Paris climate deal exit 'deeply troubling' to Catholic leaders

Faithful gather at St. Dominic Church in Washington prior to the start of the People's Climate March April 29. (CNS/Dennis Sadowski)

Updated June 2 at 9:24 a.m., central, with additional reactions

Despite urging from allies, corporate leaders' last-minute calls and even a not-so-subtle gift from the pope, President Donald Trump on Thursday announced he would withdraw the United States from the landmark Paris Agreement on climate change.

With the announcement, Trump removes the United States — the world's second-largest present-day polluter, and the largest historical emitter of greenhouse gases — from the first-of-its-kind international pact that commits countries to curbing climate change. In December 2015 in Paris 195 nations signed the deal in a bid to keep global warming between 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) — the point at which scientists predict the devastating effects of climate change, such as sea level rise, increased drought and more frequent, intense storms, would become most severe and potentially irreversible.

Speaking from the White House Rose Garden, Trump said, "In order to fulfill my solemn duty to protect America and its citizens, the United States will withdraw from the Paris climate accord."

The president placed his decision largely in economic terms, using the word "climate" just eight times and refraining from the terms "climate change" or "global warming." Trump said the Paris accord "punishes the United States" and would cost millions of jobs in the manufacturing and fossil fuel sectors.

He added that the agreement was less about the climate — saying that full implementation would only fractionally reduce global temperature rise — and more about other countries gaining a financial advantage over the U.S. in what he deemed "a massive redistribution of United States wealth to other countries."

"The fact that the Paris deal hamstrings the United States while empowering some of the world's top polluting countries should dispel any doubt as to the real reason why foreign lobbyists wished to keep our magnificent country tied up and bound down by this agreement," he said.

Despite the president's economic concerns, hundreds of American companies supported U.S. participation in the Paris deal, viewing a stable system as good for business and also seeing economic opportunities in a global shift toward a clean energy economy.

Trump also announced that he would cease U.S. payments to the Green Climate Fund. The international fund, which by 2020 would raise $100 billion annually from industrialized nations to fund projects to fight climate change in developing countries, particularly those hit hardest by global warming, has been an important cause for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and other Catholic groups in recent years.

Trump said he was open to begin immediately to renegotiate the deal on friendlier terms for America, but did not elaborate on what new terms might look like outside of insisting that the "burdens" of addressing climate change be equally shared among all nations.

"I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris," Trump said.

'Deeply troubling' decision

Reaction to the decision came swift, and in some cases, ahead of the actual announcement. A protest formed outside the White House before the president arrived at the podium, with Dan Misleh of the Catholic Climate Covenant among the environmental activists expected to speak.

A letter from the member organizations of Catholic Climate Covenant said they were "deeply disappointed" by the president's decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement and to end payments to the Green Climate Fund, adding, "we implore President Trump to reconsider this path."

"Catholic teaching insists that climate change is a grave moral issue that threatens our commitments: to protect human life, health, dignity, and security; to exercise a preferential option for the poor; to promote the common good of which the climate is part; to live in solidarity with future generations; to realize peace; and to care for God’s good gift of creation," the letter said.

Bishop Oscar Cantú, chair of the U.S. bishops’ conference Committee on International Justice and Peace, called the decision not to honor U.S. commitment to the Paris Agreement "deeply troubling." The Las Cruces, New Mexico, bishop said the climate accord promotes values in Scripture of caring for creation and for others in solidarity.

"President Trump's decision will harm the people of the United States and the world, especially the poorest, most vulnerable communities," said Cantú, adding, "I can only hope that the president will propose concrete ways to address global climate change and promote environmental stewardship."

Bill O'Keefe, Catholic Relief Services vice president for advocacy and government relations, said in a statement, "Withdrawing from the Paris Accord is a terrible — and we hope reversible — mistake." The humanitarian agency, he added, witnesses firsthand every day the realities of climate change in the countries they serve, and "the devastating impact on the lives of the people we serve."

Patrick Carolan, executive director of Franciscan Action Network, stated, "When large countries like the U.S. deny the reality of the climate crisis and pull out of commitments holding us accountable for doing our part to curb global temperature rise, we are turning our backs on the poor and vulnerable, which goes directly against our Franciscan-Christian values."

By pulling out of the Paris accord, the U.S. is abandoning its obligation as a global citizen and global economic leader, said Interfaith Power and Light, saying the climate agreement "is an example of international cooperation that would protect our common home." 

The Ignatian Solidarity Network called the decision "a step backward in responding to the reality of climate change facing all countries and people across the globe," and that it would further mobilize its network in responding to Francis' call in Laudato Si'

"Donald Trump has made a historic mistake which our grandchildren will look back on with stunned dismay at how a world leader could be so divorced from reality and morality," said Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune in a statement.

