Climate change is upon us. And it will get worse, especially in light of the announced withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Agreement. In the 1990s, the first decade of climate action, the emphasis was on the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions from developed countries in the hope that their leadership would be enough to address the challenge. But the rich countries failed us. Meanwhile, emissions from the bigger developing countries increased rapidly and exponentially while countries, especially the most vulnerable, began experiencing the early impacts of anthropogenic climate change. Understandably, the second decade of climate action (2001–2010) saw the emergence of adaptation as a priority equally or even more important for developing countries. Obtaining support for adaptation efforts became imperative for these nations.

Today, mitigation and adaptation remain at the top of the climate agenda, but increasingly climate justice is being asserted by countries and stakeholders. Traditional, more familiar concepts such as “common but differentiated responsibility” and “equity” are being reframed as a matter of justice, where countries and corporations from both North and South are held accountable for causing climate-related loss and damage. In the years to come, this need for accountability, which includes both assistance and reparations to vulnerable countries and peoples, will supplant mitigation and adaptation as the major issue for negotiation by governments wrestling with increasing climate change.

“In its preamble, the concept of climate justice is acknowledged for the first time in an international agreement.”

The Paris Agreement illustrates the emergence of climate justice as the principal issue governments and stakeholders must address in the future. In its preamble, the concept of climate justice is acknowledged for the first time in an international agreement. Likewise, in the same preamble, the related concept of human rights is enshrined as a guiding principle in the implementation of obligations. In the operative provisions, climate justice is the spirit behind the provisions on adaptation, support (finance, technology transfer, and capacity building), and in particular on the establishment of an international loss and damage mechanism. Of course, one hopes the Agreement would have been stronger on compliance measures, including having punitive provisions, but this was just too radical an idea at this point.

It must be emphasized that climate justice is not just a North vs. South issue. It is between and within countries, and includes corporations and their impact on peoples. It is also about racial, ethnic, gender, and other forms of discrimination that make some communities more vulnerable than others. Finally, climate justice is an intergenerational challenge.

Climate justice and the Paris Agreement

From a climate justice perspective, the Paris Agreement is not perfect. It is not the panacea to solve all the issues intertwined with climate change. But it is the best, the most, we can get now. Thankfully, the Paris Agreement is not the least common denominator. Certainly, it is progressive in its inclusion of human rights and climate justice among its principles.

While legally binding targets could have been better, a bottom-up, country-level differentiated approach is the best we can do for now. In any case, the monitoring and reporting obligations under the Paris Agreement provide openings for reviewing compliance.

The Philippines and other vulnerable countries belonging to the Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF) would have preferred the adoption of the 1.5 degrees Celsius limit in temperature increase from pre-industrial levels. The CVF countries have even been willing to take huge steps in reducing their own greenhouse gas emissions, which are much lower than developed countries and the biggest developing countries, so that they can also contribute to the effort. Nevertheless, in spite of the limited language, the inclusion of 1.5 as an aspirational goal in the Paris Agreement is remarkable given the opposition to even doing a special Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) study on this as recently as five years ago. Now, such a study is being conducted and we will soon know the results. When those results come out, there will be an opportunity to move this debate back to the center of the process. If the study shows the difference between a 1.5 and 2.0 world, that could provide scientific and moral ammunition to reopen the issue of a proper global target. If the study concludes 1.5 is no longer achievable, though sobering, it would emphasize the urgency of ambitious action.

The Paris Agreement articles on the support mechanisms—finance, technology transfer, and capacity building—are positive provisions. But, being products of the usual compromises on these issues, they are incomplete. Their modalities and the institutions that will make these provisions come alive must be negotiated in the next two years. Those negotiations will be tough. Thankfully, negotiating groups like the CVF, the Less Developed Countries (LDCs), and the Like Minded Group of countries, by themselves or working with the Group of 77 and China, have continued to insist on greater ambition regarding climate finance, using as an argument the imperatives of climate justice.

Another article that emphasizes climate justice with regard to developing countries is that on loss and damage. Since the Warsaw COP in 2013, the Philippines was one of the nations pushing hard for putting into place this mechanism to compensate loss of lives and damage to property and infrastructure resulting from climate change. The Warsaw meeting was traumatic for the Philippine delegation because the COP opened right after Typhoon Haiyan devastated the country. But this disaster provided an opening to successfully push for the creation of the Warsaw International Mechanism on Loss and Damage. This is not yet the liability regime some have been advocating, but its institutionalization through its inclusion as an article separate from adaptation in the Paris Agreement is important. It opens the way for developing methodologies to assess and put value on loss and damage arising from climate change as well as developing the mechanisms to make the system work. The remaining task is to put flesh on the loss and damage mechanism so it becomes a foundational pillar of a compensation and liability regime.

Silver linings in US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement

“The decision of the Trump administration to withdraw from the Agreement is irresponsible.”

Let me be clear that my preference would have been for the United States to stay in the Paris Agreement. The decision of the Trump administration to withdraw from the Agreement is irresponsible; it is bad for the world and bad also for the United States. But the die is cast. Now it is imperative to maximize the openings and advantages for advancing progress in response to climate change that a US withdrawal could enable.

