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What U.S. withdrawal from Paris climate deal means for a warming planet

President Trump announced Monday that in a year, the U.S. will formally withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. The global accord was signed in 2015 by nearly 200 nations pledging to cut greenhouse gas emissions to slow the planet’s warming. Brookings Institution’s Todd Stern, who was chief climate negotiator during the Obama administration, joins William Brangham to discuss the fallout.

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  • William Brangham:

    The timing is lost on no one. The president notified the rest of the world again yesterday that, one year from now, the day after the 2020 elections, the U.S. will formally withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. That's the voluntary global accord signed in 2015 by nearly 200 nations to cut greenhouse gases to slow the warming of our planet.

    The U.S. is the second largest carbon emitter in the world, behind China. In fact, it was American diplomacy negotiated during President Obama's tenure that was crucial to getting China and India to reduce their emissions.

    But President Trump, who has mocked the idea of climate change, has long maintained the agreement was a bad one, one that would stunt America's economic growth.

    So let's look at the consequences of this decision.

    Todd Stern was the chief climate negotiator for President Obama. He's now a senior fellow with the World Resources Institute and the Brookings Institution.

    Welcome back to the "NewsHour."

  • Todd Stern:

    Thank you so much.

  • William Brangham:

    President Trump said a year ago that he was going to do this standing in front of the White House. He has spent much of his presidency defanging President Obama's rules that curbed emissions from U.S. sources.

    So how big of a deal is it that President Trump made this next formal step yesterday and said, we're really out?

  • Todd Stern:

    Well, look, I think it's a big deal.

    Maybe I would just give you one backward-looking comment, which is that it was crazy for the president to do — for President Trump to do this, right? This was the agreement that we negotiated. It was an excellent agreement for everybody, particularly excellent for the United States.

    We got just about everything we wanted in this agreement. It is — it is a completely solid agreement, supported by virtually all of American business. I don't think you would find five CEOs out of the Fortune 500 who are against the Paris agreement, not to mention the military, not to mention the intel community and so forth.

    And the other thing is that it protects the American people. Right? I mean, if there's one obligation that the president has, it's to take care of people, to protect people from harm.

    And I will tell you, whether this is in a blue state or a red state, climate change is an equal-opportunity destroyer. And, instead, we have walked away.

    So I think it's a big deal to take the extra step that he's taken now. It will pull the United States all the way out of the agreement. It has to lay over for one year, but that will be the effect, when it happens. And it will damage the capacity of the world overall to respond to climate change, which Paris is a big part of.

  • William Brangham:

    The sense that I have read from many people who study from many people who study this is that, with the U.S. out and its pledge to cut its emissions out, China and India, the next two big emitters on that list, they're really going to have to step up their pledges.

    Do you have any sense that that's actually going to happen? I mean, we know that China is making moves and great investments in green technology, but do you have any sense that they are literally going to reduce their emissions in a meaningful way?

  • Todd Stern:

    Honestly, I think — well, the answer is, I think that they can reduce their emissions in a meaningful way, but I think the absence of the United States makes it that much harder.

    I mean, it is not — you might say, well, they will see the U.S. is out, we have got to do much more.

    That's not the way it works in a political or a diplomatic environment. When President Xi Jinping knew that he was dealing with President Trump all the time, and this was a tip-top priority for President Obama, and the U.S. was going to raise this with the Chinese all the time, that put what I might call salutary pressure, the right kind of pressure, on the Chinese, and on the Indians also with President Modi.

    So it makes a big difference when the U.S. is there, fully engaged and putting the right kind of pressure on. And by — correspondingly, when the U.S. is not there, you see diminished focus. And I think we see diminished focus at the top levels of the Chinese government now, for sure.

    I go to China every year once or twice, and it's not the same. It's not the same when they know that the president of the United States doesn't care about this.

  • William Brangham:

    There's also — even China and India separate, even the other so-called enlightened nations who say that they are still in the Paris accord, they are not even meeting their agreements necessarily, their commitments to cut emissions.

    So, given that, where do you get this sense of optimism that I do hear in your voice that we will rise to this challenge?

  • Todd Stern:

    Well, look, I sort of am never exactly on the optimism or pessimism side of the scale.

    I try to kind of keep my eye on the sort of sober look at it. Look, the U.S. and the world can do what we need to do. We have a huge task to get to essentially something like net zero carbon by 2050.

  • William Brangham:

    Thirty years away.

  • Todd Stern:


    Right now, the world gets 80 percent of its primary energy from fossil fuels, the U.S. just slightly less than that, but almost that. It's a huge task which has to get under way. I mean, it is under way to some extent now. But it has to move much more quickly.

    The thing about climate change now is, directional progress is not enough. Speed and scale is everything. That's just the reality. So can we do that? From the point of view innovation? Yes. From the point of view of policy? Yes. From the point of view of paying for it? Yes. We can do all of those things.

    There's one agreement that's missing. And that is the adequate political will around the world. And that is the most important thing.

    I think, if we can — if got a new president committed to this issue in the job, that would make a big difference. But, I mean, it's a complicated problem.

  • William Brangham:

    Todd Stern, former U.S. climate negotiator, thank you very much.

  • Todd Stern:

    Thanks so much.

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