Without the U.S., Does Paris Climate Deal Collapse?

A senior member of the U.S. State Department’s Paris negotiating team explores the implications of a Trump administration pullback from global climate deal.

The Trump administration has offered conflicting messages around its intention to honor U.S. commitments under the 2015 Paris Climate Accord.  Still in the early days of his presidency, President Trump has launched a range of efforts to roll back domestic climate protections, most notably his recent executive order to withdraw support for the Clean Power Plan, and his promise to weaken automotive fuel economy standards.  Both are essential to the U.S. meeting its Paris climate goals.

Yet some voices in the administration, and within the energy industry, have urged the President to “maintain a seat at the table” of global climate dialogue.

Andrew Light, former member of the U.S. State Department’s Paris climate negotiating team, explores the outlook for constructive U.S. participation in the effort to combat climate change and the fate of a global, coordinated climate effort.

Andy Stone: Hello, and welcome to the Energy Policy Now Podcast from the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy at the University of Pennsylvania. I’m Andy Stone. The Trump administration has provided conflicting messages around its intention to honor U.S. commitments under the 2015 Paris Climate Accord. Still in the early days of his presidency, Donald Trump has launched a range of efforts to roll back domestic climate protections. Most notably his recent executive order to withdraw support for the Clean Power Plan and his promise to weaken automotive fuel economy standards, both are essential to the U.S. meeting its Paris climate goals.

Yet some voices in the administration and within the energy industry have urged the President to maintain a seat at the table of global climate dialogue. Might the U.S. still participate constructively in the effort to combat climate change or without U.S. leadership does the Paris agreement and the vision of a global coordinated effort to address climate change fall apart? Here to discuss the issue is our guest Andrew Light.

Andrew Light: Thanks Andy.

Stone: Andrew’s a distinguished Senior Fellow in the Global Climate Program at the World Resources Institute and Director of the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at George Mason University.  From 2013 to 16, he worked for the U.S. State Department where he was chair of the Interagency Climate Working Group on U.S. Sustainable Development Goals. And he served on the senior strategy team for the UN climate negotiations.

Earlier, he was director of International Climate Policy at the Center for American Progress. So, Andrew, just to get started, I just wonder if you could have a little background, if you could define what the Paris Agreement requires, and it doesn’t and what countries are legally bound to do and not legally bound to do?

Light: Sure, happy to. So, the Paris Climate Agreement is what we would call in diplomatic speak, a bottom up agreement. It did not have commonly negotiated targets for all countries. It asked all countries who are willing to come forward and make their own pledges for what they were willing to do to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by either 2025 or 2030. To be in the Paris Climate Agreement, you’ve got to make a pledge, but the content of the pledge is not legally binding.

So you set your target. You have to tell us how you’re going to hit your target, which is called exanti information. And then you have to provide constant updates on your progress towards meeting your target. And that’s where legally binding parts of it come into play. Really important for this bottom up structure for an agreement that, you know, if an agreement is built on these voluntary targets, that countries are putting forward, it’s only as good as how much we know whether you’re actually hitting your target, right?

So you’ve got to come back at regular intervals and all the countries got to play by the same rules to say, you know, what’s your greenhouse gas inventory? What is your progress toward reducing your emissions in? And that’s the only way that we can add up, like, what does it all get to when you add it up all together? Are we actually any closer to hitting our internationally accepted goals towards stabilizing the temperature increased caused by humanly made climate change.

So it’s a combination of voluntary pledges that got a lot of buy in. We’ve got the biggest buy in of any climate treaty we’ve ever tried to create. And then this sort of this binding nature of making sure that we know what you’re doing. And there’s one other thing that’s very important for this is it’s not a one off. So the U.S. for example, made a pledge to what they’re going to do by 2025. And the U.S. is required to come back to the table every five years, starting in 2025 to put down a new pledge and every other country will do the same thing. So the way that we constructed it, the way it’s going to work is like every five years, everyone comes back to the table and they increase their ambition. And then your ramp up to something that can really be effective.

Stone: So this has been called a landmark agreement. In what way is it landmark specifically compared to prior agreements such as Kyoto?

