May 2017


The world waits for the United States to decide if it will leave or remain in the Paris Agreement. Either way, global cooperation on climate change is likely to be adversely affected.

By Martin Khor

            The Paris Agreement, adopted by 195 countries with great fanfare in December 2015 and enforced in November 2016, symbolises the efforts of governments to cooperate to avert disastrous global warming that threatens human survival.

            On April 29, the 100th day of Donald Trump’s presidency, thousands marched in Washington and other cities in the United States and around the world to protest against the administration’s about-turn on climate policy.

            Trump signed an executive order at the end of March unravelling former President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan, the centrepiece of his climate change policy.

            The US Environmental Protection Agency last week also removed climate change information from its website.

            Trump is soon expected to announce if the United States will exit the Paris Agreement.

            The big change in US climate policy comes at a very bad time. Last month, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere for the first time reached above 410ppm (parts per million) in the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii.

            The level was 280ppm in 1958 and passed 400ppm in 2013. We are inching closer to the 450ppm danger level at which there is only a 50% chance of keeping global temperature rise to 2°C.

            The year 2016 is the hottest on record. Many recent signs of climate change effects include sea level rise; changes in rainfall; more flooding, storms, and drought in different parts of the world; and the melting of glaciers.

            The hard-fought Paris Agreement has many flaws, but it is an important achievement. One drawback is that the mitigation pledges made by countries fall far short of limiting warming to 1.5°C or 2°C. Instead, they would bring about 2.7°C to near 4°C temperature rise, according to various estimates, and the effects would be catastrophic.

            The agreement also does not contain concrete commitments or plans by developed countries to assist developing countries to tackle climate change. There is no plan or road map to back up the old pro­mise to provide the latter with climate finance of $100bil a year by 2020.

            The agreement mandates that developed countries make greater efforts than developing countries on mitigation, and they are also obliged to provide climate funds to developing countries.

            Most important, the Paris agreement is a symbol and manifestation of international cooperation to tac­kle the climate crisis. Although the overall level of ambition is too low, the agreement has mechanisms to urge members to increase ambition in future.

            Without a Paris agreement, there would be no global framework or action plan for the coming decades. The world would be adrift even as the crisis worsens.

            What would happen if the United States leaves the Paris agreement? It would be a big blow to global co­­operation, especially since the Uni­ted States is the top emitter after China, and is also by far a bigger emitter per capita than China.

            There is also fear of a contagion effect. Some other countries may follow the United States and quit the agreement too.

            In an opinion article, former United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon and Harvard Prof Robert Stavins strongly argued that the United States must stay inside the Paris agreement for the sake of the world and for its own interests. They point out that even if the Uni­ted States pulls out, this withdrawal will only take effect after four years due to the rules of the agreement.

            While it is impossible to renego­tiate the Paris deal, Trump’s officials are “discussing leveraging the un­­cer­­tainty over the US position to boost the White House’s policy priorities in future discussions,” said an article in Politico.

            If this happens, the effect may be really adverse. Since we will have the United States in the Paris agreement for the next four years at least, it may use this period to weaken further the already low level of ambition of its own actions as well as those of other countries.

            Trump has already made clear there will be no more US contributions to the Green Climate Fund. The United States will also dampen any discussions on climate financing.

            Some people have argued it may be better if the United States leaves the Paris agreement to prevent it from discouraging all the others that remain from taking action.

            There might, however, be a situation of the worst of both worlds – the United States announces it is quitting, thus already damaging global cooperation, then play a spoiler’s game inside, since it will still be a member for four more years.

            It was thus heartening that Ame­ricans are protesting against their go­­vernment’s climate change policies.

            It is also important for people and governments in the rest of the world to strengthen their resolve to fight climate change, rather than to relax now that the US leadership is refu­sing to do its part.

            The best solution would be for the United States to remain in the Paris agreement, and go along with other countries to meet and improve on their pledges and enable international cooperation to thrive.

            That is not going to happen. So we may have to wait at least four years before another US administration re­­­­joins the rest of the world to tackle climate change. Let’s hope it will not be too late by then to save the world. – Third World Network Features.


About the author: Martin Khor ( is executive director of the South Centre.

The above article is reproduced from the Malaysian daily, the Star, 8 May 2017.

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