Did Donald Trump Just Make the Planet Hotter?
The U.S. is leaving the Paris Accord. Will it make climate change worse?
By ROBINSON MEYER
Jun 1 2017
The politics of climate change requires constantly comparing the very small and the very massive.
On the one hand, the carbon-dioxide molecule: three atoms, bound together by electromagnetism, that in sufficient quantities can reflect heat energy back to its source. On the other, the whole planet, our island in the sky, Earth: a medium-sized rock orbiting a medium-sized star, veiled in a thin layer of gas that determines when it rains, when it snows, whether it is a good home.
Between these two extremes hangs the entire phenomenon of climate change: a planetwide convulsion in the normal functioning of Earth’s ocean currents and weather patterns. An excess of carbon dioxide in that narrow atmosphere has trapped a century of extra heat—pushing global temperatures higher and higher, reducing the polar ice caps to their lowest levels ever recorded, bleaching the Great Barrier Reef and cooking cities and towns in sweltering summer heatwaves.
Too many of those little molecules, it has become clear, risks subjecting Earth to the fastest climate change in 50 million years.
On Thursday in the Rose Garden, President Donald Trump made little note of that problem as he announced that he will withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement, the first international treaty to combat climate change.
“I am fighting every day for the great people of this country. Therefore, in order to fulfill my solemn duty to protect america and its citizens, the United States will withdraw from the Paris climate accord,” said Trump. He also said he would “begin negotiations to re-enter either the paris accord or a really entirely new transaction on terms that are fair to the united states, its businesses, its workers, its people, its taxpayers.”
“And if we can’t, that’s fine,” he added.
Despite his decision to withdraw, the president will cohere to the legal terms of Paris. This means that the United States will not be able to give notice of its departure from the agreement until November 4, 2019, three years after the accord entered into force. And the country will not technically leave Paris until November 4, 2020—one day after that year’s presidential election.
What will this actually do to the Earth’s climate? For those of us who have to live with the consequences of global warming—who plan on seeing 2060, or at least expect our children to see it—will this make their lives worse? Or will it have no effect at all?
To fully answer that question, it requires stepping back and looking at other big things: how the Paris agreement works, and how the rest of the international community plans to avoid the worst of global warming.
As I wrote earlier this week, the Paris Agreement works by a delicate consensus mechanism: Instead of mandating restrictions from the top down, it asks every country to submit a nonbinding, voluntary plan to reduce its own emissions. Starting in 2020, and every five years after that, countries will issue new plans describing how they will further decrease emissions.