Light: Well, Kyoto was interesting. That’s a top down agreement. So that’s where targets were negotiated commonly. And the interesting thing about the body where we negotiated the Paris Climate Agreement, which is called the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. So the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change operates by the UN default system, which is consensus, which means every country has a veto, right? So right now, sitting here while there’s an active debate in the U.S. Senate about whether we’re going to exercise the nuclear option, right. And whether we’re going to require the 60 vote threshold out of a hundred to get something voted on in the U.S. Senate, UN Framework on Climate Change, much harder, you got to get 192 out of 192 to do anything.

Stone: So everybody has a nuclear option?

Light: Everybody has a nuclear option, they can all blow it up. And so the thing about Kyoto was, you know, we negotiated common targets for the developed countries, not the developing countries. Just the developed countries, because, you know, they were the first polluters, you know, out of the gate, the one degree Celsius temperature increase we’ve experienced so far in the planet. We got that. It was first done by developed countries, right? That was part of how we created the industrial revolution.

Developing countries now are polluting a lot more. And so the problem was is that when you have this common process of negotiating these top down targets, and everyone gets a veto, you tend to go to the lowest common denominator. So ambition is really low. So that was bad. Add onto that, that the United States at the very last minute, I mean, really literally the very last one, it’s just a couple, few months before we finalize the Kyoto Protocol, the U.S. Senate said, in one of the interesting moments of bipartisan consensus on climate change in the United States, voted 95 to zero that they would not even consider an agreement structured like the Kyoto Protocol, where it had obligations for developed countries and not for developing countries.

Stone: Interesting Europe, went forward with that, up with its obligations, but the United States just backed out.

Light: The U.S. just said, the U.S. had been at the forefront of negotiating. It was basically a three way negotiating going into Kyoto between the EU and Japan and the U.S. U.S. was really driving. This is the Clinton Administration. They are really driving it, the last minute, the U.S. Senate says we will not even consider this don’t even bother bringing it to the Senate for a ratification vote. And so that meant that you had low targets to begin with. And then the world’s biggest emitter is not even in the process.

So Kyoto, you know, people like it from the perspective of all legally binding, you started with the question was, what part of Paris is binding? What part of Paris is not binding? Many people criticize Paris because the content of the targets and what targets are selected by countries is not legally binding. But the fact of the matter is, is that the alternative this really nice nifty top-down, common targets, penalties if you don’t comply, just simply doesn’t work for this kind of agreement for an environmental agreement like this. So Paris, when you compare it to the buy in we got from Kyoto, is an enormous success with respect to the total coverage. So at its high point, give you an example. The Kyoto Protocol covered countries, countries obligated to reduce their emissions under Kyoto only mounted about 25% of global emissions. That’s it. At the Paris climate summit in December of 2015, before the first gavel came down, initiating discussions, we had pledges from countries that represented over 98% of global emissions.

Stone: What changed that brought so many countries in?

Light: So partly it was the structure. The structure was really important, the architecture of it. But much more importantly, we started this process that frankly, we were surprised at how well it worked. To move from the old days in the nineties when, you know, when you’re asking countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and think of what greenhouse gas emissions primarily, right, or a byproduct of producing energy. I mean, they’re a byproduct of the engine that drives global prosperity. And in the early nineties, we didn’t talk about green jobs. We didn’t foresee like the dramatic drop in like solar prices and wind prices and things like that.

In the early nineties, if you were sort of a country that was going to pony up to reduce your emissions, the framing was all pain, no gain. And you know, this is not going to be fun. And that’s partly what the U.S. Senate objected to when they said the U.S. should not join an agreement structured like Kyoto. So one of the things that changed is the economic landscape is completely different today than it was in the early…

Stone: There’s opportunity in clean energy.

Light: There’s opportunities there, that’s right. Countries realize they can grow their economies while reducing their emissions. We’ve seen now three straight years of global drop in emissions from the electricity sector and a global increase in GDP. That’s what you gotta do. You gotta decouple economic growth from emissions. We’ve done it in the electricity sector. We now need to do it in everything else.

But that shows you can do it. That shows like in a country like India, hundreds of millions of people in a state of energy poverty, absolutely critical that they get those people on a grid or mini grid or something, get them electricity so they can get out of poverty. Now we actually have a way for them to move forward without doing it on a high carbon diet. So the opportunity set looks better.

