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The Whole World Has a Stake in the Outcome of Our Presidential Election

It would be difficult but not impossible for a Republican president to undo the Paris Agreement. For that reason alone, the 2016 election is about whether the world has a future.
obama kerry cop21 opening psmag

President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry at the opening of COP21 outside Paris on November 30, 2015. (Photo: Eric Feferberg/AFP/Getty Images)

This Christmas, summer came early in the North Pole. A freak storm pushed temperatures 50 degrees Fahrenheit above normal and past the melting point; in the eastern United States, temperatures climbed to the high 60s in places as far north as Boston, Massachusetts, and Burlington, Vermont.

There wasn't enough snowfall on the entire east coast for James Inhofe to make a snowball.

Last year, 2015, was easily the hottest year on the books, but you would never know it to hear our presidential candidates talk on the trail. Just days after world leaders forged the Paris climate agreement, the planet's best hope for curbing the catastrophic effects of global warming, Republican presidential candidates assembled for a debate. And nobody, not the nine candidates on the main stage or the three moderators before them, mentioned the Paris Agreement as anything more than a passing jab.

"And when I see they have a climate conference over in Paris, they should have been talking about destroying ISIS," Ohio Governor John Kasich said. Donald Trump merely scoffed at how President Obama thinks climate change is even a priority. That was it, in the wake of the historic moment: nada, zip, zilch, zero actual conversation. Just a one-touch dismissal from a guy most people don't know is even running, and a jibe in the deal's general direction from The Donald. It wasn't an oversight—it's standard practice on climate for Republicans.

The party's internally incoherent consensus on the matter seems to be that the climate agreement is somewhere between "reckless," "ridiculous," and a "threat" to our sovereignty—and anyway, climate change is not really happening.

But how, exactly, would the candidates respond to the landmark deal once in office? Specifically, would they submit an even stronger climate plan by 2020, as the U.S. is now required to do under the international accord? Or would they tear up the document entirely?

It might not be easy for a Republican president to destroy the Paris Agreement—but it would be a whole lot easier than what the world pulled off at le Bourget.

Where candidates come down on this matter will have tremendous consequences, not just for environmentalists or even for Americans, but for the world.

While Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have done a remarkable job of skirting Republican opposition in Congress—laying the groundwork through intercountry alliances in recent years—experts say a GOP president could legally unravel the deal.

Whether it's by rolling back Obama's Clean Power Plan—a lynchpin of the U.S. commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions—or by pulling out of the deal directly, a Republican president could single-handedly undo the past decade of progress on climate and propel the world far beyond the warming cap of two degrees Celsius needed to stave off the worst consequences of climate change. The U.S., as the world’s second-largest emitter currently and the biggest emitter cumulatively, has an outsized duty in preserving the planet’s future.

Obama seems to be betting that a GOP president wouldn't go through with breaking the global contract; as he told reporters in Paris: “Your credibility and America’s ability to influence events depends on taking seriously what other countries care about.” Now that there's global consensus behind taking action, Obama added, the next president "is going to need to think this is really important."

So far, however, that looks like wishful thinking, particularly where Republican frontrunners are concerned.

Ted Cruz has already said he would withdraw the U.S. from the Paris accord, telling reporters in a high school classroom in Knoxville, Tennessee: "Barack Obama seems to think the SUV parked in your driveway is a bigger threat to national security than radical Islamic terrorists who want to kill us. That’s just nutty. These are ideologues, they don’t focus on the facts, they won’t address the facts, and what they’re interested [in] instead is more and more government power."

Trump, while he hasn't directly addressed the accord, has argued in the past that climate change is a hoax created by the Chinese to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive. Meanwhile Rand Paul thinks granting power to the United Nations would threaten U.S. sovereignty, resulting in "a bunch of two-bit dictators telling America what to do," as he put it recently. Marco Rubio insists the Paris climate deal is an "unfunny joke" that's "hurting the American dream."

