Paris Climate Agreement: What it is, how it started and what happens now that the US has rejoined

President Joe Biden signed an executive order on Wednesday, Jan. 20 — just hours after being sworn in — for the United States to rejoin the Paris Agreement. 

In November 2019, the U.S. formally left the Paris Agreement and became the first and only nation to do so, distancing itself from international efforts to curb global warming. 

Rejoining the climate agreement was one of several actions Biden took first as president — so why was it so high on his agenda?  

The agreement is a 2015 international pact that nearly 200 nations have signed. Each country provides its own goal and commitment to curbing emissions of heat-trapping gases that lead to climate change and global warming. Currently, Iraq, Iran and Turkey have yet to join.

In essence, the deal calls for nations to come up with their own plan to cut pollution every five years, starting in November 2020.

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As part of the agreement, countries agree to find ways to reduce global carbon emissions to help limit the warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels — a limit that scientists say, if reached, will up the consequences of climate change by the end of the century.

"Science tells us these levels will help prevent some of the most devastating impacts of climate change, including more frequent and extreme droughts, storms, fires, and floods, as well as catastrophic increases in sea level," former President Barack Obama said on April 21, 2016, just one day prior to signing the agreement.

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Helen Mountford, the vice president for climate and economics at the World Resources Institute, said the pact conveys to the rest of the world that the countries recognize that the climate is impacting our Earth and that changes need to occur in order to combat its crisis. 

"For each of those countries, they voluntarily come forward and say what they individually will be able to help tackle the climate crisis, and then we bring it all together," said Mountford.
In addition, the accord is also a way for countries to collaborate in addressing the impacts of climate change by sharing technologies and assisting developing nations in their mitigation efforts.

Hammered out over two weeks during the United Nations Framework Convention in Paris, the Paris Agreement was adopted on Dec. 12, 2015. The deal was signed by Obama on April 22, 2016, with the U.S. officially joining months later.

"The Paris Agreement demonstrates what is possible when the world is united by a common concern and a shared purpose," Obama said on April 21, 2016.

"This is the single-best chance that we have to deal with a problem that could end up transforming this planet in a way that makes it very difficult for us to deal with all the other challenges that we may face," Obama wrote.

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Then, on Oct. 5, 2016, the United Nations announced the agreement received enough signatures — a threshold of 55 countries representing at least 55% of global emissions — for implementation.

"Today the world meets the moment, and if we follow through on the commitments this Paris agreement embodies, history may well judge it as a turning point for our planet," Obama said. 

On Sept. 3, 2016, the U.S. formally entered the Paris Agreement. Then, shortly after former President Donald Trump took office in 2017, his administration chose to pull out of the agreement — the first and only nation to do so. 

This meant that the U.S. would back out of discussions and negotiations on how to move forward with global climate change. But agreement rules prevent any country from pulling out within the first three years, which is why the U.S. could not formally exit the agreement until November 2020.

"The United States will withdraw from the Paris climate accord," Trump announced in June 2017. "The Paris climate accord is simply the latest example of Washington entering into an agreement that disadvantages the United States to the exclusive benefit of other countries, leaving American workers who I love and taxpayers to absorb the cost in terms of lost jobs, lower wages, shuttered factories and vastly diminished economic production."

On Nov. 4, 2019, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the administration had started the formal process of withdrawing from the Paris Agreement. 

"In international climate discussions, we will continue to offer a realistic and pragmatic model — backed by a record of real-world results — showing innovation and open markets lead to greater prosperity, fewer emissions, and more secure sources of energy," Pompeo said in a statement. "We will continue to work with our global partners to enhance resilience to the impacts of climate change and prepare for and respond to natural disasters."

On Nov. 4, 2020, the U.S. formally left the Paris Agreement, further isolating the U.S. from international efforts to curb global warming. 

Then-President Donald Trump called the Paris deal "arbitrary" and an "unfair economic burden" to the U.S. economy. Some agreed.

According to the Chicago Tribune, the Indiana Coal Council was a public proponent of the exit. Executive Director Bruce Stevens reportedly said, "Leaving the agreement was a good move for the state’s coal industry." 

Former EPA Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt was also in favor, echoing the sentiment that it was a bad deal for America. 

But under the Biden administration, the EPA told FOX TV Stations that Biden’s pick to lead the agency will "advance the Biden-Harris administration’s priorities, which includes addressing the climate crisis and recommitting to the Paris Climate Agreement." The agency would not comment further on its stance. 

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Trump's decision was criticized by scientists, activists and several government officials, including former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

"While the Trump administration pulled out of the Paris Agreement, the American people never supported that decision – and cities and states and businesses across the country resolved to do their part to stay in," Bloomberg said in a statement. 

While the Trump administration took federal measures to cut emissions, several state officials pressed ahead in their own efforts.

"When we have red flag warnings in January, we’re reminded that climate change is real," newly-elected California Sen. Alex Padilla, who took Vice President Kamala Harris’ position, told FOX 11 Los Angeles earlier this month. "California as a state has policy when it comes to combating climate change, but we hope to transfer some of that leadership to national policy for the nation."

