Out with the Old, in with the Blue: What the Biden Administration means for U.S. involvement in future international climate negotiations

By Student Delegate Jessica Griswold 

As U.S. poll workers vigorously counted presidential votes on the evening of November 4, 2020, the Trump administration secured its official withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. Just one year ago, Trump’s withdrawal announcement left many American citizens confused and ashamed. More importantly, it left the remaining 189 Parties with a broken promise from the world’s largest economy and contributor to over 14% of global carbon emissions. As a result, climate activists worldwide questioned how the U.S.’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement would impact the integrity of the Treaty.

Protesters in Washington, D.C., the day of the announcement that the U.S. would withdraw from Paris. (Wikipedia)

Protesters in Washington, D.C., the day of the announcement that the U.S. would withdraw from Paris. (Wikipedia)

While the U.S. is merely one actor in the international climate regime, the country’s negative impact on the environment is mighty. Would the U.S.’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement encourage other Parties to drop out? If not, would it diminish the effectiveness of Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) among other large-scale emitters and even developing country Parties? In a pre-election podcast, Yale Professor and former lead climate lawyer for the U.S. State Department, Susan Biniaz, discussed the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement and what the 2020 presidential election in the U.S. might mean for the Paris Agreement.

First, Professor Biniaz explained that no other country announced to follow suit after the U.S.’s withdrawal announcement. One possible explanation for this is that Parties recognized that President Trump might only be in office for a four-year term. That said, Parties may or may not have responded differently if U.S. voters elected President Trump into office for a second term.

Second, even if countries did not literally withdraw from the Paris Agreement, there was always a possibility that Parties could follow the U.S. approach to promoting fossil fuels and acting in ways that are adverse to the Paris Agreement. Notably, the Paris Agreement is a binding International Treaty that takes a bottom-up structure. In other words, the agreement itself does not hold any Party accountable to a particular contribution or climate action goal. Instead, the agreement offers Parties a firm suggestion to determine their climate contributions on a national level (known as Nationally determined Contributions or NDCs), as long as they communicate those NDCs with the UNFCCC secretariat and fellow Parties.

Third, Biniaz notes that the U.S. withdrawal at the national level may not have harmed climate action at all due to strong U.S. sub-national efforts. In other words, state and local government action, such as the “We are still in” movement, may have counteracted any real negative impact the U.S. withdrawal may have had on achieving well below 1.5–2°C. Even so, the fact that the federal government has not been committed to reducing emissions in the U.S. since President Trump’s withdrawal announcement is problematic.

Student delegates join Professor Reiter

Student delegates join Professor Reiter to close out week 1 of COP25 in Madrid. #WEARESTILLIN

On that note, should there be a way for sub-national governments (meaning non-sovereign states) or other entities to participate as actors in the international climate regime? Realistically speaking, allowing sub-national governments and other entities to join the Paris Agreement officially would require amendments to the Treaty itself. Additionally, allowing sub-national governments and other entities to enter a binding international agreement officially may implicate sovereign state constitutions.

Nevertheless, there are plenty of reasons to feel hopeful about this movement. For one thing, any action is better than no action. Although sub-national action cannot effectively replace federal commitment under the Paris Agreement, the environment benefits from all climate action regardless of who initiates it. Notably, sub-national climate action in the U.S. has been constructive and diplomatic throughout the last four years. More specifically, individual states, cities, and even smaller local governments, along with private businesses, have had a significant presence in the climate space. While they can’t take the place of federal government action, it offers hope that U.S. climate efforts have not been entirely stagnant following the withdrawal announcement.

Before being announced as America’s president-elect, Biden responded to questions regarding the future of the U.S.’s involvement in the Paris Agreement. Specifically, he confirmed his intent to rejoin the Paris Agreement. He also vowed to establish “a climate target that is updated from the Obama administration’s goal and a plan to reduce domestic emissions from the power and energy sector.” Big Ocean leadership, including President Wavel Ramkalawan of Seychelles, formally congratulated Joe Biden and Vice Present elect, Kamala Harris, on the democratic victory.

Despite this democratic victory, the U.S. has a lot of work to do before the President-elect is sworn into office in January. At this point, U.S. citizens have seen sub-national governments, other entities, and civil society play a significant role in influencing federal government action. For this reason, climate activists in the U.S. must continue to zealously advocate for U.S. national leadership to take responsibility for the devastation our industrial economy has created. Big Oceans (Small Island Developing States or SIDS under the Paris Agreement) have been fighting the global climate challenge without the world’s second-largest GHG emitter for far too long. Accordingly, the U.S. must prepare to support these Parties as they prepare their second-round NDCs.

For example, now is the time to incorporate climate action into covid-19 recovery plans. Knowing that both the covid-19 pandemic and climate change played a significant role in the U.S. election, U.S. citizens should prepare to insist that the federal government integrate pandemic recovery plans into climate change mitigation efforts. Additionally, the U.S. should prepare to assist developing country Parties in achieving sustainable development goals that will allow them to respond to both climate change and the pandemic effectively.

In these difficult, unprecedented times, one thing remains true: unity is the most robust tool we have to fight these “common concerns of humankind.”


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  1. Adriana Quevedo, Katie Peters &Yue Cao, The impact of Covid-19 on climate change and disaster resilience funding: trends and signals, Food Resilience Alliance 5–7 (Oct. 2020), https://www.odi.org/sites/odi.org.uk/files/resource documents/covid_and_resilience_funding_briefing_note_web_0.pdf.
  1. Paris Agreement to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Dec. 12, 2015, T.I.A.S. No. 16-1104, https://unfccc.int/files/meetings/paris_nov_2015/application/pdf/paris_agreement_english_.pdf.




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