The Odd Kabuki of the Climate Pact Withdrawal

Some critics say that because the pact does not require the U.S. to do anything, the withdrawal is “gratuitous,” an insult to the world. But if the pact does not require the U.S. to do anything, why would withdrawal make any difference to the climate? Why is everyone so upset? On the other hand, if the pact does not require the U.S. to do anything, why bother to withdraw? Why not remain in the pact, and—as the critics seem to suggest—simply decline to agree to any U.S. greenhouse gas reductions? Trump, on this view, could avoid the obloquy of the world for withdrawing from the agreement even while eliminating the Obama-era climate regulations and pumping the atmosphere full of U.S. carbon gas.

Meanwhile, other critics argue that the U.S. can’t actually withdraw because the agreement will remain in effect, at least for several years, perhaps indefinitely. We’re not withdrawing from it but violating it (but how…?), and a future president can bring us back into compliance (by, presumably, saying we’re back in even if that future president announces that we will not actually reduce greenhouse-gas emissions).

Here is another odd thing. Like virtually any other collective venture, the global project of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions involves short-term costs and long-term benefits. Consider, for example, a treaty to protect a fishery. If the U.S., EU, and Canada negotiate a treaty to protect a fishery in the Atlantic Ocean, they all incur short-term costs (catching fewer fish in early years) in order to generate long-term benefits (catching more fish in later years). Because of the public goods nature of the fishery, the deal can be sustained only if all three parties agree to it, and comply with it. If one withdraws, the other two will refuse to comply with it—because they would otherwise reward a free rider who incurs no short-term costs and reaps the benefits of the other parties’ costly restraint.

But that’s not what has happened with the Paris climate agreement. The other major parties have announced that they will comply (or “comply”). If we draw on the fishery analogy, then in a coup de main, Trump has spared the U.S. the short-term costs of greenhouse-gas reductions while allowing the U.S. to benefit from all the other countries’ costly efforts to reduce gas emissions. Shouldn’t we Americans be grateful? What could be more America-first?

It seems to me that there are two possible ways to think about this. First, the other countries have remained “in” the pact because they don’t actually expect the agreement to force them to do anything. Remember their “obligations” are voluntary. If that’s the case, we’re back where we started. The U.S. withdrawal means nothing because the pact meant nothing in the first place.

Second, the pact was, if purely symbolic, it was meaningful-symbolic rather than meaningless-symbolic. Meaningful-symbolic means that the countries were taking a first step toward actually reducing greenhouse gases rather than a first step toward pretending to reduce them. On this view, Trump’s action really was damaging—though I wonder whether it was anywhere near as damaging as eliminating the U.S. climate regulations which he was going to do in any event. We are truly in a mysterious realm of symbolism if it could be the case that Trump could advance the good of the world by keeping the U.S. in the agreement while eliminating U.S. regulations that actually advance the goals of that agreement.