photograph of national flags from all over the world flying

This piece is part of an Under Discussion series. To read more about this week’s topic and see more pieces from this series visit Under Discussion: Combating Climate Change.

On his first day in office, newly elected President Joe Biden signed an executive order officially rejoining the United States to the 2015 Paris Agreement. President Obama initially joined the treaty during the end of his second term. However, one of Donald Trump’s first acts as president was to withdraw the U.S.’s pledge, and this process took over 3 years, only technically going into effect just before he lost the 2020 election.

The Paris Agreement is by no means the first international environmental treaty. Many prominent international environmental treaties followed the 1972 Stockholm Declaration. These international environmental agreements have tackled everything from acid rain to whaling. One of the most famous international environmental efforts was the 1987 Montreal Protocol in which countries pledged to drastically decrease their CFC consumption in order to preserve the ozone layer. While the context might be different, the essential function of the Montreal Protocol and the Paris Agreement are essentially the same: sideline national interests in order to address a pressing global environmental problem. In fact, the issues are so similar, that these two agreements have been compared.

There are many moral considerations when assessing whether or not international agreements are the most efficient and fair method for addressing environmental problems. Below are some to consider.

Are international agreements which impose differing standards across nations fair and equitable?

Then-President Trump cited many reasons for pulling out of the Paris Agreement, but chief among them was the assertion that the agreement was unfair to the United States. Trump was technically correct in his assertion that there were different mitigation expectations across participating nations. For example, under the Paris Agreement, Europe and the United States are responsible for cutting a larger part of their emissions compared to higher emission countries such as China. However, Trump’s criticism fails to recognize two major considerations of this arrangement which make it more equitable.

Climate change is an environmental problem which has its origins in over a century of industrial pollution. Though China may currently be emitting more greenhouse gases than the United States, the majority of the existing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere were emitted by the United States and European countries. For this reason, the United States and Europe might be fairly expected to reduce their emissions by more because they technically share a larger portion of the responsibility for the current crisis.

Additionally, imposing larger restrictions on Europe and the U.S. fairly acknowledges the economic privileges which countries in the West and Global North hold. Historically, international environmental agreements have acknowledged the tension between the history of colonialism, economic development, and environmental protection. The modern recognition of this tension is due in large part to a 1967 declaration to the United Nations by the Group of 77 (G77), a coalition of countries in the Global South, which demanded that the United Nations recognize the positionality of their environmental issues compared to those of powerful, former-colonizer, industrialized countries. The G77 were largely successful in pushing for economic considerations to be included in international environmental agreements.

Though Trump’s criticisms of the Paris Agreement may be unfounded, there are those who criticize the content of the agreement for not going far enough – either in terms of equity or addressing climate change. The Paris Agreement has been criticized as not aggressive enough by environmental activists. Some might also point out that “developed countries” are still not obliged to carry their historical and population-weighted burden in the Paris Climate Agreement. Outside of these valid content-driven criticisms, is there something more to critique about the Paris Agreement from a procedural perspective?

Do international agreements present an irresolvable conflict between national and international interests?

Many prominent Republicans have painted the Paris Agreement as a pledge to put the well-being of the citizens of foreign nations before those within the United States. Senator Ted Cruz tweeted, “By rejoining the Paris Agreement, President Biden indicates he’s more interested in the views of the citizens of Paris than in the jobs of the citizens of Pittsburgh.” Ignoring the questionable analogy drawn by that statement, is Cruz correct that this international climate agreement unethically sacrifices the interests of the United States’ citizens?

While there might be other types of environmental damage which provide a more unbalanced benefit/detriment scheme in terms of aggressors to victims, a pretty fundamental aspect of climate change is that it will affect climate across the globe. Though some geographical areas will experience more intense changes in climate compared to others, the United States stands to suffer largely from climate change. Climate projections for the next 50 years predict that the United States will have to change the way people farm in the Midwest, the way people use water in the West, and where people live relative to the coasts. These changes, and more, will likely usher a social and economic crisis without mitigation of greenhouse emissions and adaptation to the changing climate. Ted Cruz’s assertion that joining the Paris Agreement forsakes national interests in the name of internationalism is evidently untrue. The United States stands to gain a lot from promoting a cooperative effort in which all nations pledge to reduce their carbon emissions.

Does the nature of climate change necessitate international agreements to actualize solutions?

Setting aside the half-century’s worth of international cooperation in reference to environmental issues, can one still make the case for the importance of an international agreement to address climate change specifically? The function of international agreements is to not only declare and acknowledge, as a world, that certain issues are worthy of our effort and attention, but also to create incentive to actively and cooperatively address major environmental catastrophes. Technically, all nations within the Paris Agreement can perform any of the actions within their pledge without joining the agreement itself. So why go to all the trouble to structure, debate, and sign the treaty? International agreements address both the moral and practical considerations raised by climate change and other international environmental catastrophes. Practically, cooperation is a more effective method for combating problems for which there is no clear and direct cause and effect, a conundrum common in collective moral harms. To collectively combat climate change, countries must share resources, technology, and scientific data. Without an organized structure in which to participate, climate change would likely be impossible to efficiently address. Another reason why international agreements play an important role is that climate change requires moral obligations staked in cooperation in order to effectively and fairly tackle the issue. Without international agreements, countries which contribute the most to climate change could simply choose to do nothing – a track the United States appeared to be on during the Trump presidency. The stark injustice, geographically, economically, and racially, which climate change threatens to unleash, morally demands a widespread cooperative effort to combat.

Do nations have an individual moral obligation to prevent harm to other nations?

Putting aside practical and justice-based concerns, is there a moral obligation on an individual basis for countries to limit their contributions to climate change? Generally, the principle of do no harm is recognized in international environmental law quite frequently. This principle is so fundamental to international environmental cooperation, it appeared in the first international environmental agreement, Principle 21 of the Stockholm Convention. Principle 21 strikes the balance between national interest and moral imperative and has since been referenced by modern international environmental treaties. Aside from the consistent international recognition of this moral principle, it is also quite intuitive.

It is clear at this point that the emission of greenhouse gasses causes harm in the form of climate change – both to human beings and to the environment. Based on this consideration alone, there is arguably a moral imperative as a nation to do everything within our power to prevent our contribution to climate change. Joining the Paris Climate Agreement is an important step in this process, as it holds the United States accountable within the context of our collective obligation to prevent climate change.

Kiara Goodwine is a 2019 alumna of DePauw University and a current law student at the University of Michigan Law School. Kiara first became passionate about ethics and philosophy while serving as a Hillman Intern at the Prindle Institute. Her research on the ethics of consumption culminated in her senior honors thesis "The Ethics of Single-Use Plastics." She has also served as a head coach for a High School Ethics Bowl Team. Her current interests lie in the intersection of human rights and environmental health, dilemmas surrounding collective responsibility, and the morality of law.