Q&A with Stanford experts on the president’s Paris climate agreement decision

The president announced that the United States will withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. Four Stanford scholars discuss the implications of this decision.

thermometer in foreground and city skyline in background under a blazing sun

The Paris climate agreement seeks to hold the increase in the global average temperature to below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels in an effort to reduce the risks and impacts of climate change. (Image credit: Getty Images)

After holding the world in suspense, President Donald Trump announced today that the United States will withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, the accord negotiated by 195 countries in 2015 to limit and reduce global warming. Only two countries, Nicaragua and Syria, are currently not involved in the Paris agreement.

Stanford experts who have either worked directly on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) or who have specific expertise on environmental and international law offer sobering perspectives on the administration’s decision and its impact on global policy and the environment.

What is your reaction to this decision?

Chris Field: My main reaction is one of profound sadness. It is deeply frustrating to see my government knowingly increase the risks of climate change for children and the elderly, for cities and farms, for the poor and the rich, and for businesses and nature. And it is so tragic to see the administration abandon the best path for making the United States the leading nation, economically, technologically and morally, of the 21st century.

Katharine Mach: The opportunities of clean energy will continue to grow, irreversibly. The seas will continue to rise, relentlessly. Blaming and shaming other countries, and making excuses, might be petty temptation. It’s also bad business and poor governance, and it won’t keep climate risks in check. Giving up the U.S. seat at the table puts Americans and the world – all of us – behind, not ahead.

Noah Diffenbaugh: Independent of politics, the science is clear that backing away from our commitments to reduce emissions puts the safety and security of Americans at greater risk. We know that the global warming that has already happened is already impacting U.S. citizens through increasing risks of extreme events like heat waves, heavy downpours, intense droughts and storm surge flooding. And we know that the U.S. has played a big role in causing that global warming: We are responsible for around a quarter of all of the carbon emissions historically, and we remain one of the top emitters, particularly on a per capita basis.

Because the U.S. is such a big piece of the global emissions pie, backing out of our commitments to reduce emissions will slow the rate at which the world can stabilize the climate system, thereby increasing the risks of climate change right here in America. This assertion is not a matter of politics – it is a fundamental feature of the physics of planet Earth.

Michael Wara: President Trump’s decision today damages international efforts on climate and overall U.S. credibility with our most important global partners on critical issues in order to deliver on a campaign promise to his base.

Withdrawal is bad for U.S. interests, bad for U.S. firms and the people they employ, and bad for the planet. However, U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement will not spell the end of international efforts on climate – indeed, all signs point to a redoubling of efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by other nations and, not incidentally, by states and communities within the United States that know from experience that the clean energy solutions to climate change create economic opportunity and good jobs for their citizens.

I remain hopeful, albeit a bit less hopeful after today’s announcement, that these cooperative efforts may still help us all to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of climate change.

What does this decision mean for California’s leadership role in setting climate policy?

Wara: Today, California’s role as a national and international leader on clean energy solutions and climate is more important than it has ever been. I am hopeful that the state, along with partner jurisdictions, in response to President Trump’s actions today, will recommit to efforts on climate and will continue to demonstrate at scale how to create a more prosperous and sustainable society that does not put the planet’s and future generation’s security at risk. All signs from California leadership point to this as an opportunity to stake out a leadership role both in terms of technological innovation and climate policy.

Does this decision introduce uncertainties for other countries?

Mach: The Paris agreement is a triumph of global cooperation. It provides a critical starting point and pathway for climate responses moving forward. Its approach was in many ways defined by the U.S. Shirking our role in the agreement is detrimental to the security, well-being and economic prosperity of Americans, and it introduces notable uncertainties on the international climate stage. In recent years, U.S. emissions have been dropping as jobs and the economy have been growing. Keeping climate damages in check requires building a clean, vibrant energy system for the 21st century, rather than clinging to technologies of centuries past and treating our atmosphere as a waste dump.

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Chris Field is director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment; a professor at the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences and the Department of Biology; and a senior fellow at the Precourt Institute for Energy.

Katharine Mach is a senior research scientist at the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences and director of the Stanford Environment Assessment Facility.

Noah Diffenbaugh is a professor at the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences and a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

Michael Wara is an associate professor of law, Stanford Law School, and an affiliate of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.