It has been many weeks since President Donald J. Trump announced he would pull the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement. The reaction to the decision from all sides was swift and vocal. I fail to understand the depth of this controversy. The agreement was weak and it seems there are legitimate reasons why someone coming from any ideological background would oppose it.
Before you jump to conclusions, let me break a few assumed connections.
Differences of Opinion
I reject the correlation that if you are in favor of action on climate change then you must automatically be in favor of the Paris Agreement. This ignores the possibility that it is a bad agreement with poor terms. For example, I may want to buy a house in a certain neighborhood, but I do not want to pay twice the market value. It does not mean I do not like the house or the neighborhood—it means I do not like the deal.
I also do not believe that someone who opposes action on climate change must automatically oppose the Paris Agreement. This ignores the possibility that there may be some strategic or competitive advantage. Decades ago, major oil companies supported stringent rules on underground storage tanks. Such regulations drove up costs for smaller competitors. Today it is difficult to find an independently operated gasoline station. Such motivations cannot be ignored.
We also need to disconnect from the notion that we have only two options: adopt the Paris Agreement that moves us toward a clean, efficient and prosperous future, or reject the agreement and return to 1960s-era smokestacks and a rapid destruction of our environment. Neither scenario is likely.
We also should be careful to not canonize the Paris Agreement. It is a nonbinding agreement based on voluntary individually nationally determined contributions (INDCs). The targets cannot be legally enforced and many only require compliance well into the future. China’s commitment, for example, allows its CO2 emissions to continue to grow until 2030, and only then, if it chooses, would it have to do anything to stabilize or reduce its emissions. Similar arrangements are in place for other large emitters such as Russia, India and Brazil.
The framers of the agreement also concede that the INDCs pledged will not come close to meeting the major goal to reduce the warming impact of carbon to less than 2°C. There are mechanisms to modify the INDCs in the future, but with no way to enforce current compliance, how seriously can any future pledges be taken?
Furthermore, many INDCs are contingent on receipt of $100 billion per year from the agreement’s targeted contributions from wealthy countries. Those contributions are falling far short of the goal, further reducing any chance that INDCs can be met.
Do we have an agreement that is not enforceable and would not meet its intended purpose even if it were? Imagine that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the states decided to abandon the NPDES permitting process in favor of voluntary discharge goals. Each industry and municipality would decide its own discharge levels with no permitting or reporting process and no legal framework or enforcement mechanisms. I cannot imagine such a proposal would be widely supported.
The U.S. INDCs were to cut emissions to 26% to 28% below 2005 levels by 2025. Estimates are that we are already halfway to meeting this goal, largely due to the replacement of coal and oil with lower-emission shale gas from fracking. This could continue our progress toward the Paris goal.
One could argue that we should just skip the conversion from coal to gas and move right to renewable sources. According to the Energy Information Administration, in 2016 30% of U.S. electric generation was from coal, 35% from other fossil fuels, 20% from nuclear and 15% from renewable sources, including a 6.5% contribution from 1970s-era hydroelectric dams and a limited 6.5% contribution from wind and solar combined. Solar and wind are growing quickly, but most energy experts agree that they do not yet have the capacity to handle a greater rate of conversion or a substantial portion of demand. Would it not be preferable to meet those reductions sooner than later and then continue the conversion away from shale gas and other non-coal fossil fuels to renewables? Being a signatory to the Paris Agreement could create a contradictory legal framework that could prevent continued development of these resources. The agreement could paradoxically constrain the fossil-fuel revolution, allowing the U.S. to meet the INDC it initially committed to.
Much also has been made of the merits of the Paris Agreement because so many countries are signatories. Most of the signatories also would be on the receiving side of the $100 billion per year funding, regardless of attainment of their INDCs. Even if the fund falls short of $100 billion, there will still be a lot of money involved, so it is fair to question whether these countries’ motives are entirely pure. As George Bernard Shaw said, “A government that robs Peter to pay Paul can always depend on the support of Paul.”
If you believe that we face a climate crisis and action must be taken to reduce carbon emissions and maintain temperature rise below 2°C, the Paris Agreement is ineffective. The agreement can only hope to kick the can down the street and postpone any real action. Why support another ineffective agreement on climate?
If you believe that we do not face a climate crisis and that the impact of climate change will be moderate or non-existent, your position is likely less subtle. The Paris Agreement is, at its best, a superfluous international agreement that might make some people feel good, but accomplishes little. At its worst, it puts the U.S. at an economic disadvantage, complicates our energy and environmental legal framework, reduces our national sovereignty, and allows the world to vote itself access to our treasury. Again, this is not something that deserves your support.
I hope I did not take too much of a risk writing about climate change in the hottest month of the year. But I also hope you have enjoyed your summer and found time to spend with friends and family.