A blessing in disguise? Why Trump’s pull-out of the Paris Agreement may open up a window of opportunity

By Pim Derwort

Following his campaign promise and a period of intense speculation, on Thursday June 1, the President of the United States announced his intention to withdraw from the 2015 Climate Accord previously ratified by his predecessor, Barack Obama, claiming it undermines U.S. competitiveness and jobs, and would have a negligible impact on the world’s climate. Inevitably, the series of events were quickly compared to another defining moment in history, when, in 1997, the newly instated United States Government of George W. Bush failed to ratify the Kyoto Protocol negotiated under the Clinton-Gore presidency.

World leaders were quick to condemn the unilateral decision, with the Secretary General of the United Nations calling it a “major disappointment for global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and promote global security”, and the leaders of France, Germany and Italy almost immediate issuing a joint statement reaffirming their strong commitment to implement the agreement.

Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement appears to be the latest in a string of failures to protect the (global) environment, including executive orders to roll back the Clean Water Rule (giving the federal government authority to limit pollution in major bodies of water, rivers, streams, and wetlands) and review the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Clean Power Plan, ending restrictions on coal power plants. Having installed Scott Pruitt, a known climate-sceptic as the head of the EPA, President Trump – famously calling climate change a hoax “created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive – proposed slashing the agency’s budget by 31 per cent (or $2.6 billion) and to get rid of the EPA “in almost every form”.

However, while the U.S. withdrawal will almost certainly affect the effectiveness and realisation of the goals of the Paris Agreement, all may not be doom and gloom. Contrary to popular opinion, I would argue that this latest decision may actually hold an important silver lining, in that it may open up a ‘window of opportunity’.

First of all, Trump’s decision to withdraw from the agreement, and particularly the period of uncertainty leading up to it, has resulted in regular attention for environmental regulation, in a news cycle that so often appears dominated by important issues such as possible Russian meddling in the elections of foreign governments, the refugee crisis, and international terrorism. Under the motto that ‘even bad press is good publicity’, it can be argued that the constant attack on environmental regulation means that the topic remains well and truly on the agenda and in the public eye. The official decision, rather than continued speculation, enables world leaders, business, citizens and the academic community to provide a targeted response. From a political perspective, Trump’s latest action opens up opportunities for other actors who are willing to take environmental action, allowing them to form alternative coalitions and advance changes previously blocked by the U.S. (Grossman, 2015, Saurugger and Terpan, 2016). On a structural level, the disappearance of existing structures and institutions (deinstitutionalisation) may thus be perceived as an opportunity to break with existing patterns of inertia and lock-ins, an important precondition for the development of new alternatives (Boin et al., 2008).

Initial evidence suggests that, rather than weaken the resolve of the international community, Trump’s withdrawal has strengthened the resolve of China and the European Union in particular who, despite being unable to produce a joint statement, have reiterated their intention to accelerate joint efforts to reduce global carbon emissions. Leaders of some of the biggest and most influential technology companies, including Google, Facebook, and Amazon have already expressed their continued support for the Paris Agreement and the effort against climate change. Even Trump’s own Secretary of State, and former head of the oil-giant ExxonMobil, signed an international declaration highlighting the importance of the Agreement. Furthermore, the Democratic Governor of California, Jerry Brown has announced a pact with the governors of Washington and New York to uphold the Agreement even without federal support, as did the mayors of 71 small and large American cities from blue and red states – including cities like Los Angelos, New York, Chicago, Washington and Austin, in an open letter to then president-elect.

There may be a long way, but ultimately, the formal decision may thus backfire on Trump, creating the exact opposite of what he intended – with citizens, business and federal governments increasing their climate efforts, leaving the White House out in the cold.

Pim Derwort is a PhD-student in the Leverage Points project and a member of the research group ‘Governance, Participation and Sustainability’ at Leuphana University. His current research focuses on the productive functions of institutional failure and decline.

BOIN, A., MCCONNELL, A. & ‘T HART, P. 2008. Governing after Crisis. The Politics of Investigation, Accountability and Learning, Cambridge, New York, Cambridge University Press.
GROSSMAN, P. Z. 2015. Energy shocks, crises and the policy process: A review of theory and application. Energy Policy, 77, 56-69.
SAURUGGER, S. & TERPAN, F. 2016. Do crises lead to policy change? The multiple streams framework and the European Union’s economic governance instruments. Policy Sciences, 49, 35-53.