“Here’s the most outrageous part,” Rubio told Fox News recently. “This is a deal that’s going to require the American taxpayer to send billions of dollars to developing countries. Well, China considers itself a developing country. Does that mean the American taxpayer is going to send billions to China to help them comply with the arrangement here?”

Short answer: no. Contrary to Rubio's impressions, China played a leadership role in the Paris talks and was on the giving side of the equation, offering up to $3.1 billion to help actual developing countries.

In fact, the only Republican candidate supporting clear actions on climate change, Lindsey Graham, dropped out in late December after failing for months to break the one percent mark in the polls. He never even made it onstage for anything but an undercard debate. The only other Republican contender to express (tepid) support for the deal, George Pataki, dropped out a week later.

This, apparently, is what happens when you take a realistic, even semi-honest approach to climate change in the Republican primary: You’re drummed out.

There remains no candidate on the Republican side who will commit to upholding the deal, and the majority of candidates have said nothing about the agreement at all. By contrast, all three candidates on the Democratic side have said they'd not just honor the Paris Agreement, but advance it; before the gavel even went down in Paris, Bernie Sanders was lamenting that the deal doesn't go far enough.

But denial won't play well in the general election. A recent Pew Research Center survey found 69 percent of Americans favor a multilateral commitment to limit the burning of greenhouse gas emissions; and that such statistics are sharply divided by political affiliation won't work in Republicans’ favor come November. The leading Democratic contender, Hillary Clinton—well aware of her party's edge here—has been increasingly vocal on climate, as when she came out against the Keystone XL pipeline even before president Obama nixed the project ahead of Paris. She's also voiced her support for all the president’s executive actions on climate. Still, many environmental advocates still favor Sanders, who, as movement leader Bill McKibben noted in an aside at Paris climate talks, was against Keystone as early as 2011, when the pipeline first came on the national stage. Given how things looked (say) 18 months ago, environmentalists can perhaps take comfort in watching Democratic candidates argue in prime-time over who hated Keystone first, and most.

The world will be presented with two stark choices come the general election. But the White House, for its part, expresses hope that the accord can be upheld regardless. "I think it's going to be incredibly difficult to move back from this position," a senior administration official told reporters post-Paris. "Momentum begets momentum."

"We don't want to be naive to the domestic policies here," he added, "but I think with every passing month and with every passing milestone, [the ideals of the Paris Agreement] will get more and more baked in."

Of course it's possible that Republicans are just pandering and that, if elected to office, a Republican president might not seek to destroy the deal. Obama has gestured to this possibility, arguing: "Even if somebody from a different party succeeded me, one of the things you find is when you're in this job, you think about it differently than if you're just running for the job."

Maybe he's right. But is it worth betting the world?

For years the U.S. has had the dubious distinction of being the only country anywhere with a major party that denies the overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change is real, man-made, and accelerating. It was always a denial with far-reaching effects, given the U.S.'s hefty emissions, currently the second largest after China's, but now that pernicious reach is extended farther still. If America elects a Republican in 2016, he (it would almost certainly be a “he”) could undermine the diplomatic efforts of almost 200 countries, offering our global partners a tempting excuse to abandon their climate commitments—and to distrust the U.S. for years to come.

Given America’s long history of hypocrisy in climate negotiations and repeated broken promises to world partners, such a reversal could be devastating.

In Paris, for the first time ever, the U.S. played the role of a climate leader, hero even, in these talks, a hard-won victory that's been years in the making. That Obama has invested so much in this deal for so long, that he's made it a centerpiece of his administration—and, many expect, the overarching mission of his final year in office—underscores just how difficult it is to achieve the kind of victory we saw in Paris, and just how much these global climate talks depend on the power of the U.S. president.

If Obama could make this, the next guy could break it. It might not be easy to destroy the Paris Agreement, but it would be a whole lot easier than what the world pulled off at le Bourget.


"Catastrophic Consequences of Climate Change" is Pacific Standard's year-long investigation into the devastating effects of climate change—and how scholars, legislators, and citizen-activists can help stave off its most dire consequences.