And then the third part of it, we raise climate diplomacy out of its silo. Now this is critical. In the early nineties, when we started negotiating climate agreements, this is a backwater of international diplomacy. You know, if you were, if you’re really after shooting for the top as a civil servant or a foreign service officer in the U.S. State Department, you didn’t do climate diplomacy. You’d want to do trade. You want to do nuclear disarmament and, you know, the big muscular issues. And one of the things that President Obama and Secretary Kerry did is they put climate change front and center, you know, with respect to questions of international diplomacy. And it went from this sideshow on, which was in the nineties, an important one, right? And under appreciated by many people, don’t get me wrong. But to one where people in much more in the mainstream said, oh okay, right. This is critically important. This is part of how other countries are going to look at me and assess whether or not I’m a good partner or a bad partner with respect to everything else.

And for the time that I worked directly for Secretary Kerry in what’s called the Office of Policy Planning in the three years I was at State Department. I saw it firsthand, every time that John Kerry would go to a meeting, it doesn’t matter what the topic was. It could be on, you know, putting together the coalition to fight ISIS. It could be on, you know, anything. He would want climate change talking points because he wanted to make it extremely clear that a very high priority for the U.S. government was to get the Paris Climate Agreement and everything, in terms of our relationship with those countries, was going to be looked at through that lens. And that really started the momentum. So we got over 130 leaders in Paris at the beginning of that two week session blessing it. Announcing a lot of initiatives to try to help move it along and kind of saying, you guys get down to work and we’re actually gonna move forward with a successful climate agreement for the first time in history.

Stone: I’d like to move on to the issue of the status of Paris under the current administration. But first, I just want to ask one more question. You were involved on the front line of negotiations on behalf of the United States leading up to Paris. And per my understanding you were working directly with India, the Indian government, to reach agreements. I’d love to hear what the Indians were asking for in terms of promises from the U.S., promises from the global community, and what the U.S. was offering, what was the back and forth?

Light: Yep. A great question. So I had two primary jobs when I was in government one, I was the Senior Advisor and the Counselor on India to the U.S. Special Envoy on Climate Change, including Todd Stern. He was our main principal climate negotiator, the head of all the thing. He was there for the entire eight years of the Obama administration. And then I also had this period where also worked directly for Secretary Kerry in his Office of Policy Planning, which is his collection of experts, right. Who advise him on things.

Now for Todd, when I was doing the India work, the U.S. and India have been historically at odds with each other in this process. And it has to do with this whole question of historical responsibility. You know, I said that earlier with Kyoto, we decided, okay, develop countries go first, developing countries get more time, both because it was still expensive, right? To consider any alternative than fossil fuels for producing energy. And also it was the case that they were later to the game. And one of the interesting things about the physical properties of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, is it’s extremely long lived as a warm warming agent. So about half of all CO2 emitted will cause warming for 50 to 100 years. And there’s a smaller percentage around 20% that can cause warming for thousands of years. So that’s why we know the one degree we’ve already experienced…

Stone: So we’re still suffering the effects of the early days of industrialization?

Light: We’re still suffering the effects and we will continue to, right. Now we live in a world where the bulk of emissions are coming from developing countries. And so it is physically impossible to solve the climate problem, to stabilize at 2 degrees Celsius, or 1.5, only on the backs of what developed countries are doing. You got to have China and India, Indonesia, Brazil, South Africa, the big emerging economies emitters have got to do something smarter than what we did, you know, now with full knowledge of the consequences of burning fossil fuels and putting greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

So the Indians going back to the nineties basically took on this sort of said, two things like one hardline, polluter pays. You’re the polluters, you’re the first polluters you got to pay. You got to do this. When the U.S. pulled back from Kyoto, really hurt our relationship with them. But also more importantly, they sort of said something like this, as a matter of justice, you know, given that there is in principle, an absolute threshold of emissions that could have been emitted by humans historically up to the point where you cross over two degrees Celsius or, and continue to move forward in the future, then why isn’t it the case that everyone should just get an equal right to emit. Right. And we got a lot of people who so far have very low emissions, mostly because many of them don’t have access to electricity. And so all of those people have not yet had their opportunity to emit. And so they didn’t see, they didn’t frame carbon dioxide as a negative, but as the foundation of a development, right. And to deny, to ask them to not exercise that development right without compensation was a big problem for them.

