How Trump Could Get His Way With the Paris Agreement

September 25, 2017, 4:08 PM UTC

On June 1, President Donald Trump declared that the U.S. was pulling out of the Paris climate accord. In the build-up to his Rose Garden announcement some analysts feared that this would start a process of unraveling the historic agreement.

Instead the opposite took place. The entire world and many U.S. corporations, states, and cities doubled down on their greenhouse gas reduction pledges. Trump created an easy to understand, highly visible common enemy. Michael Bloomberg built a U.S. coalition that would more than meet America’s reduction targets. China saw an opportunity to replace the U.S. as a leader of the world’s effort to combat climate change. Trump and his team became irrelevant to the global discussion of climate change.

Recently there have been some rumors that under the right conditions, the U.S. might reengage in the global effort to reduce greenhouse gases. However, as Trump’s Press Secretary Sarah Sanders tweeted on Sept. 16: “Our position on the Paris agreement has not changed. @POTUS has been clear, US withdrawing unless we get pro-America terms.”

It’s not clear what is anti-American about the climate agreement. The agreement asks each sovereign nation to set its own greenhouse gas reduction targets and report on those targets every five years. In the case of the U.S., our own Supreme Court has already defined greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act as dangerous pollutants that must be regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency. Our own law is mandatory; the Paris agreement is voluntary.

The other part of the Paris agreement is a vague provision that starting in 2020 a $100 billion-a-year fund will be established to help developing nations address climate change. It does not say how much anyone should contribute to the fund, or the form that this contribution will take. It might be possible for the U.S. contribution to take the form of investments by U.S. corporations in renewable energy and energy efficiency in the developing world. It could take the form of reforestation efforts by non-governmental organizations that help absorb carbon dioxide. It could even take the form of an investment in carbon capture and storage technology to allow fossil fuels to be part of the future energy mix.

The agreement is very vague on the form and function of the fund, and what might be counted as a national “contribution.” A fund definition that explicitly calls for public-private partnership might allow Trump to claim he made a deal that would allow for a more pro-American approach to climate policy.

It would be best if the U.S. continued to engage in the global effort to reduce greenhouse gases, but it is unlikely that other nations care about bringing the Trump administration back to the negotiating table. They know that America will meet its greenhouse gas reduction targets with or without the White House. Trump is like the class bully who announces he’s not coming to the prom. The rest of the class figures the party will be more fun without him.

Steve Cohen is the executive director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute and professor in the practice of public affairs at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs.

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