‘Trump leaving the Paris climate agreement isn’t all bad news’

‘Trump leaving the Paris climate agreement isn’t all bad news’

Donald Trump has confirmed that he will remove the US from the Paris climate agreement, joining Syria and Nicaragua as the world’s only countries that don’t support the deal. European leaders have reacted with sadness and disappointment. But according to professor of environmental economics Reyer Gerlagh, it’s not all bad news.

“We’re getting out”, Trump said in an official announcement in the White House’s Rose Garden yesterday. According to the president of the United States – the world’s second-largest emitter of greenhouse gasses – the international accord to combat global warming is a ‘bad deal’ that will hurt the American economy.


European leaders have reacted to Trump’s withdrawal with dismay. Angela Merkel called Trump immediately after he made his announcement, expressing her regret at his decision. Dutch foreign affairs minister Bert Koenders said Trump’s decision is a ‘cardinal error’. But according to Reyer Gerlagh, professor of environmental economics at Tilburg University, there is a silver lining: at least now we know that Trump is quitting the climate agreement. “In a way, the withdrawal of the United States makes it clear that Europe and China must take up their own responsibilities”, Gerlagh explains.

Professor Reyer Gerlagh

Professor Reyer Gerlagh

Seat at the table

And there is another important reason for optimism. Perhaps it’s for the better that a climate sceptic like Trump, who believes global warming was invented by the Chinese for economic gain, doesn’t have a seat at the table in international climate talks. “It isn’t very helpful to have someone participate in those talks only to frustrate the process. So in that sense, it might be better that Trump removes himself from the climate agreement altogether”, Gerlagh says. He adds that politics is not his area of expertise: “I’m not a political scientist, so I’m merely saying this as a concerned citizen with an understanding of the climate problem.”

Europe and China

Some fear that, with the United States quitting the deal, other countries may feel less pressure to stay committed to the agreement and tackle their emissions. “That’s a possibility”, Gerlagh says. “Especially for developing countries, whose governments are often dealing with urgent problems, the climate isn’t always a priority. Some countries may respond to Trump’s withdrawal by saying: if America is refusing to look to the future, then why should we?”

But with the United States stepping out of the accord, the climate problem will grow. The remaining countries that are party to the Paris agreement are going to have to step up. Gerlagh expects that although some countries will feel less pressure to curb their emissions, other countries will be propelled to take action. “It’s important to keep in mind that European governments are very aware of the climate problem. And China has made an enormous turnaround on addressing climate issues. Without the US, it will be more difficult to combat the process of climate change, there’s no doubt about that. The remaining countries will have to take the climate problem even more seriously.”

Damage control

Without the support of the second-largest emitter, will the world be able to turn the tide on climate change? According to Gerlagh, climate change is largely irreversible at this point. “Climate change is an extremely slow process”, he says. “Even if the remaining countries that are party to the Paris agreement will seriously tackle their emissions in the years to come, there will be damage. What we can do, is try to reduce that damage as much as possible.”

To explain the situation the world is currently in, Gerlagh uses the metaphor of a car that is about to crash into another car. “If the car in front of you suddenly comes to a standstill and you can’t avoid crashing into it, you will still put your foot on the break to reduce the impact as much as you can”, he says. And, adding Trump to this analogy: “If the person sitting next to you suddenly starts pressing the gas pedal, it’s still a good idea to keep your foot on the break. What else can you do?”


Gerlagh believes we are entering a new phase of climate governance. “In a sense, we are witnessing the end of an era. The past decades have brought about great progress, but also a great problem: climate change. It seems that the old institutions are not equipped to tackle that problem effectively. Hopefully, we will be able to reduce the impact of that problem in the future. But there will be an impact, that much is certain.”

Nevertheless, Gerlagh believes that the global community will ramp up its efforts against climate change – even without the United States. “I like to stay optimistic”, he says.

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