So what they wanted, first of all, some assurance that the U.S. was going to do more, would always have an assumption that we could do more. We could contribute more, not only on the reduction side, but also we’d set up a bunch of different funds starting in 2009, to try to help other countries to make the transition to renewable energy, to adapt to climate change, to expand their sinks, right from the forestry sector, things like this. But the breakthrough really came, frankly, in the spring of 2014 when India elected a new government, when they elected and Narendra Modi who’s head of the BJP, which on the Indian ideological spectrum is the right. Modi came in and really surprised the rest of the world, though we shouldn’t have been surprised because if we’d watch what he had done as the chief minister or the governor of the state of Godhra, which had been for a long time over a decade, we could have seen that he was doing this.

Modi was a climate champion. He’s a devout Hindu, he’s a Hindu nationalist. And he believes that it is a spiritual priority, that he has a duty as a devout Hindu to do something about environmental problems. And specifically about climate change. In fact, Narendra Modi, when he was governor of the state of Godhra, published a book called Convenient Action. Now think of the words, he published it as a response to Al Gore’s movie Inconvenient Truth. So Al Gore says Inconvenient Truth, I say, Convenient Action. And he did all these things. He was the first to like greatly expand the solar sector in India. He was the first to really work on adaptation issues, especially stabilizing the water table and agricultural areas. He was incredible, you know, and he came in and he’s a hard liner, you know, wasn’t just going to give in to the U.S. on doing something, but he was really willing to work with us because he believed it.

And President Obama and Narendra Modi had two very, very important meetings shortly after he was elected. So first in September of 2014 in Washington, Modi comes to Washington and then Modi turns around and invites Obama to come to Delhi in January 2015. Now that’s a short amount of time for two leaders to meet. And when leaders meet, they’ve got to announce something. So it was incumbent on people like me to hit the ground running and create a bunch of new cooperative programs and expand other programs that have been created previously that actually get the U.S. and India seeing the same thing. So we worked like heck to try to like, get, create the actual programs that would bring the two countries together. So that by the time we got to Paris, there was definitely this pragmatic opening between part of the Indian delegation and part of the U.S. delegation to really get the deal done, because we knew that both our leaders wanted to do it for actually strikingly similar reasons.

Stone: So India, it sounds like, had the right leader at the right time going into Paris.

Light: Absolutely.

Stone: Right now, Donald Trump, the president, has given us very mixed messages about his commitment to Paris. So what is the conversation within the administration right now around Paris? Where are we going?

Light: So far as we know, there’s an active debate going on in the White House and around the White House, the National Security Council, the National Economic Council, the Executive Offices. And on the one hand, it looks like there is a, there is a very serious contingent of people who want to stay in Paris. They realize that because of everything else that President Trump wants to do domestically on reducing our commitment to doing something on climate change, they’re probably going to have to change their pledge that they put into Paris. So that’s one side of the conversation.

The other side of the conversation is what we know from the tweets before the election, from things that Steve Bannon had said when he was a Breitbart, you know, an in principle objection to the idea of Paris, the sense that it was a raw deal, the sense that China and India aren’t really doing anything, which is just false, you know, this kind of thing. And so I would say that we should be looking for some kind of announcement within the next three to seven months about the U.S. intentions on this. I think it’s an active debate still. And I think that if they decide to stay in Paris, I do predict that they would probably try to change the U.S. target. If they decide to leave Paris, then they’ll have a bunch of different options on how that, how they could do that.

Stone: A couple of interesting things, as we all know, Rex Tillerson has been in favor of staying in Paris,

Light: As far as we know.

Stone: Former Exxon CEO.

Light: As far as we know.

Stone: And also interesting the World Coal Association, which is an international coal industry association, wants the U.S. to stay in as well. Interesting that people or organizations with fossil fuel links want to see, at least some of them, want to see U.S. follow Paris.

Light: And we’ve seen oil companies say that as well, including Rex Tillerson’s former shop, right has said that. And I think that partly you’ve got here a recognition from these companies that they cannot face against the tide on this. They just can’t be put into the corner of being the global bad guys who were in favor of death and destruction and mayhem and everything bad that we can imagine would go on with climate change. They clearly, this is partly, you know, something that they, that they’re trying to reconcile themselves with. I think the most forward leaning of the fossil fuel companies also realize that it resulted that they’ve got to diversify their business interests. And that at a certain point, the there’s going to be more money to be made on the solution side than on the problem side.

