How Trump could exit the Paris climate deal — and thwart reentry

By Robin Bravender, Sara Schonhardt | 03/12/2024 06:33 AM EDT

Conservatives have plans to hinder future presidents from reentering the Paris Agreement if a second Trump administration leaves the global climate accord.

President Donald Trump gestures while speaking in 2017 about the U.S. role in the Paris climate change accord.

President Donald Trump gestures while speaking in 2017 about the U.S. role in the Paris climate change accord. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Allies of former President Donald Trump have a plan to leave the Paris climate agreement and make it much harder for a future Democratic president to rejoin it.

The idea: pull the United States out of the treaty that underpins the Paris deal.

Exiting that accord, the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, could be done unilaterally by the president, proponents argue — though there’s some disagreement on that point. Getting back into the treaty then might end up requiring a two-thirds majority vote in the U.S. Senate, which would be a steep hurdle to overcome.


The plan has support inside Trump’s orbit and is included in a 920-page policy road map that prominent conservatives drafted for the next Republican to win the White House. It could prevent the next Democratic president from simply reentering the Paris agreement, which President Joe Biden did when he took office in 2021. It’s one of many ways Trump’s allies are planning to push second-term climate policies that are more enduring than some of his first-term efforts.

Leaving the broader climate framework “would certainly be on the table” in a second Trump administration, said Mandy Gunasekara, who served as chief of staff in the Trump EPA and helped pen the conservative “Project 2025” policy road map.

That report says the next conservative administration “should withdraw the U.S. from the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Paris Agreement.”

The Paris deal, struck at U.N. climate talks in 2015, calls on all countries to set targets for cutting their planet-warming pollution and for wealthier ones to lead in financing those efforts. But many Republicans argue the deal hurts U.S. economic interests and demands less of other large polluters, such as China.

Exiting the overarching UNFCCC would be even more expansive than leaving the Paris Agreement since it would mark a broader walk back from international climate engagement, including certain transparency obligations, such as annual reporting of greenhouse gas emission inventories, and other types of climate cooperation.

Gunasekara would advise a future president to consider the option, she said, “if they’re looking for a more permanent response to getting out of bad deals for the American economy that do little to actually improve the environment.”

But critics say the maneuver is a bad idea that would hurt U.S. standing with global partners, which could have ramifications on a whole host of issues beyond climate change.

“It would basically mean we’d just be thumbing our nose at the entire world,” said Alden Meyer, a senior associate at E3G who has followed global climate negotiations since they started.

“Pulling out of Paris is already bad enough because that’s the signature agreement under the framework convention,” he added. “But pulling out of the framework convention would be a higher level of insult because it would mean that we don’t think the whole topic of climate change is serious, and we don’t need to be part of any multilateral process to address it.”

Is it legal?

It’s unclear, experts say, whether a president could unilaterally pull out from the treaty, which was ratified by the Senate and signed by Republican President George H.W. Bush in 1992.

“There’s a legal question whether a president can unilaterally withdraw from a treaty that the Senate has ratified,” said Jim Connaughton, who led the White House Council on Environmental Quality during the George W. Bush administration.

The Constitution gives the president the power to make treaties with the Senate’s approval, but it doesn’t specify who has the power to terminate them.

“As a matter of practice, presidents are able to withdraw the United States from treaties, at least absent legislation or reservations from the Senate restricting such withdrawal,” Curtis A. Bradley, a law professor at the University of Chicago, said in an email.

The process for withdrawing is more clear on the international front.

Under the UNFCCC’s article on withdrawal, countries can leave the treaty three years after it enters into force and one year after giving notice to the U.N. secretary-general. Any country that does so “shall be considered as also having withdrawn from any protocol to which it is a Party,” the article states.

Trump officials weighed such a move the last time he was in office.

The Trump White House considered a UNFCCC withdrawal the morning Trump delivered his 2017 Rose Garden speech announcing his plan to exit the Paris deal but ultimately decided against it, said George David Banks, who led international climate work in the Trump White House. Banks pushed the administration to remain in the Paris agreement.

There were “a lot of conversations,” Gunasekara said, about how “to open up a new line of negotiation to come up with a better, more effective deal. I think we just ran into a lot of obstacles at the State Department and some of the other agencies to ever really get that off the ground.”

Gunasekara thinks it would be a priority for a second Trump administration.

