What the reaction to Trump’s announcement on the Paris Agreement tells us about climate change governance

By on 17/07/2017 | Updated on 04/02/2022

America leads and the world follows? Not so much under Trump – at least when it comes to climate change. Dr Feja Lesniewska, MSc Global Energy and Climate Policy at SOAS University of London, looks at how the US’s decision to back out of the Paris Agreement may have bolstered the world’s response but will regardless leave a legacy of lost lives and lost lands.

The politically motivated move by Trump to withdraw from the Paris Agreement (2015) has resulted in a backlash. The backlash is embedded within the transnational global climate change governance architecture that has evolved since the Kyoto Protocol (1997) and is evident in the Paris Agreement and related outcomes. Christina Figueres, the executive security of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (1992) when the Paris Agreement was adopted, went so far as to say in a tweet “Thank you Trump. You have provoked an unparalleled wave of support for Paris and determined resolve on climate action. Deeply grateful.”

Since the Kyoto Protocol was adopted in 1997 more and more non-state actors have independently and collectively worked to promote climate change mitigation and adaptation measures. Bulkeley et al observed that ‘the governance of climate change now takes a seemingly bewildering array of forms: carbon markets, certification standards, voluntary workplace schemes, emissions registries, carbon labeling, urban planning codes and so on.’ The increasingly transnational nature of climate change governance makes a mockery of Trump’s isolationist move on climate change. Indeed when the newly elected French President Macron appropriated Trump’s campaign slogan ‘Make America Great Again’ and recast it as ‘Make the Planet Great Again’ he reiterated the necessity to work collectively for the common good of all. The response, especially within the United States, has underscored just how out of step with history Trump is in regard to the direction of travel of climate change governance. Cities provide an excellent example.

Cities account for approximately 70 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions and are vulnerable to some of the most damaging effects of climate change, including sea level rise and poor air quality – and most cities are growing, exacerbating these challenges. Reducing emissions and improving resilience are common concerns that are creating transnational networks of urban planners, policymakers and concerned citizens, including the C40 and the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy. At the 21st Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Paris 2015 cities were brought into the spotlight. Increasingly US cities, companies, universities and states are now taking the initiative to cooperate directly with other countries and coordinate initiatives on reducing greenhouse gas emissions via the UN’s Non-State Actor Zone for Climate Action portal (NAZCA), which recognises the importance of sub-national actors in climate action. Indeed in response to President Donald Trump’s rationale for pulling the US out of the Paris Agreement Mayors William Peduto (Pittsburgh) and Anne Hidalgo (Paris) wrote in The New York Times “The only way to do right by Pittsburghers and Parisians is to abide by the principles of the Paris Agreement, which guarantees the future health and prosperity of both of our cities – and every other city in the world”. As of 24 June 2017, 331 US cities had adopted the Paris Agreement. These voluntary, non-legally binding commitments adopted by cities are illustrative not just of defiance to Trump’s climate policy but also of the potential transformative political and economic located in centres beyond national state governments.

After Trump’s announcement to leave the Paris Agreement this type of high profile commitment by climate change non-state actors was a source of comfort to many. However there remains much to be concerned about. The Paris Agreement, no matter how limited it is, was designed specifically to recognise common but differentiated responsibility for climate change historically. It is the fundamental principles that are embedded into international climate change regime that are crucial to maintaining the international negotiating space to advocate for a fair, equitable and just transition to a low carbon world for all. There are no legally binding obligations on non-state actors to advance these principles. Without centralised reporting under the Pairs Agreement it will be difficult to determine the effectiveness of non-state actors response measures. Tying in non-state actors actions into the Paris Agreement’s legally binding transparency and stocktaking mechanisms will be important to determining their fairness, equity and effectiveness over time. Subsequent nationally determined contributions will evolve alongside non-state actors initiatives. So too will financial and technical targets under the international climate change regime. Ongoing negotiations to complete the Paris Agreement rulebook must address these matters.

The US decision to leave the Paris Agreement may have resulted in expressions of solidarity amongst the numerous actors who constitute the multilevel climate change governance world. This may, but by no means certainly will, reduce the negative impact in terms of climate policy or reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, but it remains a setback to the global political and diplomatic basis for international cooperation to threats to the global commons that become more pressing by the day.

It also, more worryingly, reduces the momentum to achieve the necessary policy and regulatory reforms required transnationally in a way that ensures the most vulnerable in least developed countries and small island states, as well as in developed countries, are not marginalised further from decision-making processes. It is this legacy, a legacy that will be counted in lost lives and lost lands, that will more than likely be the one left by Donald Trump’s irresponsible political posturing on climate change in the long-term.

MSc Global Energy and Climate Policy is also available as an Online programme.

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