Fortunately, there is no rush to exit from the Paris Agreement. On the contrary, the opposite has happened as confirmed at the G-20 Summit last week when the United States stood alone against a united world. Remarkably, the Paris Agreement became nearly universal in less than two years. Only Nicaragua and Syria—the former because it sees the Agreement as weak in the obligations it imposed on developed countries and the latter because of its civil war—are not parties to the Paris Agreement. Others have not joined them since the announcement of the US withdrawal. In fact, countries like China and even Russia have gone out of their way to reaffirm their commitment to the Paris Agreement. Though countries like India, Philippines, and Indonesia have been mentioned as possibly motivated to review their commitment to the Paris Agreement, it has yet to happen.

The business case for countries to remain in the Paris Agreement is also impeccable and powerful. It is perilous in fact, economically and politically, for countries to be outside of this singular global platform to cooperate on addressing climate change. For developing countries, it would be foolish not to position themselves to take advantage of the support mechanisms on finance, technology transfer and development, and capacity building that the Paris Agreement provides. Isolation on an issue that is the most global of concerns would be foolish and a disservice to the citizens of countries. The private sector of countries that leave would also be affected negatively, from a competition point of view.

The advantages the Paris Agreement gives to countries and businesses are reasons enough for many US states, cities, other local governments, and companies to announce that they will continue to implement the Paris Agreement in their specific contexts. Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg has even announced that he will provide funds to the United Nations to fill the gap that might result from a US refusal to live up to its financial commitments.

Openings provided by US withdrawal

Whether the United States stayed in the Paris Agreement or not, regardless of who won the November 2016 elections, negotiating the rule book for the Paris Agreement would have been complicated. Even as climate negotiations with the United States under a Democratic president are more constructive (at least there is a shared understanding about the state of the science and the urgency of action) than those conducted under Republican administrations, US positions in climate change negotiations are always influenced by its domestic politics.

The Republican majorities in Congress have a say on how US delegations conduct themselves in these negotiations. The US private sector, divided between a small but loud number of climate change deniers and many pro-climate action companies, also make sure their voices are heard. Environmental activists, directly or through the media, also have some leverage whether the administration is Republican or Democratic. Because of these, the US hands in the negotiations are always somewhat tied and its negotiators are unable to go too far to achieve consensus with their partners. Among other reasons, this is why the parties settled on a bottom-up approach, characterized by country-level differentiation, in the climate change negotiations. It allowed the Obama administration to frame its commitments in language that did not require going to the Senate for the ratification of the Paris Agreement.

“A temporary withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Agreement can…enable and accelerate the achievement of a consensus on several contentious items that need to be resolved for the effective implementation of the Paris Agreement.”

A temporary withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Agreement can, if properly managed, enable and accelerate the achievement of a consensus on several contentious items that need to be resolved for the effective implementation of the Paris Agreement. Ironically, the issues most important to climate justice would benefit from a temporary US withdrawal, as issues like adaptation, climate finance, technology transfer, and loss and damage could be more easily resolved without the United States at the negotiating table. Technically however the United States can participate in the ongoing negotiations (and cause a lot of damage if they choose to do so) unless they pull out completely from the climate change convention. Even in the best of circumstances, it is a big challenge to arrive at consensus with the United States on these issues. US negotiators, in a Trump administration that decided to stay in the Paris Agreement, could be instructed to be hostile and to prevent agreement. This could sabotage the process and set us back many years.

In sum, we should take advantage of the US absence and get the best agreement possible as quickly as we can. In doing that, we do need to be sure that the agreement is designed so that it can accommodate the reentry of the United States into the process after its 2020 elections. In this regard, it is important that we continue to engage with US career diplomats and officials as constructively as possible. The reality is that these are the same negotiators we will work with in the future to repair the damage done by the Trump administration.

Moving on with or without the United States

The temporary absence of the United States in the global climate processes can provide incentives for other countries to emerge as undisputed global leaders in addressing climate change. China is certainly positioned to do that and appears ready to take on such a role. Ironically, this had been a strategic objective of the US negotiators under the Obama administration—for China to take on its proper role as coleader with the United States in the global climate change effort. Now, it looks like China will become the sole leader and reap all the benefits of that in the years to come.

Hopefully, US nonparticipation in global climate efforts is only temporary. That assumes a one-term Trump administration. Viewed from that perspective, the world might not lose that much time in addressing climate change. Most likely the rules of the Paris Agreement would be ready for approval by 2019 at the earliest, even if the current deadline is 2018. It might make sense to wait another year, until after the US presidential elections of 2020, to officially adopt them. If a Democratic president is elected then, waiting another year to allow the United States to be part of the consensus would not be so bad. But, if Trump is reelected or a Republican climate change denier is once again elected, then the world should just move on.

The withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Agreement is not good. It can only accelerate climate change all over the world. But we must not be paralyzed by this decision. Climate change is too big an issue for us to allow one country to hold the global community hostage and paralyzed in inaction. We must continue to work for climate justice in all dimensions, such as piloting climate litigation all over the world, including in the United States. Yet, with or without them, climate justice for all will be achieved.