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U.S. formally withdraws from Paris climate accord

The White House with flag at half-staff in December 2018 in honor of former President George H.W. Bush (AN/John Heilprin)
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WASHINGTON — The United States became the first nation to formally withdraw from the 2015 Paris Agreement on Wednesday, jeopardizing international efforts at curbing the worst impacts of global warming this century.

But the outcome of the race for the White House will decide how long the world’s largest economy stands apart from the collective action needed to save the planet that is prescribed in the Paris climate treaty.

The U.S. withdrawal, coming one day after millions of American voters cast their Election Day ballots for the presidency, members of U.S. Congress and state and local officials, fulfilled the notification to the United Nations that U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration had delivered precisely one year earlier.

The Republican incumbent president’s rival for the White House, Democratic former Vice President Joe Biden, has been appealing to voters to consider the need for urgent climate action when they cast their ballots by telling them that “climate change isn’t a hoax” as Trump has maintained.

“It is not an exaggeration to say the future of our planet is at stake in this election. We simply cannot afford four more years of Trump and his climate denial,” said U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Biden’s former rival for the Democratic presidential nomination.

None of the almost 200 nations that signed onto the deal, which took effect on November 4, 2016, could leave it for the first three years. The withdrawal process takes a year to complete. If Biden wins the presidency, however, he could announce on January 20, 2021, his first day in office, that the United States will rejoin.

Such a move would not require approval from the U.S. Congress. Under the terms of the Paris deal, U.S. readmission would become effective 30 days later.

Together, the European Union and 189 nations that signed and ratified the treaty emit almost 90 percent of all greenhouse gases. Those include China, which accounts for 28 percent of global emissions and is the world’s biggest carbon polluter, along with India, which accounts for 7 percent, Russia, 5 percent, and Japan, 3 percent.

But the United States, which accounts for 15 percent, is the world’s second-biggest carbon polluter, according to data and analysis by the U.S.-based Union of Concerned Scientists. Six other nations have signed but not ratified the treaty.

The path from Rio

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, like his predecessor Ban Ki-moon, made the climate crisis a top priority for the United Nations. The 2015 treaty committed the world to “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees C. above pre-industrial levels.”

The world has already warmed by about 1 degree C. above pre-industrial levels, so the choice is really between another 1 degree C. or, preferably, a half-degree C. more warming.

Ironically, it was one of Trump’s Republican predecessors who first led the United States down the path towards joining the climate treaty. Former U.S. President George H.W. Bush launched a 1989 presidential initiative that created the U.S. Global Change Research Program among 13 federal agencies. The next year he signed legislation requiring agencies to conduct a National Climate Assessment every four years.

Then in 1992, Bush attended the landmark Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro that galvanized the environmental movement. There he signed a treaty document aimed at reducing the risks of global warming. The summit also established the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC, the United Nations treaty platform for sponsoring global climate negotiations.

The United States later joined the Paris treaty under former U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration, but Trump announced in June 2017, five months after taking office, that he would pull the United States out of the agreement.

At an energy conference in Pittsburgh last year, Trump argued that the Paris treaty would shut down American natural gas and crude oil producers with “excessive regulatory restrictions like you would not believe, while allowing foreign producers to pollute with impunity.”

“What we won’t do is punish the American people while enriching foreign polluters,” he said. “I’m proud to say it, it’s called America First.”

Major oil and gas producers such as BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch Shell have all come out in favor of the United States remaining in the treaty, however, in part because of their diversification into alternative energy sources and natural gas which emits far less carbon than coal or oil.

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