President Donald Trump released his long-awaited executive order on the environment last week. As expected, the order started the process of reversing President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan, loosened regulations on U.S. oil, gas and coal production, and revoked a variety of previous executive orders that integrated climate change into federal policy planning. Environmentalists were relieved, however, to see that one major climate policy was spared the axe, at least for now: U.S. participation in the UN Paris climate agreement. But they should not celebrate too quickly. Remaining in the accord is not the same as abiding by it. A zombie Paris agreement — with nominal participation but little practical adherence — carries a different but still substantial peril.
The Paris deal, which came into effect in November 2016, was lauded as the most important climate agreement in history. Nearly all the world’s countries pledged to reduce their own greenhouse gas emissions, and committed to reporting their progress and deepening cuts over time. Wealthier countries, including the United States, promised funding to help poor, vulnerable states adapt. After the 2009 Copenhagen summit, which failed to live up to the lofty expectations placed upon it, the Paris accord was seen as a signal that the UN climate process could still deliver a big, ambitious agreement — and that the world might just yet avoid the worst effects of climate change.