Lessons Learned: From Kyoto to Paris

Last week, after much anticipation, President Trump announced that the United States would be formally withdrawing from the Paris Accord. This announcement does not come as a surprise given President Trump’s negative comments about the agreement on the campaign trail and the fact that the Trump Administration has already done away with the Clean Power Plan, the policy framework that would be necessary to help U.S. hit the targets set in the Paris Accord. Although foreseeable, President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the agreement is incredibly disappointing for the future of the planet and the future of U.S. diplomatic relationships abroad.

The Paris Accord was ratified by President Obama on November 4th, 2016, just before leaving office. This was a voluntary agreement that the United States would reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent from 2005 levels by 2025. The agreement consisted of 197 nation states and negotiations have been underway for more than two decades. The decision to pull out of this agreement was criticized by leaders from both sides of the aisle.

But this isn’t the first time the United States has stepped away from the international table during climate agreements. In 2001, President Bush withdrew the U.S. from the Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty committing signatory countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The Paris Accord is a lesser commitment than the Kyoto Protocol because unlike Kyoto, the Paris Agreement is non-binding, with voluntary targets and no legal enforcements.

President Bush withdrew the U.S. primarily due to the fact that emerging economies such as China and India did not have binding obligations for climate targets, putting the U.S. at a perceived economic disadvantage. This is not the case with the Paris Accord, which includes targets for both China and India. In fact, the U.S.’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement leaves China poised to take a leadership position on climate and dominate new clean energy technologies. 

Times are different today than they were in 2001 when we withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol. The impacts of climate change are more serious and more frequent. The majority of Americans support the Paris Agreement and believe in climate change. And the majority of major corporations, from BP to Apple, advocate for staying in the Paris Accord.

Reflecting on the decision to pull out of the Kyoto Protocol, many of top advisors to President Bush came to regret the decision. Even at the time, advisors such as Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice were wary of the decision, primarily for the message it sent to the rest of the world. Withdrawing from these vital international agreements tells the rest of the world that the United States is ready to go it alone and we don’t need help or partnership from the international community. This can be a dangerous message, especially if it transcends to military conflicts and other aspects of international diplomacy. In the case of Kyoto, the U.S. departure impacted other countries’ willingness to help in conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Even without the Kyoto Protocol, the U.S. was able to stabilize and then eventually lower its carbon emissions. And it is possible that the U.S. can still find ways to make strides on climate in the absence of the Paris agreement. Cities, governors, and states are poised to take charge on climate regardless of the President’s inaction and it is possible that greenhouse gas emissions can continue to fall. But the United States’ reputation as a leader on the world stage may be irreparably damaged. As with Kyoto, the message our withdrawal sends to our allies and international partners may have long lasting ramifications. It also leaves a large opening for competitive nations like China to fill our role as an international climate leader. 

Mollie Simon

Senior Communications Specialist
Mollie Simon is the senior communications specialist at the Kleinman Center. She manages the center’s social media accounts, drafts newsletters and announcements, writes and publishes content for our website, and regularly posts to our blog.