A little more than an hour before Donald Trump stood behind a podium in the Rose Garden and announced the United States would be withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement, I asked Michael Wara, a climate policy expert and environmental law professor at Stanford Law School, what I now consider to be an embarrassing hypothetical:
Is it possible that the Trump administration won’t actually back out of the agreement because it kind of lets them have it both ways?
I guessed that staying in allowed the administration to maintain the optics of global accountability and international consensus even as it continued on its path of furiously rolling back the policies that would get us anywhere near the emissions targets set out as part of the deal.
About 20 minutes into our call, after several outlets confirmed that the U.S. was in fact backing out, I learned once again that such speculation—even the meager hope for some politically smarter version of a terrible outcome—remains a sucker’s bet.
“Actually, we’re out,” I said, interrupting Wara as he explained how the accord was really just a down payment on further action. The early targets—the U.S., even without Trump’s policies, was already set to miss its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 26 percent to 28 percent by 2025—were just one piece of a much more ambitious process that required global cooperation and longterm transparency.
There was quiet on the other end of the phone. “Well, there you go,” Wara said. “It’s a sad day, and a real squandering of U.S. credibility.”
Later that afternoon, Trump would make things official. “I am fighting every day for the people of this country,” Trump said Thursday to warm applause. “Therefore, in order to fulfill my solemn duty to protect America and its citizens, the United States will withdraw from the Paris climate accord, but begin negotiations to reenter either the Paris accord or really an entirely new transaction on terms that are fair to the United States, its businesses, its workers, its people, its taxpayers. So we’re getting out.”
After the news alert, fully outside the realm of hypotheticals, I asked Wara what would happen next.
Optimistically, he offered, the president hadn’t withdraw from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, another massive global agreement: “That’s a one-year withdrawal process with enormous consequences,” he said. And withdrawing from the Paris agreement would take years, completing around the same time as the 2020 election.
But a lot had just changed, and dramatically. What states do in the vacuum created by Trump was one of the first questions to be answered: “The states really have to step up and lead,” he said. “We’re going to see a contrast.”
California is investing in solar and renewables while Democrats in the state legislature are working to recommit to the state’s cap-and-trade carbon program. Oregon is working on its own climate efforts, as are Washington state and Massachusetts.
But those will remain patchwork efforts. The larger question was what other countries would do in response. “And let’s be clear,” Wara said, “when people say ‘other countries,’ you should substitute China. This is making the U.S. less powerful and China more powerful.”
Officials in China have been vocal about maintaining their commitments—some that they’ve already exceeded—under the accord, but it’s unclear what will come of future talks and whether or not that will waiver longterm. “China has historically been a little more wary of strong international procedures and institutions,” David Victor, a political scientist with the University of California San Diego, recently told Vox. “You might see the treaty become more decentralized and less formalized over time.”
Beyond the climate, Wara said, this was another example of the Trump administration acting chaotically and alienating other countries. “It’s going to be a lot harder for us to ask for the kind of cooperation we need on other issues,” he said. “We need cooperation from China on North Korea. This does damage to that effort. We need cooperation from Europe on issues having to do with Russia and Syria. This does enormous damage. What this tells the world is that they can’t trust the United States’ word.”
So things are bad, I concluded. “It’s a hugely—” Wara searched for the word. “What’s the expression? I don’t want to put lipstick on a pig here. This is bad for the climate. This is bad for the United States.”