Trump's Official Withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement Mirrors George W. Bush's Exit from Kyoto Protocol

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tags: climate, election, Trump, 2020, Paris Agreement, withdrawal, primary, general

Mark Detlor is an intern with the History News Network and a senior studying Political Science and History at the George Washington University. 

Earlier this month, President Donald Trump made good on a campaign promise when he officially notified the United Nations of the United States’ intent to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, While the President has repeatedly criticized the Agreement, last week was the first possible day the withdrawal process could legally begin as peranguage of the agreement that the United States helped craft in 2015. 


Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the initiation of the withdrawal process via a statement and on Twitter. Using a justification popular with Trump voters, Pompeo’s statement claimed the Agreement will hurt the U.S. economy:

"President Trump made the decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement because of the unfair economic burden imposed on American workers, businesses, and taxpayers by U.S. pledges made under the Agreement," Pompeo said… The United States has reduced all types of emissions, even as we grow our economy and ensure our citizens’ access to affordable energy."


The United States has a long history of being hesitent to match other western nation's commitment to the climate. In fact, Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement marks the second time that the United States has not only entered, but helped craft, a climate agreement, and then exited it. In fact, The pro-economy, America-first rhetoric used by the Trump Whitehouse regarding Paris is eerily similar to that used by President George W. Bush in 2001 to justify withdrawing from the 1997 Kyoto Protocol


In the 1990s, the  international community realized that greenhouse gas emissions were negatively impacting on climate health as global temperatures rose. To respond, international leaders committed to substantial emission reduction targets via the Kyoto Protocol, an extension of the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Under President Bill Clinton, the United States agreed, along with 40 other countries and the European Union, to reduce emissions 5.2 percent below 1990 levels during the target period of 2008 to 2012. Much like President Trump, then-candidate George W. Bush distinguished himself from opponent Al Gore (a man instrumental in the United States’ adoption of Kyoto) by campaigning against Kyoto:

“The Kyoto Treaty would affect our economy in a negative way,” Bush said during his 2000 presidential campaign. “We do not know how much our climate could or will change in the future. We do not know how fast change will occur, or even how some of our actions could impact it.”


Bush officially withdrew from Kyoto in 2001, putting the United States far behind its European counterparts in efforts to control climate change. Despite some backlash at the time, only a slim majority of Americans believed the effects of climate change were immediate: 58% of Americans either agreed with Bush’s withdrawal from Kyoto or had no opinion at all. Today, however, climate policy is more important to a majority of Americans. Two thirds of Americans believe they actively witness the effects of climate change and a slim minority favor Trump’s decision to withdraw from Paris. 


This begs the question: Why aren’t Democratic candidates talking more about the climate? Yes, it is a fair assumption that any individual attempting to secure the 2020 Democratic nomination possesses a significantly more activist stance than Donald Trump regarding the climate, and many do consider re-entry into the Paris Agreement a necessary condition for legitimate candidacy. No “frontrunner” candidate, however, has discussed the fact that Trump’s withdrawal from Paris won’t go into effect until November 4th, 2020 - a day after the 2020 general election. The timing of the withdrawal process would allow for a near-seamless re-entry into the agreement by a newly elected Democratic president, and Trump’s election all but secures the death of the Paris Agreement in the United States. 


Public support for action on climate change is higher now than ever, and the potential to reverse Trump’s Paris decision could carry significant weight for undecided voters. Despite this the climate was mentioned only 10 times in the October Democratic primary debate. General election season is fast-approaching, and the Democratic party as a whole would do well to shift it’s rhetoric toward more generally popular topics, like environmental activism and re-entry into the Paris Agreement, so as to establish a rapport early those undecided voters who will decide the 2020 election.

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