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Keohane discusses future of global climate policy under Trump administration

Wilson School Professor Robert Keohane explained that the future of global climate change policy is not bright if the United States lets other countries take the lead on this issue.

Keohane, an expert in international relations, delivered the final Princeton Environmental Institute Faculty Seminar of the year. He said that his talk would focus on the three different scenarios that are possible if the United States “drags its feet” on the issue of climate change.


Keohane explained that the Trump Administration will probably move to dismantle the Clean Power Plan, an Obama Administration regulation aimed at reducing emissions from coal-burning power plants. In addition, he noted that while the administration won't honor the non-binding commitments in the Paris climate agreement, it most likely won’t withdraw fully from the agreement.

“It would take three or four years, and it would be messy,” he said.

Working with these assumptions, Keohane explained that there are three scenarios that can happen with regard to the Paris climate agreement. The first is the Free-Riding Collapse Scenario, which comes into play if other signatories of the Paris climate accords feel that they signed the agreement simply because the U.S. was also a signatory. These other countries may observe the United States reneging on its pledge, so they too will not honor the pledges they made in the agreement.

“It is possible under this first scenario that U.S. defection can lead to a cascade of other defections,” Keohane said. “The other countries will say ‘if the U.S. is defecting, why should we pay?’”

However, Keohane noted that the Paris Agreement contains a network-like structure, where each country decides what level of emissions reductions is in its best interest. He explained that it is this decentralized structure of the agreement which may save it, since the agreement is vague and non-binding.

The second scenario Keohane discussed is the Leadership-Opportunity Scenario. He explained that for the past 75 years, the United States has been “making the rules” for all major agreements and global policies, and has benefited from this status. However, if the United States does not take the lead in climate change policy, other countries will fill the void.


“The Trump Administration is handing Europe and China a huge opportunity,” Keohane said. “The EU may step up since it needs some reason to exist ... and China wants to rival the U.S. for leadership.”

He explained that in this scenario, China and Europe could redouble their commitment to combating climate change, strengthening economic ties between the two. The effect of this is that other developing countries, which until now have not done much to address climate change, may not want to be left behind. Ironically, the United States pulling out of the agreement would make the politics of fulfilling the Paris Agreement in these developing countries more attractive, since many of these societies harbor anti-American sentiments

“Reluctance to go along with U.S. initiatives is actually positive for their politics,” Keohane said. “If the U.S. wasn’t behind [the Paris Agreement], they could show up the U.S. by taking an active role in climate change.”

Optimistically speaking, he added that the United States may reverse its position once it sees other countries fulfilling their commitments and benefiting internationally.

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The third scenario, called the Symbolic Alternative Leadership Scenario, is based on China pursuing “symbolic gains” without actually aggressively tackling climate change. Keohane explained that the Paris Agreement has nominal targets and does not require too much transparency from signatories. He explained that this could lead some countries to claim that they are addressing climate change, but there would be no way to validate this. He dubbed this “organized hypocrisy.”

“States would pretend to educate, and others would pretend to believe,” he said. “It’s a common state of affairs in world politics.”

Keohane added that this too could entice anti-American countries to join, increasing the number of active signatories, but the agreement would be less ambitious and transparent with vague commitments.

Keohane’s lecture was titled “The International Climate Regime without US Leadership: Collapse or Multilateral Institutionalization?” and was held at 12:30 in Guyot Hall 10.