’s future”.
Jean Su, energy director with the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute, said: “America is the number one historical contributor to the climate emergency wreaking havoc in burning California, the flooded Southeast and the rest of the world.”
“The next president must repay this extraordinary climate debt by rapidly moving America to 100% clean energy and financing the decarbonization of the Global South,” Su said, referring to the developing world.
In addition, the Trump administration has also pulled US funding commitments to help the developing world cut pollution.
John Kerry and Chuck Hagel, president Barack Obama’s secretaries of state and defense respectively, in a Washington Post op-ed, called it a “dark day for America”.
“Climate change is already affecting every sector and region of the United States, as hundreds of top scientists from 13 federal agencies made clear in a report the White House itself released last year,” they said. “The past five years were the warmest ever recorded. Without steep pollution reductions, climate change will risk tens of thousands of US lives every year by the end of the century.”
They called the Paris agreement, “a start, not a finish line,” but “the best ignition switch the world could agree on to spark international cooperation on this critical issue”.
Senator Tom Carper, the top Democrat on the Senate environment panel, said: “Once again, President Trump is abandoning our global allies for the sake of misplaced political gain. Now America stands alone – nearly 200 countries have joined this global commitment to fighting climate change, even global pariahs like North Korea and civil war-torn countries like Syria.”
Carper said Trump is abandoning “tremendous economic opportunity” and public health benefits.
Trump has alternately ignored or denied the climate crisis. His agencies are nixing regulations for power plants and cars, and bolstering fossil fuels whenever possible. He promised, to widespread dismay, to exit the Paris agreement during his campaign.
The Democratic 2020 election frontrunners challenging Trump have all said they would set the country on a path to neutralize its climate pollution by 2050.
Nate Hultman, director of the University of Maryland’s center for global sustainability and lead author of this year’s America’s Pledge report, pointed to new laws in New Mexico, Nevada, Washington, Maine, New York, Washington DC, and Puerto Rico for 100% clean energy targets. Hawaii and California already had such laws.
Together, they represent 16% of the nation’s electricity, more than doubling the share from 2018, he said.
“Another way to think about it is that Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement is supported in reality by only about 30% of the economy and 35% of the population,” Hultman said.
Even once the US withdraws, the country can participate as an observer in international climate negotiations.
But despite the efforts of subnational governments, recent analysis shows the US is still far off track from its commitments, regardless of whether Trump pulled out.
The US is also far from neutralizing climate emissions by the middle of the century, which as many experts say will be necessary for all countries in order to avert the worst of the crisis.
“We can still get there with a serious shift in policy in the coming years,” said Kate Larsen, director of Rhodium’s international energy and climate research.