You look at the jobs picture on this in the United States alone, it’s absolutely clear. You know, there are more jobs in rural energy than in the oil industry, than in the coal industry. I mean, renewable energy is a job sector that is growing like gangbusters, governors know this. That’s one of the reasons they’re quite worried both on Republicans and Democrats about what President Trump is doing domestically on climate change, trying to roll back everything the Obama Administration did in terms of their rules to get a handle on our emissions. So we hope that the inside the White House, they will be listening to some of these voices from the fossil fuel industry itself as well.

Stone: In terms of leaving Paris, if that is an option, what are the legalities around leaving it, just dropping it?

Light: Right, so we wrote the Paris agreement in such a way, and this is not unusual actually for an international agreement so that people just can’t panic and leave and flee, right? You want, you want to create, when you create international agreements, you want to create an agreement that’s flexible enough that you get buy in, but also has some rigidity to it so that it’s not just completely, you know, subject to the whims and the changes, political changes that happen in any individual country.

So if they were to formally leave the Paris agreement, it takes four years. So there’s a three year kind of cool off period that we all agreed to where no country can leave. And after that, then it takes one year from the time you announced your intention to leave to the time that you can leave. And you announce your intention by depositing it right with the Secretary General of the United Nations. They could pull out of the, the umbrella body that created the Paris agreement, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change that only takes one year. So that would be…

Stone: So that would be walking away from the whole thing?

Light: That would be walking away from the whole thing. That would mean that when Rex Tillerson was in his confirmation hearings and he kept repeating the phrase, the U.S. should stay at the table, the U.S. should stay at the table when asked about Paris or asked about the climate negotiations, that’s leaving the table. That’s about as leaving the table, as you can possibly imagine. I think it would be really cause mayhem.

There’s a third option, which would, I think, frankly, be worse in some ways, which is that the Paris Agreement is not a treaty. It was because of the combination of what’s binding, what’s legally binding was not legally binding, because the targets aren’t legally binding. The White House working with the State Department lawyers came to the determination that they did not need to send it to the U.S. Senate for a two thirds majority vote, right. Which is the threshold you need for joining international treaties. This is frankly how we do most international, U.S. signed very few treaties in its history. Mostly we do these executive agreements like this that are extensions of other sort of umbrella agreements we did like the framework convention, which was actually passed by the Senate unanimously and signed by a Republican president, George H. W. Bush. But with Paris, the structure of it was such, we did not have to take it to the U.S. Senate.

The worst option, I think frankly, would be that the president gets a legal ruling, saying that President Obama was in error and it needs to go back to the Senate. It goes back to this U.S. Senate. You see where the U.S. Senate is now, so completely divided. There’s no way you would sort of get that threshold, you know, in the best possible scenario in the U.S. Senate right now, to ratify Paris as a treaty. And at that point, I think it does enormous damage to the United States around the world, in terms of our diplomatic credibility. It sort of shows that like any president can just pull this out, right? This is like another nuclear option. If I don’t like what a previous president did on some international agreement that wasn’t a treaty, I’ll just pitch it to the Senate, let them vote it down or let them not vote it forward. And then that would mean that there would be really be no reason for any country ever to trust us again. And that would be the most damaging thing they could do, but it would be a way forward if they wanted to.

Stone: So that would spill on to diplomatic area?

Light: Anything, trade. Anything that this administration wants to do. It’d be horrible.

Stone: Let’s say that the United States elects to stay in Paris, whatever that exactly means. Rolling back some of our commitments. How does that work and what does that leave us in relation to the other countries that have made an initial commitment and stuck with it?

Light: Well, we’ll see how other countries respond. I think that they will, they should stand firm.

Stone: They meaning the other countries?