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Mountford said Trump’s perspective was "not at all" justified. 

"If you actually invest for each dollar that’s spent in terms of investments, you’ll get double the amount of jobs if you invest it in renewable energy, and energy efficiency, and public transport, compared to what you’d get if you invested in coal, or gas, or road building," she said. "So, we need jobs across America, and these are the solutions that will help generate those jobs and make our economy more competitive." 

Biden signed an early executive order to rejoin the Paris climate accord — a campaign promise realized and enacted by the Biden administration on day one.

"I’m going to rejoin the Paris accord and make China abide by what they agreed to," Biden said during a presidential debate last year.

The non-binding agreement was initiated during the Obama administration through executive order, which means Biden did not need a vote from Congress to rejoin.

"There’s no time to start like today," Biden said as he signed the action in the Oval Office. After sending a letter of intent to the United Nations, the U.S. will be officially reinstated into the agreement after 30 days. 

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"I think they’re recognizing that it’s actually better to be in and part of the group of 195 countries trying to tackle climate change together than to be outside. Climate change is something that is hitting us all," Mountford said.

According to independent analyses by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the last decade was the warmest ever recorded on Earth, which scientists have concluded is mostly due to trapped greenhouse gas emissions warming up the planet. 

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Additionally, the world is getting closer to passing a temperature limit set by global leaders five years ago and may exceed it in the next decade or so, according to another United Nations report.

According to scientists, climate change is largely caused by the burning of coal, oil and gas, which has caused global warming, leading to extreme weather events including massive ice melt, increased wildfires, record-breaking temperatures and a record number of hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean. 

Another environmental catastrophe is declining coral reefs. A 2020 study, titled "Long-term shifts in the colony size structure of coral populations along the Great Barrier Reef," found that the reef ecosystem lost half of its corals between 1995 and 2017.

"Losing most of the world’s coral reefs is something that would be hard to avoid if the U.S. remains out of the Paris process," said climate scientist Zeke Hausfather of the Breakthrough Institute in Oakland, California. "At the margins, we would see a world of more extreme heatwaves."

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If the U.S. remains out of the climate pact, today’s children are "going to see big changes that you and I don’t see for ice, coral and weather disasters," said Stanford University's Rob Jackson.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. is currently the second-largest emitter of carbon dioxide in the world, just behind China.

During his campaign, Joe Biden promised a climate plan to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. He also promised a $1.7 trillion investment in clean energy — a promise that would largely be achieved by targeting emissions from power and energy industries. 

The United Kingdom, Japan and the Republic of Korea, with more than 110 other countries, have pledged carbon neutrality by 2050, and China pledged to get there before 2060. 

"This means that 50% of the world’s gross domestic product, and about 50% of global carbon dioxide emissions, are now covered by a net-zero commitment," UN Secretary‑General António Guterres said in a statement in November. 

In the next five years, the world has nearly a one-in-four chance of experiencing a year that’s hot enough to put the global temperature at 2.7 degrees (1.5 degrees Celsius) above pre-industrial times, according to a new science update released in September 2020 by the U.N. World Meteorological Organization (WMO). 

That 1.5 degrees Celsius is the more stringent of two limits set in 2015 by world leaders in the Paris climate change agreement. A 2018 U.N. science report said a world hotter than that still survives, but chances of dangerous problems increase tremendously. 

But some Republicans believe the Paris accord unfairly limits economic growth and American job opportunities.

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Texas Sen. Ted Cruz criticized the rejoining of the Paris Climate Agreement, indicating that Biden was more interested in the views of the citizens of Paris, rather than the citizens of Pittsburgh. 

Cruz was ridiculed for his Tweet, as the agreement does not pertain to the citizens of Paris, but is the city in which the deal was signed in 2015.

John Kerry, former secretary of state, was named Biden’s climate envoy.

"America will soon have a government that treats the climate crisis as the urgent national security threat it is," Kerry tweeted. "I’m proud to partner with the President-elect, our allies, and the young leaders of the climate movement to take on this crisis as the President’s Climate Envoy."

As many countries step up their plans to combat the climate crisis, Montfort believes that people will be looking to the U.S. to see what more they can do. 

"It’s actually in the interest of all Americans — whoever you are, wherever you are, we’re being impacted by climate change, and there’s opportunity for seizing these sort of new competitive industries of the future," Mountford said. "What we’re doing by re-entering the Paris agreement is getting back at the table and being able to work with others to tackle this collectively."

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Countries committed to the pact have agreed to update their goals to line up with new, updated research. 

These countries, including the U.S., will need to submit their new targets prior to the next U.N. climate meeting in Glasgow, Scotland in November. 

Mountford said she is optimistic that the U.S. rejoining the accord will positively impact the climate and economy, but it won’t be easy.

"There’s a long way to go. We’ve already shifted the needle from where we were five, 10, 15 years ago, but there’s still more we need to do to accelerate this transition. The good news is it’s actually in the interest of Americans, of America, or countries around the world, so I’m hoping everyone will realize that and will step up the accelerator and move forward much more rapidly," she said.