Q & A with GW’s Executive Director of Sustainability on the Paris Agreement

Kathleen Merrigan says the U.S. “lost leadership stature for sure” with President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the international climate accord.

Kathleen Merrigan (Jessica McConnell Burt/GW Today)
Kathleen Merrigan (Jessica McConnell Burt/GW Today)
June 12, 2017

By Ruth Steinhardt

Kathleen Merrigan, executive director of sustainability at the George Washington University, led a panel at the 2015 conference at which 196 countries signed the Paris Climate Agreement. GW Today spoke to her about President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the agreement, its implications and what comes next.

Q: Why do you think the president chose to withdraw from the Paris Agreement?

A: The message from the president and his team is inconsistent—President Trump described the agreement, in which all signatory countries set their own carbon emission reduction goals, as both “nonbinding” and a “draconian financial and economic burden”—so I’m not sure I can describe his motivation.

Some have speculated that taking action on Paris helped divert attention from other issues, such as the growing Russia probe.

 Q: What practical effects will that withdrawal have on American renewable energy efforts? 

A: Renewable energy is a bright spot in our economy, creating hundreds of thousands of jobs.  Abandoning the Paris agreement and slashing budgets for clean energy investments will hurt U.S. companies.

 Q: Will there be other implications outside the ecological realm—say in diplomatic or trade relations?

A: I was at a United Nations Environment Programme meeting when the president announced our withdrawal. As one of the few Americans there, I was embarrassed.  The U.S. and Syria are now in a lonely club, while the rest of the world is holding hands. We’ve lost leadership stature for sure.

 Q: Were there "fail safes" built into the Paris Agreement in the case of a hostile presidency like this one? If so, will they mitigate the effects of President Trump's withdrawal?

A: There is a long formal process ahead before the U.S. actually can withdraw—this decision won’t take effect until a couple months before the next presidential election. But failing to follow through on our immediate funding commitments will do harm, particularly to poor nations already struggling because of climate impacts.

 Q: A number of cities, states, companies and other non-national entities have expressed an intention to comply with the Paris accord. What does that mean? Are they able to formally join or will it be a matter of self-policing?

A: A grand coalition of American organizations have come together to formally state support for Paris despite the president’s decision, though only nations can officially be part of the agreement. As of June 8, nine states, 174 cities and counties, 269 higher education institutions (including GW, of course!), and 1,338 businesses and investors have declared that they are “still in.”  Second Nature, an organization that George Washington President Steven Knapp helps lead, has a webpage that updates when new members join. 

I know that GW is committed to reducing our carbon footprint no matter what.  As Dr. Knapp likes to say, we shall practice what we teach.

Politics and Society, Ruth Steinhardt


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