No matter the Election Day outcome, one thing is certain: The U.S. will officially leave the Paris Climate Accord on Wednesday.
The withdrawal, set in motion with a letter from President Trump last year, means the U.S. will be the only country in the world that isn’t formally participating in the landmark climate agreement.
If Trump is re-elected, the U.S. will remain the lone dissenter on the world stage. Biden, however, has pledged to rejoin the accord on his first day in office, leaving the U.S. out of the agreement for little more than three months.
“It doesn't need to be more than a footnote in history depending on the result of the election,” said Kelley Kizzier, associate vice president for international climate at the Environmental Defense Fund.
“Biden’s challenge is not going to be the three months that the U.S. is out of the Paris Agreement, it’s going to be coming up with new credible and ambitious climate targets,” she said. “If we have another Trump administration, it’s essentially status quo.”
Regardless of who wins on Tuesday, the U.S. is not expected to meet the 2025 targets set under the Obama administration since the Trump administration has largely disengaged from climate mitigation efforts compared with the previous administration.
“It was a total disaster,” Trump told a crowd shortly before making the formal withdrawal on Nov. 4, 2019.
His administration later called the Paris deal “fraudulent, ineffective, and one-sided” -- in line with Trump’s complaints that the 2015 accord wouldn’t do enough to ensure emissions reductions from other major polluters like China and India.
But experts counter that withdrawing from the international agreement takes away America’s best avenue for addressing Trump’s concerns.
“The most concrete action from the withdrawal means the United States no longer has a full seat at the table in how the Paris Agreement moves forward and the negotiating process, and that's true for issues that the U.S. has had a long standing interest in, such as transparency and reporting on emissions,” said David Waskow, director of the International Climate Initiative at the World Resources Institute.
Business as usual for the U.S. won't just mean more emissions and the climate and health concerns they bring, experts say -- it will also mean being left behind as a leader both geopolitically and economically.
Some of the countries Trump bashes have recently upped their own climate commitments. China has pledged to go carbon neutral by 2060. Japan and South Korea just committed to doing the same by mid-century.
“The U.S. is really abdicating leadership on the fundamental issue of our time. It will be the only country on the sidelines,” said Brendan Guy, who works on international policy with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“That will leave us increasingly isolated and alone and leave us out of all the opportunities of the clean energy race and shut us out of those markets.”
The International Finance Corporation, part of the World Bank, estimates nearly $23 trillion in opportunities “for climate-smart investments in emerging markets” through 2030.
“If the U.S. is not developing those technologies and innovations, around the world other countries are, and they are going to be eating our lunch if we're not sprinting to catch up,” Guy said.
Waskow pointed to the market for electric busses, where China is already producing and using the lion’s share of the world’s fleet.
“The question is if the U.S. is going to be left behind in terms of moving forward on those technologies and approaches that are really coming down the pike,” he said.
For Biden to rejoin the accord takes little more than a stroke of the pen -- a move Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) said “is kindergarten” for getting the U.S. back on track on climate.
“The formal process of rejoining is just table stakes for Biden. The real challenge is going to be keeping pace,” Kizzier said.
The Obama-era commitment required the U.S. to reduce emissions by a little more than a quarter percent below 2005 levels by 2025.
Countries are now putting forward new “nationally determined commitments” (NDC) for 2030.
While some cities and states have forged ahead with trying to keep the commitment in line with their share of the population, the U.S. has largely ignored that goal while the Trump administration has rolled back environmental regulations likely to increase emissions.
"Instead of working to solve the costly and dangerous crisis, Trump spent four years weakening more than 100 environmental safeguards and mocking climate science, endangering the lives and livelihoods of millions of Americans,” House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis Chair Kathy Castor (D-Fla.) said in a statement to The Hill.
“President Trump's rejection of science and renewable energy, and his failure to address the climate crisis, leaves America in a precarious position.”
The European Union has committed to reducing its emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, and a U.S. eager to show an interest in retaking the reins of global leadership might need something similarly bold.
Implementing a plan to reach a new goal, however, will be a massive undertaking, one that will likely require congressional approval for certain programs and a rethinking of numerous sectors of the economy.
“Biden is going to have to come up with a credible and ambitious NDC and commensurate with the action we’re seeing by the EU and China, but he has a lot to make up for because of the rollbacks under the Trump administration. That’s a massive challenge,” Kizzier said.
Biden has already laid out some goals in his own climate plan. The electricity sector would go to net-zero emissions by 2035 -- a timeline ahead of many of the efforts already underway in climate-conscious states.
More broadly, he said he is committed to net-zero emissions by 2050, a plan that would require mostly transitioning away from fossil fuels while promoting carbon capture technology that could store excess pollution.
But congressional Republicans could be a familiar roadblock to any climate measures put forth under a Biden administration.