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The Hardest Work Lies Ahead as US Re-enters Paris Agreement

Rejoining climate change agreement is just the beginning of the challenge for the Biden administration

Climate map showing a warming world

The Biden administration has rejoined the Paris Agreement, the international climate treaty signed in December 2015 by nearly 200 countries. Each country pledged to lower greenhouse gas emissions over the next three decades with the aim of limiting the planet’s warming temperatures to an increase of less than 2 degrees Celsius.

The United States formally withdrew in November 2020 under the Trump administration, although the former president pledged to leave the agreement shortly after taking office.

Duke professors Tim Profeta and Drew Shindell talk about the importance of the agreement and the urgency for the United States to make up lost time.

What the agreement means for the Biden administration

“It starts the work for the Biden administration, it doesn’t finish it,” says Tim Profeta, director of Duke’s Nicholas Institute for the Environmental Policy Solutions and associate professor of practice at the Sanford School of Public Policy. “The core of the Paris Agreement is to determine what each nation can do to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. And now the Biden administration has to go through the exercise – based on the authorities that they possess and the whole-of-government approach that they are taking – of what can they confidently tell the world they can do in terms of a commitment. That’s the hard work.”

“It’s easy to say, ‘Hey, we’re on board and we’re in the Paris Agreement’,” says Drew Shindell, a distinguished professor of earth science at the Nicholas School of the Environment. “Almost every country in the world signed up for that, but almost no country is meeting the target for emissions. Everyone is pretty much failing, because the hard part is actually putting all these things into action on the ground.”

“We put this off for a really long time. The scientists have been warning us for ages, and our emissions keep going up instead of down,” Shindell says. “So there really is this enormous urgency, which means the new administration has a lot riding on their shoulders. We can’t easily afford to waste four more years.”


What was lost while the United States was not part of the agreement

“The effect was that the United States wasn’t part of the conversation and wasn’t taking action to reduce emissions like it promised. So, the country lost some of the trust of the global community while it wasn’t a true partner in tackling global climate emissions,” Profeta says.

“The Paris Agreement, and the United States leaving it, both were symbolic and not tangible – the agreement itself does not change our emissions at all,” Shindell says. “The agreement is symbolic because everyone in the world, practically, has pledged to do what they can. And if the biggest economy is sitting it out, then that gives cover to those who want to drag their feet.”


What the Paris Agreement means for an average citizen

“We’re no longer talking about people’s grandchildren, we’re talking about their children, and what the Earth will be like in two decades – and the extent of the abnormal and weird weather we’re already experiencing now,” Profeta says.

“Whether the United States is part of the agreement or not will determine is one of the largest determining factors in whether the agreement is effective in avoiding the worst of climate change,” Profeta says.

“There’s a lot of opportunity in transition. If the United States is part of the agreement, then it’s good for America to have the ability to create clean energy jobs in the industry of the future and not the emitting industry of the past,” Profeta says.

“If you de-carbonize all the vehicles and all the power plants, you will see much less climate change for your children,” Shindell says. “This takes a long time. You will see virtually no benefit from reduced climate damages in the first half of this century.”

“The main thing that you will see is much cleaner air right away. We could have cleaner air this decade,” Shindell says. “We’ve seen this with COVID – you shut off emissions, and climate doesn’t change immediately, but air pollution does. We could have hundreds of thousands fewer Americans dying each year from air pollution by cleaning up the energy sector for the sake of climate change.”


What the agreement means for future administrations

“One of the biggest challenges is how do we give assurances that what the United States does on the Paris Agreement is durable to political change,” Profeta says. “The only way we can truly do that is to have a durable coalition interested in the energy transition in the United States. You see a few signs of that now – you see that industries are moving toward decarbonization, and you see some early Republican conversations about the need to work on the climate challenge.”

“The challenge is overcoming this huge existing interest in fossil fuels,” Shindell says. “We have to go towards eliminating all use of fossil fuels in all sectors, and that means everything from overcoming resistance in parts of the automobile industry to overcoming inertia of homeowners and builders of new construction who want to use gas water heaters and furnaces. You need to electrify everything.”


What the agreement means for international environmental policy

“The Paris Agreement is the architecture by which the globe is dealing with a truly global problem, and it requires all countries to make reductions and pledges they can live up to,” Profeta says. “The United States is the second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, and the largest historical emitter. Our country needs to be a part of the climate agreement or we won’t get a truly global solution.”

“Reducing climate change takes the entire world to act,” Shindell says. “If we reduce our pollution, we all see benefits.”

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Duke experts on climate change, energy policy and environmental politics can be found here.

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