Light: Yeah, the other countries. Yeah, I think that one of the things I said is one of the ways that Paris was different from everything that came before is we broke climate diplomacy out of its silo. We raised this climate change as a much higher level, right? With respect to how other countries are looking at each other. Now I was not hoping that we would test this hypothesis within a year using as our test case now the world’s second largest emitter, right? The U.S. but still the world’s largest per capita emitter. And so it definitely is going to test the integrity of what we set up to make Paris happen. But I do think countries will stand firm. We’ve already seen that the EU has said, they’re going to stand firm. China has made a lot of noise. President Xi has sort of said first at a speech at Davos, the last World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. And then a week later in Geneva said, essentially, China will step into a leadership gap if the U.S. leaves this. India has also, under Narendra Modi, has also said similar things.

So I think countries are gonna move forward. I think partly because they also realize the huge economic opportunity here. I mean, you add up all the commitments that countries made in Paris. We’re talking about $14 trillion worth of investment for countries to hit the pledges that made in Paris. Everyone wants their businesses to be the ones that are selling things around the world so that countries can meet, right, their commitments under Paris. And I think they realize that, look, if you’re a global bad guy on climate change, there can be collateral damage to your businesses because of that. Right? So, I think that the, I think those countries will stand firm, but they’ve got to show that they’re going to stand firm. And I think the thing we should look for is the G7 meeting in May, which will be in Italy. And the G20 meeting in July, which will be in Germany. Climate change is on the agenda in both of these Donald Trump will be at both of those meetings. And the question is to what extent can those countries, when they’re collected together and all standing firm, we hope, you know, saying the U.S. can’t walk away from everything. Then it keeps them at the table.

With respect to U.S. emissions, I think that if they change, the U.S. changes its target, there’s going to be kind of two things. There’s first the pressure from other countries, which I just talked about how that could happen. Then there’s the domestic pressure. And so the president just rolled out last week, a big executive order on energy independence that rolls back the Clean Power Plan, the cornerstone of the Obama regulations that we’re reducing emissions in the power sector, as you said, at the top, right? Threatening, you know, whether or not we’re going to keep these mileage standards we have into the 2020s, a whole bunch of other things that were added into that, getting rid of something called the social cost of carbon assessment, which was a number created by the Office of Management and Budget that assesses the cost, right, of pollution, which we don’t, we don’t price carbon pollution in this country, like other countries do, except in some states we do, in California. We do it in some of the Northeastern states. But we don’t price it overall.

The social cost of carbon was an internal price of the U.S. government used to assess the cost of all infrastructure projects and everything else moving forward to help us to assess the real price of these things. So it’s Donald Trump said, no, no longer use tha. He can pull that back by executive order. But for the stuff there, like the Clean Power Plan and like those auto standard rules, it’s going to be a legal fight. And I think if they are really determined to roll these things back and do it, and I believe they are, because I don’t think you’d make Scott Pruitt head of the EPA, unless that’s exactly what you wanted to do. Then we hope that that legal fight will slow down, right, what the Trump Administration can do in terms of actually stalling out U.S. reductions and emissions. And in the meantime, we hope that more states, and more cities and the private sector will continue to move forward in their plans that will create projects, energy, and otherwise that would have the cumulative effect of reducing U.S. emissions, even while the federal government is like, basically saying no to all this. So if they stay in Paris, even if they changed the target, I hope that the other fight that’s going on here at home will slow down the longterm damage. And then other countries just wait for us to get sane on this again.

Stone: There’s a very recent interesting recent quote from GE CEO, Jeff Himmel. And he said something to the effect, and I’m paraphrasing here, that the government can have its climate policy, but we, as a company have our own. Recognizing the business opportunity. I want to take a step back here. You said, you know, talking about possibilities for the U.S. getting out of Paris, watering down its commitment. Subjectively, from the eyes of the rest of the world, are they the same? Meaning if we don’t honor our agreement by getting out, or we don’t honor our agreement by watering it down, right. What does that do to U.S. authority on this and in any other diplomatic area?

Light: That’s the best question. That’s exactly the right question to ask, because you can’t look at that executive order that came out last week, the White House budget blueprint that came out a few weeks ago, which zeroed out our contribution to these international funds on climate change, zeroed out something called the Global Climate Change Initiative, which was like 700 million to 900 million a year, depending on the year, during the Obama administration. Which is what I use to like create those programs in India. And that we use to fund the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and a bunch of other things.