A statement from the Secretariat of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change said it "regrets" Trump's decision and defended the agreement, saying the Paris Agreement "enjoys profound credibility" and "is aimed at reducing risk to economies and lives everywhere, while building the foundation for a more prosperous, secure and sustainable world."

The Secretariat added "it stands ready to engage in dialogue" with regard to renegotiating U.S. participation, but added that the full pact, agreed to by nearly 200 countries, "cannot be renegotiated based on the request of a single Party."

US joins extreme minority

Only two countries refrained from signing the Paris Agreement: Syria, which has been wrought with civil war, and Nicaragua, which didn't think the deal went far enough.

So far, 147 nations have ratified the international climate accord. But the pledges to date, all voluntary under the agreement's terms, would only limit global temperature rise to roughly 3 degrees Celsius. The U.S. pledge committed to reduce emissions by 26 percent to 28 percent compared to 2005 levels by 2025.

The announcement Thursday, June 1, follows through on a frequent campaign promise by Trump, who in his five months in office has worked to undo many of the environmental policies of former President Barack Obama in lieu of deregulation of mining industries and energy producers. Obama made climate action a priority of his second term, with the U.S. under his direction playing a critical role in the Paris accord's adoption.

The Paris Agreement, adopted during the COP21 climate negotiations and ratified in November just days before the U.S. election, restricts withdrawal for a three-year period after its ratification, meaning the earliest the U.S. could formally notify of its intent to leave is Nov. 4, 2019, with withdrawal taking effect a year later.

More: "As Paris Agreement enters into force, focus turns to making it work" (Oct. 18, 2016)

American voters support U.S. participation in the Paris Agreement by a 5-to-1 margin (69 percent vs. 13 percent), as well as majorities in every state, according to a November Yale-George Mason survey.

Impacts of climate change are already apparent in the U.S., from rising sea levels in southern Alaska, Florida, and Louisiana, to California’s recently ended six-year drought, to Glacier National Park shrinking from roughly 150 glaciers in 1910 to less than 40 today.

Last-ditch effort

A day before the Rose Garden announcement, the media widely reported that Trump was likely to withdraw. That news sprang a last-ditch pitch from world leaders and the heads of several major U.S. companies, including Tesla's Elon Musk and Tim Cook of Apple, to persuade the president to change his mind.

Petitions from several Catholic groups, including Catholic Climate Covenant and the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, have circulated in recent weeks pleading for the president and Congress to support the country's continued participation in the Paris Agreement. The Global Catholic Climate Movement tweeted to the president before his announcement passages from "Laudato Si', on Care for Our Common Home," Pope Francis' 2015 encyclical that includes an urgent call for the global community to work together to address climate change.

In a statement Thursday morning, Cantú also urged Trump to keep America's pledge under Paris.

"The Holy Father's encyclical letter, Laudato si', was timed in order to urge the nations of the world to work together in Paris for an agreement that protects our people and our planet. We hope the United States will honor the commitment it made there," the bishop wrote.

In prior letters to Trump administration officials, Cantú emphasized the disproportionate effect droughts, floods and famine have on the poor and vulnerable, writing at one point, "Climate change is one more good reason for Christians to live up to what we should be doing in the first place."

During the president’s visit to the Vatican, Pope Francis gave Trump a copy of Laudato Si' — a gift viewed by many as a subtle move to sway Trump to reconsider his Paris withdrawal pledge.

"Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods. It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day," Francis wrote.

At one point, the pope stressed that on environmental issues, "Continuity is essential, because policies related to climate change and environmental protection cannot be altered with every change of government. Results take time and demand immediate outlays which may not produce tangible effects within any one government's term."

He continued: "To take up these responsibilities and the costs they entail, politicians will inevitably clash with the mindset of short-term gain and results which dominates present-day economics and politics. But if they are courageous, they will attest to their God-given dignity and leave behind a testimony of selfless responsibility."

While it is unknown if climate change was discussed during Trump's one-on-one meeting with Francis, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters that his Vatican counterpart, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, encouraged Trump for "continued participation in the Paris accord."

Meeting with journalists Wednesday evening before an event at Georgetown University, Cardinal Peter Turkson said a U.S. backpedal on Paris "for us is something we hoped would not have happened."

Turkson, prefect of the Vatican dicastery on integral human development, who led the Vatican delegation at COP21, added that certain issues "should be taken out of the political discussion domain. The truth is, climate is a global common good, not limited to any country, not limited to any nation."

Asked if the Vatican had prepared a response should Trump decide to pull out of the Paris Agreement, he said a letter of regret may be issued "but the Vatican will still respect what a sovereign state decides to do" and would leave it to that country's bishops to take up the case for staying.

