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Five Reasons Why the US Withdrawing from the Paris Agreement Isn’t Another Kyoto Protocol Moment

If you’ve followed international climate change politics over the years, you probably feel like you’ve seen this (bad) movie before.


When the White House announced that it will withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement last week, it was hard not to hear the echoes of the Bush Administration’s 2001 decision not to submit the Kyoto Protocol — the world’s first international climate treaty to reduce emissions forged in 1997 – to the Senate for ratification or to implement the protocol. In both instances, a new administration swept into the White House and rejected a hard-won, tough-negotiated international climate deal after the country had initially signed onto it. Of course, the US Senate had signaled it wasn’t going to ratify the Kyoto Protocol anyway, but the Bush Administration’s announcement nevertheless served as a nail in the coffin for US participation in the treaty.

In 2001, the US leaving took a lot of oomph out of the Kyoto Protocol and was a major blow to achieving the emissions reductions it targeted. As a result, you might be tempted to fear that you’re witnessing history repeat itself and that the US withdrawal from Paris will prove to be similarly devastating.

However, the world has changed a lot since the late 90s and there are a number of reasons why the administration’s decision — while deeply disappointing — is nevertheless unlikely to be such a crippling blow.

Reason #1: The Paris Agreement has far broader support and participation than the Kyoto Protocol ever did.

A major weakness with the Kyoto Protocol was that it only called for developed countries to reduce their emissions. Developing countries like India and China were not mandated to make any cuts, given that they had contributed relatively little to the long-term buildup of CO2 in the atmosphere at the time.

By contrast, 195 countries and governments have signed onto the Paris Agreement today. The US now joins a tiny group of holdouts that includes only Nicaragua and Syria as company. Unlike during the Kyoto days, the US cannot take cover behind other major non-participating countries. Today, the pending withdrawal makes the US a glaring anomaly.

Indeed, as it seeks to prop up fossil fuels, the administration is heading in the opposite direction of almost every government in the world, a fact certainly not lost on other world leaders. Witness the widespread diplomatic rebuke the US has already received to get a sense of how out-of-step the administration is with the international community today. In a rare joint statement by Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and French President Emmanuel Macron, for example, the three European leaders declared: "We deem the momentum generated in Paris in December 2015 irreversible and we firmly believe that the Paris Agreement cannot be renegotiated since it is a vital instrument for our planet, societies and economies."

President Macron Responds to the US Withdrawal from the Paris ...

President Emmanuel Macron: The world “will succeed because we are fully committed” to the Paris Agreement. (via NowThis)

Posted by Climate Reality on Saturday, June 3, 2017

And it’s not just other countries that are firmly committed to the Paris Agreement, but also the business community. In contrast to the Kyoto days, when the fallback position of most US companies was to remain silent, a remarkable amount of businesses— over 1,100 of them—have come out publicly in support of the Paris Agreement.

What it all means is that, with such widespread backing across so many levels of society, it’s very unlikely that one withdrawal announcement will be the last word on the Paris Agreement.

Reason #2: There is far more progress and momentum today in clean energy and other climate solutions than in the late 90s.

When the Kyoto Protocol was negotiated back in the late 90s, renewables were still largely a niche technology. Today, they’re firmly in the mainstream.

“Share” to make #ClimateHope mainstream, too.

Posted by Climate Reality on Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Over the past two decades, renewable energy technologies have improved by leaps and bounds, their costs have fallen dramatically, and installations have boomed across the world. Consider, for example:

We could go on and on. But the point is, unlike during the Kyoto days, there is an immense amount of economic momentum driving clean energy forward today that is very unlikely to be turned back simply because the US is exiting an agreement.

Reason #3: The science is more conclusive today than in the late 90s.

Although climate science in the late 90s was certainly strong enough—or at least concerning enough—to negotiate an international treaty, it is hard to deny that the scientific understanding of the climate crisis has improved considerably over the past two decades.

While leaders during the Kyoto Protocol negotiations understood that there might be uncertainties associated with the science, they nevertheless saw the need to take measures out of precaution. By contrast, today the question of whether or not the climate is changing is settled science. Those who deny the threat are becoming increasingly sidelined and out-of-step with mainstream scientific consensus.

Need proof? Just compare the executive summaries of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) assessment reports—which are viewed as the most comprehensive and authoritative scientific reports on climate change. During Kyoto negotiations, for example, the latest report from 1995 said the following:

“The balance of evidence…suggests a discernible human influence on global climate. There are uncertainties in key factors, including the magnitude and patterns of long-term natural variability.”

Compare that wishy-washy statement to the language in the IPCC’s latest report from 2014:

“Human influence on the climate system is clear… Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia.”

Ten Clear Signs Our Climate Is Changing

Climate change is real and man-made. Share this video, share the facts.