You can’t look at the totality of that and come to the conclusion that the U.S. is really staying in Paris, even if they formally stay in Paris. We are effectively pulling back from everything that made Paris happen. Even if we formerly stayed in the agreement, we’re not going to fool anyone on that. So I think that what this does is, two sides of it really. On the one hand, I think that it totally undermines the U.S. credibility with respect to the diplomatic influence we had around the world because we were climate champions. I mean, this is real, if China steps into the vacuum created by the United States, which the Trump administration is creating right now. Then that means that we’re not putting in money in parts of the world where we have real security interests. I mean, hardcore, you know, Trump land security interests, you know, terrorism, things like that.

Stone: We need cooperation, collaboration.

Light: We need cooperation, collaboration. What those countries want is help with the transition to a clean energy economy and being more resilient to what they know is going to hurt them, which is climate change. And if we’re pulling back from all that, we are creating an opportunity for other countries to go in and take over that influence. Now it’s bad what we’re doing from a climate perspective altogether, but from a, just from the perspective of U.S. national security interests, this is a disaster. And it means that we will lose our influence, which means that the U.S. will be less safe. So that’s one thing that’s going to happen.

And I think that look, frankly, there, I’m sure other countries around the world that are saying that that’s how the U.S. wants to play it, fine. We’ll step into that vacuum. We’ll become more important and influential than they are. And I’m sure they’re looking at a host of other issues in a similar kind of framework. On the other hand, I think if the U.S. still stays in Paris, you’ve got an opening. And the opening is, frankly, you guys can come back to the table. You can come back to the table if you sort of get right on these issues. And it’s, and I think that there are people inside the administration thinking about this. So I mentioned, I think many of the people who are in favor of staying in Paris, are also looking at things like carbon capture and sequestration technology, something we put on the shelf many years ago effectively, and maybe getting back into that, and maybe that’s part of, you know, the narrative of how, for example, why coal companies might want to stay in Paris, because they could sort of see that the U.S. staying in might be one of the draws that gets them to try to restart international cooperation on a technology that frankly would be necessary for saving their industry in the long run.

Another thing that’s clear is we saw shortly after the election, Jim Baker and George Shultz, and some other Republican luminaries, get an audience in the West Wing to talk about a carbon tax. I was shocked, frankly, when I woke up to that news. Applaud the effort, amazing effort on there. It’s going to be very difficult to get that happening in the U.S., especially with how we see the divisions in the Republican caucus in the House alone on this now. But nonetheless, if U.S. stays in Paris and they still have their target, it creates at least one foothold where you could start that conversation and potentially move it along and not let it die. And there’s a part of me that’s always thought that, you know, climate change in America because of the ideological divisions is something that requires a Nixon in China moment, you know. That it was going to be a Republican president that would actually get us a price on carbon nationally. I don’t know if it’s going to be this president. It could be, you know, and we definitely have a bunch of very senior, very influential former cabinet members from the Republican party who are now pushing that very hard and trying to make it happen.

Stone: Quick question, going back to the issue of the carbon tax from the elder Republicans that you brought up a little while ago, a few minutes ago. One element, I believe, of that was a border adjustment for products that came from other countries that didn’t have carbon tax or some price on carbon. Could that be a tool that the rest of the world could use, or are there other tools, forceful tools that the other world could use as for appraisals against the United States for not going along with Paris?

Light: Yes, they could. Yes, they could. And not that I think he’s the most, he’s the right messenger, but former French President Nicolas Sarkozy actually said this right around the time of the last, after our election which coincided with the last big meeting in the Framework Convention on Climate Change, which was in Marrakesh. And sometime around there, like Sarkozy said, we will use border adjustments against the United States if they’re going to pull out of all this stuff entirely. There are questions of course about whether or not this is compatible with WTO rules and things like that. But there are definitely, I think there’s a threat there. If we can use that sword, it does have another side. And the question is what would be the tipping point where countries would actually exercise it?

Stone: I think I got a couple of final questions here. One is, you know, as an American climate negotiator, what would you say to India at this point about their own obligations? What happens in the world without U.S. leadership, et cetera?

Light: I would say, you know, that your prime minister believes that it is in your interests to develop on a cleaner path and that you can do it. India has the biggest single sectoral targets in the world. They want to do a hundred gigawatts of solar power by 2022. Then want to do 50 of wind, you know, on and on. And what they need to do is to use whatever frustration they may have at the United States right now to fuel the momentum that started before Paris. And that I think that they would have wanted to have done even without the Paris agreement. That India’s future lies in that direction and that they should proceed firmly in that direction, the same way that they have done in their history. Every time they’ve wanted to buck a major bad move by some other great powers.

