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What's Next For Climate Change Leadership After US Exit From Paris Accord

Dozens of Connecticut residents converge along a bridge at a vigil and rally for the environment and against President Trump's recent decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord on June 4, 2017 in Westport, Connecticut. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Dozens of Connecticut residents converge along a bridge at a vigil and rally for the environment and against President Trump's recent decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord on June 4, 2017 in Westport, Connecticut. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

No matter the results of the presidential election, Wednesday marks the United States’ official exit from the Paris Climate Agreement.

The climate accord, a pledge among almost every country in the world, aims to reduce domestic greenhouse gas emissions to prevent an increase in global average temperature.

President Trump announced in 2017 that he was withdrawing the U.S. from the nonbinding agreement. Since taking office, he’s rolled back many climate-related policies the Obama administration put in place.

Rachel Cleetus, policy director for the climate and energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, calls the Trump administration’s actions “shameful.”

Leaving the accord at a time when the country has experienced widespread climate-related destruction, including a devastating wildfire and hurricane season, is “especially cruel,” she says.

Trump has claimed the Paris Climate Agreement would hurt the American workforce while “enriching foreign polluters,” the New York Times reports. Some claim efforts to curb emissions are financially and economically infeasible.

But Cleetus argues ignoring climate science and allowing climate change to ravage will end up costing the country more money than it would to confront the problem head-on. In 2020 alone, 16 extreme weather events in the U.S. led to $1 billion in damage each, she says, with low-income and communities of color bearing the brunt of the destruction.

“The science around climate change is getting increasingly dire and projections show that they will worsen considerably unless we make deep cuts in global heat trapping emissions,” she says.

No matter the presidential election’s outcome — if Trump remains in office or Joe Biden is elected as president — the U.S. can rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement by giving the United Nations a 30 days notice, she says. Cleetus has no doubt that the Biden administration would rejoin in 2021, but says that the country must do so “with enhanced ambition in its climate commitments.”

Climate deniers have been appointed to top positions in scientific agencies under the current White House. The Trump administration’s stance on climate change has been to undermine policy, stymie climate action and advance fossil fuel interests, she says.

If Trump is elected for a second term, Cleetus says her biggest concern is for the well-being of the fenceline and frontline communities who will live through climate-related disasters.

The U.S., the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, has to “step up quickly” in order to be a part of the climate solution.

“We have to make up for lost time,” she says, “and we have to do it in a way that centers equity and justice.”


Ashley Locke produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Chris BentleySerena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.