As The Washington Post's Denise Lu and Kim Soffen note, these two countries comparatively produce only a fraction of the greenhouse gas emissions that the United States does, meaning any U.S. decision to leave the agreement could have far greater consequences. It's important to remember, however, exactly why Syria and Nicaragua are not part of the agreement in the first place. It certainly isn't because they don't believe climate change is occurring or are not affected by it.
In the case of Nicaragua, the argument actually went the other way. As world leaders gathered in the French capital in November 2015 to reach an agreement on fighting climate change, Nicaragua's lead envoy explained to reporters that the country would not support the agreed-upon plan as it hinged on voluntary pledges and would not punish those who failed to meet them. That was simply not enough, Paul Oquist argued.
“We’re not going to submit because voluntary responsibility is a path to failure,” Oquist told the website Climate Home on Nov. 30. “We don’t want to be an accomplice to taking the world to 3 to 4 degrees and the death and destruction that represents.”
Oquist, who was in Paris representing Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, said rich countries should pay more for climate change, as they were historically responsible for causing more damage to the environment and developing nations such as his own would be the worst hit.
Syria, on the other hand, was effectively an international pariah when the Paris accord was first signed, making Damascus's involvement at the least impractical. (Members of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government remain subject to both European and American sanctions, making it nearly impossible for them to travel unless to friendly countries such as Russia and Iran.)
The Paris meetings also stretched through some of the heaviest fighting of Syria’s seven years of civil conflict. The war has torn the nation apart, with accusations of human rights violations arising from both sides and casualties mounting into the thousands. Given the nature of the conflict during Paris negotiations, the Assad government was in no position to commit to limiting Syria's climate emissions.
That Syria was not involved in the Paris agreement was hardly a surprise, though it should be noted that other isolated countries (North Korea) or those in a state of conflict (Iraq, Yemen) were able to sign the agreement. There was, however, criticism of Nicaragua's hard-line stance at the time, with some worried that its arguments could sway other developing nations.
According to the Guardian, then-Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Cuban President Raúl Castro called Ortega in December 2015 urging that Oquist not deliver a speech denouncing the deal until after the agreement was adopted. That Oquist did hold off may have signaled that Nicaragua did not intend to scuttle the agreement, even if it disagreed with it.
Ultimately, representatives of almost all countries signed the agreement on April 22, 2016. Uzbekistan, the last country to sign the agreement, did so a year later. (A large number of nations still need to ratify it. The Obama administration, however, avoided declaring the Paris accord a treaty, to avoid the battle over ratification in the Senate that hobbled the Kyoto Protocol.)
Nicaragua is particularly vulnerable to climate change. According to the 2017 Global Climate Risk Index, Nicaragua is the fourth-most at-risk nation in the world due to changing climates — behind only Honduras, Burma and Haiti. Syria is not included in the index because of the problem of collecting data during the conflict there. However, droughts potentially caused by climate change are commonly cited as a contributing factor that led to war in the country, although there is significant debate about this theory.
Nicaragua pushed back against the Paris accord because it thought the deal was too weak. Syria was not involved in the negotiations as the country was at war. The United States may soon join these two nations in standing outside the Paris agreement, but its reasons will be very different.