Stone: And what do you say to somebody who says, well, if we go it alone or a number of countries go it alone, it’s bad for our economy relative to other economies?

Light: We know that that’s not true anymore. You know, we know that’s not true anymore. And I think that there’s definitely room for concern, especially the U.S. not putting in pledges that it had made previously into these big international funds, which was going to help with that transition. But the market forces are clearly going in the direction where this is the cheaper, safer, smarter way to go. And we will figure out a way on the finance side to make sure the gap created by the U.S. gets filled in somehow.

Stone: Let’s say we get a new U.S. president in four years, hypothetically. Where would you expect global climate efforts to be at that point? And if a new administration would come in with climate, as one of its policy priorities, will the U.S. be able to reassume something of a leadership role in this whole global climate process.

Light: So I think that we could reassume a leadership role on this, but the bar will be high. You know, we can’t go from say worst case scenario. You know, we’ve got four years of just complete fall off the table, you know, even if we stay in Paris.

Stone: What’s the bar?

Light: You know, so the bar, the bar goes up. And so it’s sort of, you know, the U.S. has now got to, the new next president would have to figure out a way to catch up. Now they got to do it in a responsible way. If they catch up by setting an unachievable target to make up for lost time, that won’t be credible. But if they catch up by ensuring that you put into place policies in the United States, that will lock in our ability to reduce our emissions, like a price on carbon, one way or the other. And if they also, as part of that, locking a mechanism, so that say some percentage from the trading or from the tax or whatever you created also helps other countries to get there and to move forward, you lock that in, then you get there.

They would have, the next president who wants to do this, has to look to Canada because this is that hasn’t all been perfect, but this is basically what Justin Trudeau did. When Justin Trudeau was elected, he didn’t change the Harper Government’s target to a 2030, which frankly, just kind of wasn’t credible. They, you know, the Harper Government was doing nothing, on the order of trying to achieve their targets. So he didn’t change it because to change it, to move it up to make up for lost time, it just, you know, you could have done a lot of calculations and seeing that wasn’t credible. But what he did do is he brought all the premiers together and said, we are going to price this pollution. We’re going to come up with a price. I’m going to give you flexibility on how you do it. You can do cap and trade. And we’ve now got Quebec and soon starting next year, Ontario, in a trading system with California. So giant trading system that’s been created by, by California, Quebec and Ontario. You’ve got a carbon tax in British Columbia and one in Alberta as well. And so that allowed flexibility, but to create something that is actually going to institutionalize and make it just part of the accepted cost of doing business, that we price this pollution.

And that should give it legs because it won’t be the case that just sort of taking that away, like taking away a sales tax suddenly transforms your economy once you institutionalize it. And once you start building the jobs, right, that are made off of these systems that proven now we’ve got a long history track record of seeing how these mechanisms create jobs, creating the sectors, creating the businesses who have an interest in not taking away, right? Those policy instruments, which are pricing the pollution. So that’s what the next president would have to do. The next president would have to come in and sort of say, right, I’m going to now start building something in here, which is actually going to be stronger than what President Obama tried to do, because it will be so much harder to unravel because there would be stronger interests in making sure that has longevity.

Stone: Today’s guest has been Andrew Light, Distinguished Senior Fellow in the Global Climate Program at the World Resources Institute and Director of the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at George Mason University. Andrew, thanks for talking.

Light: Thank you.

Stone: And I’d like to thank all of our listeners for tuning into Energy Policy Now you can get the latest energy and environment updates from our Twitter feed @kleinmanenergy. Keep up to date on the latest news research and events from the Kleinman Center, by visiting our website, www.kleinmanenergy.edu. Have a good day.


Andrew Light

Director, Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy
Andrew Light is a distinguished senior fellow in the Global Climate Program at the World Resources Institute and Director of the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at George Mason University.

Andy Stone

Energy Policy Now Host and Producer
Andy Stone is producer and host of Energy Policy Now, the Kleinman Center’s podcast series. He previously worked in business planning with PJM Interconnection and was a senior energy reporter at Forbes Magazine.