“Let’s create a better agreement that’s focused more on tangible solutions and expanding the reach of innovative technology, instead of the current Paris climate accord and the UNFCCC that has China designated as a developing country permanently,” she said. “It really undercuts the ability for any environmentally focused agreement to be effective because the developing countries — and having developing country status — gets countries like China and India off the hook for having to comply with developed-country status expectations.”

What it would take to reenter the U.N. climate convention is also a matter of debate. Some scholars argue that the sitting Senate would need to vote again to ratify the treaty, said Bradley, who falls into that camp. Others say a future president could simply rely on the original Senate’s approval of the treaty, and it wouldn’t require a new ratification.

To prevent a president from withdrawing the U.S. from a treaty, Bradley said he believes Congress could pass a statute restricting such action. Congress recently passed a bill as part of the fiscal year 2024 National Defense Authorization Act, for example, that would prohibit any U.S. president from leaving the North Atlantic Treaty Organization without Senate approval.

“But,” added Bradley, “it is possible that a president would claim that such a restriction is unconstitutional and ignore it.”

Why leave?

The Paris Agreement is nonbinding, but it requires countries to set increasingly ambitious targets for cutting their emissions and then regularly report on progress toward achieving them. The ultimate objective: keep global temperatures from exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius, the point after which every modicum of warming will result in increasingly dangerous impacts.

When Trump gave his 2017 Rose Garden speech announcing his plan to withdraw from the Paris deal, he called the accord “the latest example of Washington entering into an agreement that disadvantages the United States to the exclusive benefit of other countries.”

The deal, which took effect in 2016, included a time lag that meant the United States was only eligible to withdraw in November 2020, a year after sending formal notification to the United Nations.

At this point, exiting the UNFCCC or the Paris accord would take a year, according to the terms of those agreements.

Leaving the UNFCCC could be more enduring and could also impact funding.

The convention includes a financial mechanism to help developing countries address climate change and includes special funds, such as the Green Climate Fund and the Adaptation Fund. The U.S. isn’t legally obligated to contribute to specific climate funds, but as long as it’s in the treaty, it can face pressure to stick to the spirit of the agreement and contribute.

The United States has traditionally provided around one-fifth of the UNFCCC’s budget and between 20 and 40 percent of the budget for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a body of leading scientists gathered under the U.N. that produces regular assessments on climate change and its impacts.

In 2017, even before officially withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, the U.S. didn’t contribute any funding to either the IPCC or the UNFCCC, and it dedicated far smaller amounts in 2018 and 2019 than it had under President Barack Obama’s administration. Other countries and groups such as Bloomberg Philanthropies, the organization started by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, helped fill the gap in federal funding.

The Trump administration also zeroed out contributions to the Green Climate Fund, which helps developing countries shift toward clean energy and build resilience against climate impacts. Obama pledged $3 billion to the fund in 2014, but it was targeted by Trump and has continued to face opposition from Republicans in Congress such that the pledge still remains unmet.

The “United States will cease all implementation of the nonbinding Paris Accord and the draconian financial and economic burdens the agreement imposes on our country,” Trump said in his 2017 speech. “This includes ending the implementation of the nationally determined contribution and, very importantly, the Green Climate Fund, which is costing the United States a vast fortune.”

Some experts argue the U.S. could create more problems for climate cooperation were it to remain in the UNFCCC and the Paris Agreement where it could potentially block forward action on emissions reductions.

“If you think that the U.S. is going to play a more recalcitrant role, particularly with the Trump administration in power, it would essentially give them one less way to ruin international cooperation,” said Luke Kemp, a climate researcher who argued in a 2017 article in Nature Climate Change why the United States might be better out of Paris than in.

“The risk, of course, is that if the world’s superpower withdraws from our most basic fundamental climate negotiations and treaty, it could send a very strong message to the rest of the world that climate action is no longer on the table, that we’re essentially abandoning ship,” he said.

Neither the Paris Agreement nor the UNFCCC require any concrete actions of the United States, nor do they impose any penalties, said Paul Bledsoe, a former Clinton White House climate official who’s now a professorial lecturer at American University’s Center for Environmental Policy.

“So one begins to wonder, why are they leaving? What is it they’re scared of?” Bledsoe said. “The conclusion you come to is this is all about culture-war symbolism.”

The international response to a U.S. move to withdraw from the UNFCCC would be “overwhelmingly negative,” Bledsoe added. “This could have really bad implications for U.S. security policy, economic policy and trade policy. You could see our allies begin to turn against us on these other issues.”