Posted by Climate Reality on Sunday, August 28, 2016

The difference in the level of certainty and confidence expressed in the two excerpts is pretty striking. Of course, there is much more to climate science than a few sentences, but today we also know that multiple peer-reviewed studies show that 97 percent or more of climate scientists agree that climate change is real and caused by human activities. This is about as settled as it’s going to get.

What does this have to do with the Paris Agreement? Simply put, when the science is this settled and the consensus is this strong, it’s harder for politicians to deny reality. The Paris Agreement is living proof that world leaders today have moved on from debating the basic reality of the crisis and won’t be dragged back into the climate denier mud hole any time soon.

Reason #4: The stakes are higher today than in the late 90s.

Arguably, when the international community signed onto the Kyoto Protocol, it had more time on its side. Kyoto occurred in a different world — before iPhones, before Google, before data centers, and before China’s coal-fueled economic boom. It also occurred before scientific breakthroughs like carbon budgets – which estimate how much carbon we can release into the atmosphere and keep global temperature rise within safe limits. Carbon budgets are one example of just how much more precise climate science has become in measuring the risks that the crisis poses.

Just how precise? Well, precise enough for most climate scientists to agree on one number — 2 degrees Celsius. That’s the amount they believe global average temperatures can rise (compared to preindustrial levels) before the impacts of the climate crisis become significantly more dangerous and unpredictable. That level of global temperature rise roughly corresponds to carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in the atmosphere of 450 parts per million (PPM).

When the Kyoto Protocol was being negotiated in 1997, atmospheric CO2 levels were around 363 PPM. And today? As of the date of publication, these levels are around 406 PPM. That’s an increase of more than 40 PPM in just the last two decades! You can see where we’re headed if we carry on at this rate, and it’s one of the reasons why the Paris Agreement is probably the world’s last best chance to avoid a climate catastrophe this century. 

See how much our planet has warmed in the past few decades. Via NASA - National Aeronautics and Space Administration. #ActOnClimate

Posted by Climate Reality on Sunday, January 24, 2016

While all of this might seem like a cause for hand-wringing, it also gives the Paris Agreement a greater element of urgency than the Kyoto Protocol had. The upside of the stakes being so clear is that the world cannot ignore the crisis, even if one of the largest polluters decides not to help solve it. Perhaps this is one reason why cities, states, businesses, and countries around the world reaffirmed their commitments to the Paris Agreement and climate action in the wake of the administration’s announcement.

Reason #5: Public awareness of climate change is much higher today than in the late 90s.

Although recent surveys show that people in other countries are generally more concerned about climate change than the US, Americans too have nevertheless come a long way in their awareness of the crisis since the Kyoto days.  

According to Gallup polls, for example, in November 1997, about 61 percent of Americans said they understood global warming either “very well” or “fairly well.” In March 2017, that number was 79 percent.

Similarly, 50 percent of Americans said they worried either “a great deal” or “fair amount” about global warming in November 1997. That compares to 66 percent in March 2017, with those worrying “a great deal” rising from 24 percent to 45 percent over the time gap. Clearly, the trend in the US over the past two decades has been toward greater understanding and concern about the climate crisis.

But perhaps even more striking is the difference in public support for action. When a Gallup poll in 2005 asked Americans if the US should participate in the Kyoto Protocol, for example, less than half (only 42 percent) were in favor, with over a third (35 percent) having no opinion.

By contrast, recent polls have found that 71 percent of Americans support US participation in the Paris Agreement, including 57 percent of Republicans. Moreover, this support is about as broad as it gets, with additional surveys showing that majorities of Americans in all 50 states back the US participating.

In every single state, most Americans support the US participating in the #ParisAgreement. Share if you’re one of them!

Posted by Climate Reality on Friday, May 19, 2017

Why does all of this matter? Because when the American public is overwhelmingly concerned about the climate crisis and supports participating in international efforts to address it, it becomes that much harder for the current administration to just sweep the issue under the rug and hope that people will forget about it like with the Kyoto Protocol in 2001. So long as Americans want to see action on the crisis, the Paris Agreement as an issue isn’t disappearing anytime soon.

What Comes Next?

So there you have it. Although the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement might seem like Clexit 2.0, the truth is that we’ve come a very long way since the Kyoto days. Today, the science is settled, the need for action is clear, the solutions are taking off, the public is on board, and we finally have an international framework for action with near-universal support. Those facts converging at once create powerful momentum that cannot easily be stopped.

But that doesn’t mean we can breathe easy. The administration’s withdrawal from Paris won’t be a crippling blow, but it will still hurt our planet. That is why now, more than ever, we need to fight like our world depends on it.

If the president won’t lead, we will. Show the world that Americans are still committed to the Paris Agreement. Add your name now: