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United States’ Gamble with the Paris Agreement: A step back for multilateralism


Climate Change is one of the most pressing issues of the 21st century. It has become increasingly important for nations around the world to act in this time of need due to the intensity with which climate change can affect the whole of humankind. It poses an existential threat, in the form of hurricanes, heat waves and even drought. Almost all fields of work such as finance, science, technology and even governments have recognized this issue as critical and have emphasized on its prioritization. It requires high attention due to the transformative role it can play in changing the way all individuals live, in just a couple of years.

This issue calls for strong multilateral response. By encouraging governmental inclusivity, leaders and governments in power can come together to tackle this challenge. There is a need for the international political community to align their interests for global development and communal welfare with adequate measures to tackle climate change. Various international political frameworks have been formed in accordance with working towards reducing the impact of climate change through unity; the Paris agreement being one of them.

Paris Agreement

The Paris Agreement (or l’accord de Paris) is a legally binding international treaty on climate change. It was adopted by 196 Parties at the twenty-first session of the Conference of the Parties in Paris, on 12 December 2015 and entered into force on 4 November 2016. This all-inclusive international treaty was conceptualised by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). It is intended to tackle various climate related issues like limiting global warming, controlling greenhouse gas emissions from reaching its peak, control the increase in the average temperature of the earth and even control mitigation levels by limiting the temperature ‘well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C’. The Agreement requires all member states to contribute a certain amount financially, moreover, being a part of the Agreement requires nation states to report their implications on the environment and other necessary measurement factors. The Agreement’s main aim is to control the impact climate change has on the earth and reduce the consequent risks brought by it through achieving net-zero emissions in the second half of the current century, and also immediately bring down greenhouse gas emissions.

The Paris Climate Accord was a turning point for all climate change related activists and programs that  emphasized  how important it is for the world to work together in terms of getting a grasp of the intensity of the situation.  It signified the unity and acceptance of over 190 countries in the matter of global cooperation towards reducing the impact of climate change. The fact that this Agreement was signed by China, the United States, and the European Union who together account for more than 50% of global greenhouse gas emissions was revolutionary, and was a clear-cut path for the betterment of the planet.

USA’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement

It was not a surprise when the former United States President Donald Trump announced the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on June 1, 2017. He had once stated that the Paris Agreement “puts (the U.S) at a permanent disadvantage” and does not benefit the business interests of the nation. Trump decided to withdraw from the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement stating that being a part of it would have voluntarily limited the amount of carbon emissions that the nation released, being a huge disadvantage to the booming industries in the United States; affecting the workers and companies economically. He later went on to argue that the Paris Agreement was unnecessary, setting up a “draconian financial and economic burden on the country”, which was later fact-checked and rejected by law makers and climate change economists around the world, especially from the USA.

This announcement had received critical response from a lot of International Climate Policy communities. Is the world’s largest economy, and resource powerhouse really behaving with such lack of concern and responsibility? Are they in fact turning their back on the process that once helped in creating it? It was predicted that global warming will attain new heights once the United States of America  withdraws from the Paris Agreement. This withdrawal also added risk to China. It now put China under immense ecological and climate related vulnerability and made the nation more prone to climate related risks and disasters. China’s mitigation costs increased, and it had a striking negative impact on Sino-U.S relationship – the relationship that Obama during his Presidentship had worked hard on to build a sense of cooperation and trust in order to strengthen their bilateral relationship.

President’s role

Trump’s attitude towards climate change was already quite clear: it was not a priority of the United States foreign policy. As a result, the outcome of 2016 United States elections turned sore for international climate change policy. In a series of tweets, he said that “Global Warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S manufacturing non-competitive” and even went on to call climate change workers “HOAXTERS”, stating that the weather in New York has been cold; completely rejecting the idea of global warming. His understanding of climate change goes completely against the policies of Barack Obama, who was keen on the United States being part of the Agreement, making climate change one of the top priorities during his presidency.

Monumental steps were negotiated by the Paris Agreement. It brought together nations from across the world towards a common goal. Brazil, India, and China, being some of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases in the world, were also accounted for by every action that they take. However, the Trump administration did not care for it. Their strategy towards tackling climate change was, withdrawal from the treaty and dismantle all climate change related policies made by President Obama, and make the United States of America more profitable in terms of economic values. During his inaugural address, Trump stated how he will always take decisions related to foreign policy and trade keeping ‘America First’. Being the head of the US, his priorities were more towards fighting against radical Islamic groups rather than fighting for a common cause that affects all of humanity i.e., climate change. One can say this was a major red flag. The president of one of the most powerful countries in the world, home to millions of diverse communities from around the world, did not once acknowledge the very problem that puts all of humanity in danger. President Biden however chose to reverse his predecessor’s decision by prioritizing climate change and re-joining the Paris Agreement in February 2021. By targeting carbon neutrality for the USA by 2050, Biden intends to ease the “cry for survival comes from the planet itself”.

Multilateralism – not taken seriously enough

In today’s world, Multilateralism means not just one, but several countries that work together,  in pursuit of a common goal that benefits all. Technology and networking advancements have aided the process by making multilateralism a collaborative solution, if taken seriously and implemented effectively. Multilateralism is not just to reap economic and financial benefits by countries off one another. Multilateralism and improvisation of climate change mitigation efforts can go hand-in-hand, through thorough engagement of all parties involved. The joint effort, bearing in mind the strengths and weaknesses of all parties involved, would give a higher rate of success through adaptation and compromise. 

It is undeniable that the absence of the United States of America has had a notable amount of damage to the fight against climate breakdown. The multilateral process became slow, ineffective and did not receive the same amount of international policy response that it required. Various multilateral negotiations are being implemented, however, the global community is yet to come up with an all-inclusive and efficient counter to climate change. Unlike the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the Paris Agreement did not just engage the countries involved in a legally binding treaty, but also set numbers for them to keep emissions under control.

The then reluctance of the United States of America to be a part of the Agreement instigated multiple, intense, and diverse problems that other countries in the Agreement might/will not be able to handle. The financial capability of the United States of America really comes into play in conversations like these. Countries around the world should work on prioritizing their goals, and work towards achieving humanitarian goals such as peace, prosperity, and climate stability. Although this is a far-fetched thought, one cannot deny that these problems have a direct relationship with how we go about with our lives and how much time we have left to do the same. All things considered, there is always light at the end of the tunnel. President Biden made it a point to address the gravity of the situation by re-joining the Paris Agreement as one of his first acts in the oval office as President of the United States of America. Climate change mitigation efforts through multilateralism is back on the USA’s checklist.

Neeraja Jyothikumar is a final-year student at Jindal School of International Affairs, pursuing her bachelors in Global Affairs. Her interests include Climate Change Policies and Human Rights, predominantly Feminism.

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