Nearly seven years ago, a single mischosen word nearly killed the Paris Agreement.
With only hours left to go on the final day of the talks, American diplomats noticed a discrepancy in the new climate agreement’s text. Where previous drafts of the pact had said that rich countries “should” take the lead on preparing greenhouse-gas reductions plans, the final draft replaced that word with the more definitive “shall.” If the new treaty had created new binding legal requirements for the United States, President Barack Obama would have had to submit it to the Republican-controlled Senate, which would have surely rejected it. After some tense bargaining, a revision was rushed through at the last moment.
The episode reflected just how central the United States has been to international climate diplomacy: Although 174 countries agreed to the Paris Agreement, it was tailor-made to accommodate America.
For decades, climate policy makers have had to navigate two extremes. On the one hand, humanity probably can’t solve climate change without the United States, and the rest of the world knows it. America is simply too big, too rich, and too powerful to ignore. On the other, America has treated the climate with tremendous negligence: Few countries have thwarted global climate policy—or done as much to cause the climate problem—as has the U.S.