Travis N. Rieder, Research Scholar at the Berman Institute of Bioethics, Johns Hopkins University


Originally published on: The Conversation



Like many, I have worried ever since the 2016 election that this day would come – that Donald Trump would formally announce his intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. As an ethicist, I have been occupied by a very particular question, which is whether withdrawing from the agreement, itself, matters morally.


Some have suggested that the policies to lower emissions matter, not the agreement to enact such policies. If Trump has no intention of holding up America’s end of the deal, then does the actual withdrawal from the agreement make a difference? I think that it might, because staying in the agreement and going through the motions (but failing) means something fundamentally different from formally withdrawing.


Presumably, many countries will fail in their climate obligations at one time or another. Other parties to the agreement will have the opportunity to admonish them for this failure, and to work together to form a new plan that is more likely to succeed.


But, announcing America’s intention to withdraw from the agreement sends a clear message to the rest of the world that the second-highest emitting nation has no intention of doing its part to save the world’s most vulnerable people from impending harm. Indeed: The U.S. government takes the problem so unseriously, and values the lives of those at risk so little, that it will try desperately to undermine the already far-too-modest climate actions that the Obama administration set in motion.


The game-theoretic puzzle here is a common feature of collective action problems: Abandoning an agreement (or “defecting”) changes the rational deliberation of other parties to the agreement. It may be rational for some nations to sacrifice for the greater good when they believe that everyone will do likewise. But, is it still rational when one of the major players – one who has gained most from causing the problem, and will pay least as the problem becomes more serious – announces his intention to defect?


My hope is that every other party to the Paris Agreement will believe that the answer is yes, and that they will count on us, the American people, to right this wrong as soon as we can. But my most desperate fear is that this announcement will confirm the world’s suspicion that America cannot be trusted to do its part, and that this will make it harder for them to justify making any sacrifice at all.


This sort of scenario will not likely mean the end of the Paris Agreement, but it could weaken it considerably, as other nations’ leaders become less willing to make sacrifices on the backs of their people.


In short: Trump’s actions today may further slow our already-too-modest climate action and threaten the health and lives of the most vulnerable. This would be a serious injustice, and its commission by our elected leader is unconscionable.



Travis N. Rieder, Research Scholar at the Berman Institute of Bioethics, Johns Hopkins University;


This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Paris Accord Image: By Presidencia de la República Mexicana –, CC BY 2.0,

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Travis Rieder

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