The Paris pledge is dead—if it was ever alive

March 30, 2017

President Donald Trump’s executive order kicks off a long process to unwind the Obama administration’s nascent climate policy regime. Litigation will follow federal agencies’ actions to implement the order, with the courts determining how fast and how far the Trump administration’s deregulatory agenda will go.

Although the order doesn’t mention the Paris Agreement explicitly, it should be seen as a de facto withdrawal from the United States’ international commitments. The order formally rescinds President Obama’s Climate Action Plan and instructs federal agencies to review and revoke most of the key mitigation policies listed in the United States’ Paris pledge, most notably the Clean Power Plan. Other key Paris implementation policies, like national vehicle energy efficiency standards, are already under review.

At this point it is clear that the United States will most likely miss its Paris target, but there has never been a credible case that the United States was on track in the first place.

To be fair, the Obama administration deserves enormous credit for its role in driving the Paris Agreement to a successful conclusion. A bilateral climate deal between the United States and China in 2014 caused a sea change in international climate politics, after 20 years during which the world’s two biggest emitters jointly justified one another’s climate inaction. The Paris Agreement simply would not have been possible without President Obama’s far-sighted leadership, and that is no small legacy.

Before the ink was dry, however, the Obama administration’s domestic policy agenda had fallen short of its public pledge. Faced with a hostile Congress, the administration pivoted from a legislative to a regulatory strategy in its second term. Unfortunately, the ambition of many of its biggest rules—in particular, the Clean Power Plan, which largely codified business-as-usual trends in the electricity sector—fell short of what was needed to put the United States on track for Paris compliance. Even as the Obama administration pushed for increased transparency at the international negotiating table, the scientific integrity of the United States’ domestic policy assessments suffered as the gap between pledge and implementation widened.

Was failure preordained? Not at all: Even if stronger regulations weren’t politically feasible under Obama, a Hillary Clinton administration might have revitalized the Paris target. Insiders and outsiders alike were preparing for such a push, but the taboo of acknowledging the gap between Obama’s climate policies and the Paris target makes the prospects of such an effort difficult to gauge. Success would have required executive actions comparable in magnitude, if not direction, to those now coming from the Trump White House.

Climate policy proponents have every reason to mourn the passing of an era, but this loss also offers a chance to reflect. After a rocky start, the Obama administration made real and significant progress on climate, launching a legal framework its successors might have tended with care. The setbacks begun by the new executive order are real, but should be measured against actual progress, not hope.

Once the dust has settled on this next unfortunate chapter, it will be critical to return to the federal policy debate with greater ambition: not only to make up for lost time, but to recognize that past efforts—however valiant—fell short of even the United States’ modest Paris pledge, to say nothing of the brutal reality of global carbon budgets. Climate stabilization will not be possible without a bolder vision and firmer commitment to policy transparency.