After multiple delays, and the building up of a twisted reality television-like suspense, Donald Trump has finally announced that he will take America out of the Paris Climate Agreement. Among all the fluster of his presidency, this may be one of Trump’s most consequential decisions, and the one with the most long-lasting negative, if not disastrous, impacts. In response, it is time the global community considers boycotting America.

In some ways, the Paris climate agreement represents one of the world’s most important diplomatic achievements. After 21 years of difficult negotiating to address the climate crisis, the world was finally able to put a global framework in place. 195 countries from Europe and from China to India, Venezuela, the US, Saudi Arabia, and South Africa, were all pointing in the same direction towards addressing climate change.

The Paris Agreement was at once a historical milestone, deeply important, and woefully inadequate. The level of ambition was not enough to reduce emissions at the scale needed to hit its own goals of keeping warming well below 2°C – never mind anywhere near the much safer aspirational goal of 1.5°C. The idea though, was that countries would gradually ramp up their ambition to meet those targets. The Trump administration, though, is set to head in the opposite direction, overshooting even the weak targets set by the Obama administration – barring major state- and local-led action.

Contrary to the lies and misinformation upon which Trump tried to justify his decision, the Paris agreement had been made purposefully to accommodate an intransigent US Congress, which would not accept a legally binding treaty. After years of the US undermining other climate agreements, the world tried its best to accommodate them. The agreement allowed countries to determine their own emission reduction targets, and there was no legal enforcement mechanism or punishment for not meeting them. For the US, the world’s largest historical polluter, it is hard to imagine a sweeter deal.

Ironically, by pulling out of the Paris agreement, Trump, the great negotiator, may expose America to greater global backlash than if he had just stuck with the agreement while doing little to nothing to actively address climate change. That’s probably why many fossil fuel companies want Trump to stay in, so they can have a seat at the table and slow down global progress, while not facing the blowback that would come from exiting the agreement altogether.

As climate policy expert Luke Kemp argues in an article for Nature Climate Change: “A rogue US can cause more damage inside rather than outside of the agreement.” They could water it down, obstruct progress, and encourage others to weaken their emission reductions, thus undermining broad confidence in the agreement. On the other hand, if they pull out there is significant potential for the global community to rally together for more meaningful climate action, and to push back against the US, including with measures such as climate sanctions.

Thanks to a powerful social movement, across the world, individuals, investors and institutions worth more than $5-trillion have committed to divest from the fossil fuel industry. With the Trump administration making it clear that its interests and that of the fossil fuel industry are one and the same, the sabres are rattling to apply the same logic of boycotting, divesting and sanctioning against the US itself. It’s a strategy which helped bring the South African apartheid regime to its knees, making it a somewhat doubly fitting move given the dangerous rise of right-wing white nationalism that Trump is helping to stoke.

There are few more unfair and dangerous advantages in trade than being able to freely pollute and destabilise our common atmosphere while others are acting to restrain their use. As such, the global community should be well within its moral right to impose sanctions on America. If the world was justified in imposing sanctions on Iran for its nuclear program, the US is arguably even more deserving. Scientists have long ranked climate change as one of the greatest threats to global civilisation. Even the conservative World Economic Forum’s Global Risk Report ranks climate change as one of the greatest global risks, making Trump’s America a fundamental threat to global stability.

A few influential voices have already been calling for climate-related sanctions against the US. In 2006 Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz recommended sanctions against the US because of its climate inaction. Last year, famed author and activist Naomi Klein did the same. This year, “the most influential ethicist alive”, Peter Singer, proposed them too. So did South African climate justice activist-academic Patrick Bond, as well as the Financial TimesMartin Wolff. Even former French president Nicolas Sarkozy suggested sanctions in the form of a carbon tax of 1–3% on US imports – a proposal that could be refined by only taxing states that are not taking meaningful climate action, unlike Hawaii, California and others.

These voices are a start, but it seems to me a failing of moral courage that more world leaders were not already threatening sanctions and other punitive measures. Instead of allowing Trump to quietly weigh up this decision, the entire global community should have been publicly lambasting him for even considering pulling out of Paris and rolling back climate progress. Perhaps not forcefully challenging him was a calculated strategy to gently persuade him, rather than risk upsetting a child-like president who could easily throw his toys out of the cot. It seems the strategy didn’t work, and  the toys are coming our way.

Trump’s decision to withdraw America out of the Paris agreement does not immediately pull the US out. Rather, due to procedural rules, that process wouldn’t conclude until November 2020 at the earliest. This provides time for Americans and the global community to fiercely resist Trump’s decision to pull out and roll back climate progress. That means rallies, sanctions, mass action, and, yes, civil disobedience against the Trump administration. Every international visit Trump makes should be met with protest. Within the US, aggressive measures to tackle climate change at state and local level will be needed, as part of a broader resistance to Trump’s roll back. Similarly, global allies will have to help pick up the slack created by Trump, as China and the EU are already positioning themselves to do.

It’s not enough just to sanction and protest US withdrawal from the Paris agreement though. If the US continues to backslide on climate action, even while staying in Paris, it will still be undermining the purpose of the Paris agreement – to avoid dangerous climate change. As analysis demonstrates, and Princeton professor Michael Oppenheimer points out, a few more years of US climate inaction could bring our “odds of avoiding the climate-danger zone to zero”. Thus, even if Trump had stayed in Paris, the Republican Party would still have been “the most dangerous organisation in world history”, and it’s time we treated them that way.

While some might worry that sanctions may negatively affect trade, it seems those concerns might be somewhat moot given Trump’s, anti-trade isolationist stance. Others might be concerned that sanctions would disproportionately affect the poor within the US. This is a legitimate worry, but should also be counterbalanced against the evidence that climate change is set to devastatingly impact the world’s poorest and most vulnerable. Furthermore, implementing sanctions such as a carbon levy on American exports would not be nearly as harmful as some of the sanctions that America has levelled at much poorer countries than itself – the richest country in world history. Perhaps the money raised from sanctions could even fund low-carbon and climate-resilient international development to help plug the gap that comes from Trump reneging on America’s promise to fund the Green Climate Fund.

The window to avert extremely dangerous climate change is rapidly closing. It is past time for the world to sit by and quietly allow the United States to undermine global climate efforts. Polls show that 71 percent of Americans, including 57 percent of Republicans, support staying in the Paris agreement. With clean energy increasingly more competitive than fossil fuels, the world’s wealthiest nation and largest historical polluter has no excuse not to act. And we have little excuse not to hold Trump’s feet to the fire, if he chooses not to.

If we choose to, Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement may provide the spark the world needs to treat the climate crisis with the urgency it deserves. The possibility for a prosperous low-carbon future is there for the taking, if we act decisively and aggressively in response to Trump’s egregious decision. We cannot allow the deplorable actions of a misguided, immoral [politician] derail the most important fight of our generation.


  • Dr Alex Lenferna serves as South Africa Climate Justice Campaigner with 350 He is a former Mandela Rhodes and Fulbright Scholar with a PhD on climate justice from the University of Washington. He is a first generation South African whose family hails from the small island nation of Mauritius.


Alex Lenferna

Dr Alex Lenferna serves as South Africa Climate Justice Campaigner with 350 He is a former Mandela Rhodes and Fulbright Scholar with a PhD on climate justice from the University of Washington....

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