When the leading Republican presidential candidate calls climate change a hoax dreamed up by the Chinese government, environmentalists have a reason to be concerned.
But even if the American people put a climate change denier like Donald Trump in the White House, the U.S. remains unlikely to renege on its carbon cutting commitments under the Paris climate agreement, experts say.
Pulling out of the 196-nation agreement would risk ruining America’s credibility within the international community, according to Elliot Diringer, executive vice president of the nonprofit and nonpartisan Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.
Ditching the Paris accord “would almost certainly trigger a major diplomatic backlash,” Diringer told reporters in a conference call on Thursday. “To renounce it would undermine U.S. credibility and influence abroad.”
Globally, Obama’s commitment to the Paris agreement is seen as a sign of U.S. leadership on climate change, and balking on that commitment would “turn the U.S. from a leader into a defector,” Diringer added.
“There’s no sign at all of a concerted effort on the Hill to challenge the agreement.”
The U.S. and nearly 170 other countries signed the Paris climate agreement, which aims to limit global warming to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius, in a ceremony at the United Nations headquarters in New York on Friday.
Although the U.S. has officially signed on to the accord, the next president could still in theory refuse to uphold America's commitment to cutting carbon emissions. Under the Paris accord, carbon reductions are voluntary and established by each country. In addition, the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change lacks a way to enforce each country’s pledge.
“In the end, presidents, especially if they have a Congress that’s willing to go along, can totally shape U.S. climate policy and can reshape it,” David Goldston, director of government affairs at the Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund, told Public Radio International in March.
There’s a history of newly elected presidents abandoning international treaties their predecessors endorsed. In 2001, former President George Bush famously rejected the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, which the U.S. had signed on to in 1998.
The major difference between the Kyoto protocol and the Paris agreement? Kyoto required only developed nations to slash greenhouse gas emissions, exempting 100 countries, including China and India, from mandatory reductions. In the Paris agreement, all countries are on the hook to cut emissions.
Diringer thinks it's unlikely that the next president would totally abandon the Paris agreement. And he isn’t alone in this view. Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and a senior adviser to the U.N., made much the same argument this week.
To back out of the agreement, “you [would] have to blow off the whole rest of the world," Sachs told CNN on Friday. "And I don't think [the U.S. would] find another partner to do that. You'd have to just be the renegade state."
Moreover, Americans want the government to get serious about climate change. Over 90 percent of Americans believe in global warming and two-thirds support the Paris deal, whereas as late as 2005, fewer than half of Americans said they supported the Kyoto protocol. Public support for the agreement might already be pushing the Republican-controlled Congress to accept the climate deal, or at least not publicly oppose it.
“We’re seeing a tacit acceptance [of the Paris agreement] in Congress,” Diringer said. “There’s no sign at all of a concerted effort on the Hill to challenge the agreement."