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Turning Away from the Paris Agreement is Unpresidential — and Bad for America

A version of this article was originally posted on

At least since John F. Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress, U.S. presidents have recognized the American interest in promoting prosperity in the developing world. President Donald Trump's pulling out of the Paris Agreement abdicates U.S. leadership in addressing the greatest threat to development of our time: Climate change.

Over the past five decades, presidents of both parties have launched initiatives to address new or newly perceived threats to global prosperity, from infectious diseases to corruption to terrorism. While what happens in Vegas might stay in Vegas, what happens in other countries doesn’t stay in those countries in an increasingly global and mobile society.

George W. Bush took the lead on responding to the AIDS crisis by founding the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR; Bill Clinton’s administration targeted gender discrimination by asserting that women’s rights are human rights; Barack Obama’s administration launched the Power Africa initiative to address energy access. U.S. administrations have also recognized the mutually beneficial roles of non-aid channels for supporting prosperity through such means as trade preferences for developing countries and work visas for victims of the 2010 Haiti earthquake.

And while U.S. efforts to promote development have not always been successful, they have certainly contributed to the astonishing progress made during the past half-century. Charles Kenny’s book Getting Better catalogues the many ways — better health, education, gender equality, civil and political rights — that the quality of life has improved in even the poorest countries.

Climate change threatens to unravel those gains. The increasing frequency of extreme weather events will place a drag on economic growth, hitting hardest in the poorest countries and households. Exposure to just one severe tropical storm like Hurricane Mitch, which slammed into Central America in 1998, can knock a country off its growth trajectory, preventing full recovery for decades.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has inventoried the many ways climate instability will exacerbate poverty and inequality: Hunger and loss of livelihoods due to water scarcity and disruption of agro-ecosystems; sickness due to heat stress for urban laborers and increases in water- and vector-borne disease; loss of life and property due to storms and flooding.

Proactive steps to reduce the emissions that cause global warming and to adapt to the climate change that’s already happening would not only mitigate harm, but can also provide triple wins by benefiting the climate, development and U.S. interests. The Paris Agreement provides a framework for capturing these opportunities.

Others have commented on the large potential of a shift to renewable energy to provide new markets and investment opportunities. Another opportunity is provided by cooperation to conserve the world’s remaining tropical forests.

Article 5 of the Paris Agreement focuses on forest conservation as a particularly promising area for international cooperation. Tropical forests and peatlands — mostly in developing countries such Brazil, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Indonesia — are a significant source of global emissions, because when forests are cleared and burned, the carbon they store is released into the atmosphere. In fact, if emissions from tropical deforestation were a country, it would rank third after China and the U.S.

And reducing deforestation is among the least costly options for emissions abatement. The Paris Agreement provides a framework called Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation, or REDD+, that enables rich countries to cooperate with developing countries by rewarding their success in reducing forest-based emissions, with payments contingent on performance.

But tropical forests offer more than an opportunity to reduce emissions from deforestation. Standing forests provide goods and services important for local and national development. On average, wild products collected from forests constitute more than one-fifth of household incomes in nearby communities. New research shows how forests generate rainfall at continental scales, and how deforestation thus threatens agricultural productivity. Forested watersheds provide access to clean energy by filling the reservoirs behind hydroelectric dams.

Indeed, forests contribute to achieving at least 10 of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the international community in 2015. By contrast, deforestation is often a pathway to poverty.

Beyond reducing emissions from deforestation, tropical forests are critical to meeting the Paris Agreement’s objectives in other ways. Forests — which actively pull carbon out of the air for safe-keeping in vegetation — are the only safe, natural, proven way to capture and store carbon, making them essential to achieving the medium-term mitigation goal of balancing emissions and removals.

With respect to adaptation, natural forest vegetation provides resilience to the extreme weather events that are becoming more frequent and severe with climate change. Villages protected by mangrove forests are buffered from coastal storms. Undamaged forests are less likely burn.

Indonesia’s fires in 2015 are estimated to have led to more than 100,000 premature deaths.

Forested hillsides are more resistant to the landslides such as those that recently killed more than 200 people in Sri Lanka.

The Paris Agreement is the best instrument for addressing these and other threats to development posed by climate change, and one that was crafted through years of negotiations shaped in large part by U.S. engagement. REDD+ in particular offers a timely opportunity for rich countries to help developing countries to meet both climate and development goals. Trump is reckless to throw it away.

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