Professor calls withdrawal from climate accord a ‘sad,’ humanitarian failure

The U.S. is responsible for almost one-third of the excess carbon dioxide that is heating the planet. Photo by iStock.

President Donald Trump announced on Thursday afternoon that the United States would withdraw from the Paris climate accord, a landmark 2015 agreement between 195 countries to take action to curb global warming.

“The United States will withdraw from the Paris climate accord but begin negotiations to reenter either the Paris accord or an entirely new transaction on terms that are fair to the United States, its businesses, its workers, its people, and its taxpayers,” Trump said at a press conference at the White House. “As president, I can put no other consideration before the wellbeing of American citizens,” he added, noting that the accord left American workers and taxpayers “to absorb the cost in terms of lost jobs, lower wages, shuttered factories, and vastly diminished economic production.”

We asked Jennie Stephens, Dean’s Pro­fessor of Sus­tain­ability Sci­ence and Policy and associate director of Northeastern’s Global Resilience Institute, to explain how the decision to walk away from the accord might impact the nation’s efforts to address climate change as well as the effect it could have on America’s role as a global leader.

First and foremost, how might Trump’s decision to pull the U.S. from the Paris climate accord impact the nation’s efforts to cut planet-warming pollution?

Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement does not actually halt climate mitigation efforts in the United States. Despite the lack of national support, much climate action in the U.S. is already taking place at the state and local levels. In addition, the transition away from fossil fuels toward more renewables will continue in the U.S. regardless of this decision. Renewable energy is among the fastest growing job-creating sectors in the country and the momentum there will not stop. The Trump administration’s attempt to expand, rather than reduce, fossil fuel reliance could slow down renewable expansion and increase U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, but individuals, communities, and businesses around the country will continue to seek the benefits of cleaner renewable energy.

Trump’s decision to withdraw is symbolic of an extremely narrow view of the societal costs of climate disruption and highlights a dangerous isolationist approach to engaging diplomatically with the rest of the world. In his announcement, Trump did not directly acknowledge climate change as a challenge that the countries of the world need to address, nor did he recognize the United States’ disproportionate contribution to the accumulated greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere. Every country in the world is already confronting risks posed by climate change—ignoring or denying the costs of climate disruption does not make those risks go away. In fact, climate risks are increasing all the time and we’re losing ground in terms of building climate resilience when U.S. leadership is unwilling to even acknowledge these risks.

The U.S. is responsible for almost one-third of the excess carbon dioxide that is heating the planet. But one environmental policy expert has argued that the world would be better off without the U.S. in the Paris climate accord, writing that a “U.S. withdrawal would minimize risks and maximize opportunities for the climate community,” including renewed European and Chinese leadership. Might the climate accord be stronger without the U.S.?

Without a doubt, the U.S. has been an unreliable country throughout the U.N. climate negotiation process. That’s frustrating for other countries that have been consistent in their commitment to engage collectively to address global climate change. It is also likely that the U.S. withdrawal will compel other nations to increase their resolve and their commitment, accelerating their efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, expand renewable energy, and reduce reliance on fossil fuels.

This is a sad day for the U.S. with respect to international diplomacy, science, and international leadership. The decision to withdraw from the climate accord is disrespectful of the global community’s efforts to collaborate on one of the most important global challenges facing humanity today. The Paris accord was the result of years of diplomatic efforts among 195 countries that collectively recognized that collaboration and collective commitment are essential to confronting this unique global challenge.


Some experts have argued that the U.S. decision to withdraw from the climate accord could have a ripple effect, leading other countries that have reluctantly joined the agreement to withdraw or soften their commitments to curbing global warming. How do you think other nations will react to the U.S. withdrawal?

On the global stage, countries are constantly comparing and reflecting on what other countries are doing. The U.S. has been  an important country that others look to as a guide for their own engagement with the world. So it’s possible that  the U.S. withdrawal from the climate accord could result in other countries justifying a change in their own position, but it’s still too early to tell how it will play out. t is also possible that the U.S. withdrawal will result in other countries strengthening their commitments and re-prioritizing climate action to compensate for the lack of U.S. leadership.

There are additional concerns about governance and communication here. Apparently President Trump’s meetings last week with European leaders in Brussels and Italy did not influence his thinking on his campaign promise of withdrawing from the Paris agreement. Pulling out of the accord was a major decision—yet the decision-process leading up to the announcement on Thursday seemed haphazard. Also, the lead up to the announcement, including Trump tweeting updates to create anticipation, made the whole thing appear like something out of a reality TV show.

“Trump,” WBUR reports, “has argued that the agreement would cost the country trillions and put factories at risk.” What, in your estimation, will leaving the climate accord mean for the U.S. economy?

Trump’s claims of economic hardship associated with the U.S. fulfilling its commitments within the Paris accord represent a limited and unimaginative perspective of future social and technological innovations. These claims also demonstrate a lack of understanding of the science of climate change and the economic potential of advancing renewable energy rather than fossil fuels. These claims  ignore the impact of climate change and the environmental and human-health costs associated with fossil fuel extraction, distribution, and combustion.

Communities and organizations throughout the country are learning that there’s more potential for economic stability and the creation of good jobs in a more renewable energy-based society. Americans are also increasingly realizing that reducing reliance on fossil fuels also reduces the political influence of the powerful fossil fuel companies that have been strategically confusing the American people for decades on the science of climate change.

Despite the fossil fuel industry’s resistance to climate action, over the past several weeks and months, hundreds of companies have pleaded with Trump not to abandon the agreement, precisely because withdrawing will put American prosperity at risk. If the U.S. prioritizes perpetuating fossil fuel reliance while other countries invest heavily in advancing renewable energy sectors, the U.S. will fall farther behind and further reduce our role as a global leader.

In President Trump’s justification for why he had decided it would be best for the American people to withdraw from the Paris accord, he said, defiantly, “we don’t want other countries laughing at us.” The irony is that with this decision other countries are, in fact, more likely than ever before to laugh at us. But unfortunately there is nothing funny about the current situation. This decision reveals ignorance and arrogance, as well as a disturbing lack of interest in international cooperation to address one of the most challenging issues of our time.