"If he [Trump] decides against it, that will probably not be the final decision on the issue," Turkson said, expressing hope that others, including U.S. bishops, would continue to talk about it.

At the Vatican on Thursday, Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, head of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, told Reuters and the Italian newspaper La Repubblica that Trump withdrawing from the climate deal "would be a huge slap in the face for us."

Such a move, he continued, "would not only be a disaster but completely unscientific. Saying that we need to rely on coal and oil is like saying that the earth is not round. It is an absurdity dictated by the need to make money."

The vast majority of climate scientists — 97 percent — affirm that the planet is warming largely due to human activity. Each of the last three years have held the title of hottest year on record (dating back to 1880), and 16 of the 17 warmest years on record have occurred since 2001. Since the late 19th century, global temperatures have risen roughly 1 C (2 degrees F).

In the past, Trump has repeatedly referred to climate change as a hoax concocted by the Chinese, and numerous members of his Cabinet and administration, including U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, have denied or downplayed climate change and the role humans have played.

Stay the course

Pruitt, the former Oklahoma attorney general, was among those pushing the president to leave the Paris accord. Along with chief strategist Steve Bannon, he argued the deal was not in line with an "America First" platform and that it required too little of nations like China and India.

Numerous reports in recent months described heated debate within the White House about whether to stay or go from Paris. Among those urging the U.S. to remain in were Ivanka Trump and Tillerson, who argued it was better to retain a seat in the negotiations and that withdrawal could weaken U.S. leadership and damage diplomatic relations.

Throughout the Paris accord negotiations, a worry was how a major nation either not joining or leaving could potentially affect a chain reaction of nations exiting the deal or abandoning their emissions reduction pledges. So far, the talk across the globe has been more doubling down than departure.

Both China and the European Union are expected to reaffirm their commitment to the Paris accord later this week. This week also saw India and Russia, which has yet to ratify the deal, restate their commitment to the climate pact.

"Fighting climate change is a global consensus, it's not invented by China," Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said Thursday in Berlin. "We realize that this is a global consensus agreement and that as a big developing nation we should shoulder our international responsibility.”

In a speech in New York Tuesday, May 30, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said, "If any government doubts the global will and need for this accord, that is reason for all others to unite even stronger and stay the course."

In a terse statement, Mohamed Adow, head of the United Kingdom-based humanitarian charity Christian Aid, scolded the U.S. for withdrawal after "the world bent over backwards to accommodate the U.S. in the international climate talks," adding that the rest of the world recognizes the economic interests in a zero-carbon economy and that it "will not let one man destroy our common home." 

"The 20th Century was powered by fossil fuels and America dominated the world. The 21st Century will be powered by clean energy and Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement could mark the end of American supremacy," Adow said. 

CIDSE, a network of 17 international Catholic development agencies, said that by removing itself from the Paris accord, "The United States has shirked its moral responsibility to be a leader in fighting climate change."

It added that the decision is particularly harsh from the view of the Global South, where people "are striving to limit their own carbon emissions and are experiencing the worst impacts of climate change; these communities are witnessing destruction of their land, environment, and traditional practices in support of a global economy with limited benefits for them."

CIDSE urged for the remaining 194 nations to redouble efforts and for the EU, China and Canada to take on more prominent leadership roles.

Likewise, the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns said the work for climate justice will go on, despite Trump's decision. The office, which represents the Maryknoll Sisters, Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers and Maryknoll Lay Missioners, said its members have already seen the impact of climate change on the marginalized communities around the world where they work, including extreme drought in East Africa, Central American hurricanes and rising seas in Bangladesh. 

"We will continue to both accompany people in climate vulnerable countries and advocate for policies that put us on a path to 1.5ºC or well below 2ºC," the Maryknoll office said. 

In the U.S., the decision cemented the shift away from federal leadership on climate change, leading numerous states and cities to reiterate their own commitments, regardless what Washington does.

States like California, Washington and New York in recent days restated their determination to forge through with efforts to reduce their emissions, as have cities such as Boston, Chicago, Atlanta and Orlando. In a statement Thursday 68 mayors representing 38 million Americans pledged to "adopt, honor, and uphold the commitments to the goals enshrined in the Paris Agreement."

Tomas Insua, executive director of Global Catholic Climate Movement, said in a statement that despite Trump's decision, which he called "a backward and immoral action," the rest of the world will continue to accelerate in acting on climate change. He added the U.S. withdrawal only strengthens the network's resolve to mobilize all Catholics behind climate action, quoting a passage from Laudato Si':

"While the existing world order proves powerless to assume its responsibilities, local individuals and groups can make a real difference."

[Brian Roewe is an NCR staff writer. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @BrianRoewe. NCR editor-at-large Tom Roberts contributed to this report from Washington, D.C.]