Paris Agreement: Exit Stage Right

By Kent R. Kroeger (Source:, June 2, 2017)

Three certainties remain after the Trump administration’s decision to leave the Paris Agreement. First, climate change science will become even more politicized. Second, coal is not coming back.

The third certainty is that the Paris Agreement on climate change, with or without the U.S. in it, will not change the facts on the ground. The planet will continue to warm even as the developed economies will continue to rapidly convert from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources.

Nonetheless, the Trump administration’s decision to leave and potentially renegotiate the agreement has been met by near unanimous criticism from the media, the Democrats, and the international community.

Yet, much of the criticism rings hollow given that many of these voices decrying Trump today were also denouncing the agreement nearly two years ago when it was signed in Paris. The central feature of the agreement most criticized at the time was its nonbinding nature and lack of enforcement mechanisms.

Writing for The New Yorker, John Cassidy summarized in a 2015 article the inherent weakness of the Paris Agreement:

“The only way to ensure the participation of the United States and China was to make the agreement nonbinding. The Obama Administration insisted on it, well aware that the U.S. Senate wouldn’t ratify a formal treaty…If a country fails to live up to what it promised in Paris, there is no obvious recourse beyond naming and shaming.”

Perhaps the most damning indictment of the Paris Agreement came from the very scientists the Democrats today use as cudgels to shame “climate deniers” and other critics of the Paris Agreement.

Former NASA scientist James Hansen, one of the first scientists to document how greenhouse gases are putting the planet’s climate at risk, said of the Paris Agreement, “It’s a fraud really, a fake. It is just bullshit for them to say: ‘We’ll have a 2-degree Celsius warming target and then try to do a little better every five years.’ It’s just worthless words. There is no action, just promises. As long as fossil fuels appear to be the cheapest fuels out there, they will be continued to be burned.”

“The emissions cuts promised by countries (in the Paris Agreement) are still wholly insufficient,” said Corinne Le Quere of the University of East Anglia, who studies global emissions, about the agreement when it was signed in December, 2015.

“The deal in Paris may well have been the best deal possible,” wrote New Scientist writer Michael Le Page. “But the protesters outside the summit are right when they say it will not save the planet.”

Nothing has changed in the Paris Agreement since Dr. Hansen and Dr. Le Quere made those comments in 2015. So what justifies the hysterics we now hear about the Trump administration’s decision to leave the agreement? The nonbinding nature of the Paris Agreement that was once declared as the agreement’s fatal flaw, is now portrayed as part of its strength. Critics of the Trump action further suggest the U.S. will cede its leadership position in the world by leaving the agreement.

“Its a shameful moment for the United States,” says former Secretary of State John Kerry, who helped negotiate the agreement.

“This was a crushing blow,” says Alice Hill. who helped negotiate the agreement for the Obama administration. ”

“A profound abdication of world leadership,” says former U.S. Senator Max Baucus. “This is a huge opportunity for China.”

Its not clear how China becomes a world leader on climate policy, given their own reluctance to adhere to binding and enforceable CO2 emissions cuts, but we are asked to accept this inevitable shift in power without examination.

What seems more likely from the Trump move is that climate change science will become even more politicized which doesn’t serve anyone’s interest.

The distress over the Trump decision is motivated by more by the politics than the science.

That’s not a criticism of Trump’s critics. Of course, politics is a big part of this debate. We are potentially talking trillions of dollars in costs and wealth transfers as the impact of global warming becomes increasingly evident over time. When money on that scale is involved, we can’t let scientists unilaterally make the substantive policy decisions that address global warming. Scientists are not elected representatives and they won’t suffer the consequences the way politicians will should the transition to a renewable energy economy cause significant economic dislocation.

Furthermore, since the Paris Agreement is voluntary and nonbinding, the most likely impact of the U.S. withdrawal will be in perceptions. Where the Obama administration portrayed itself as a leader on the issue (it wasn’t), the Trump decision has left a perceived power vacuum likely to be filled by the Europeans in the near-term and potentially by China in the long-term.

But the truth is even more complicated. China and other rapidly developing economies can’t afford energy prices to rise too fast — which will happen if the conversion to renewable energy sources occurs too rapidly. Its a balancing act that determined the shape of the Paris Agreement and ultimately limits its impact on global temperatures.

The claim that China will assume leadership in the new technologies behind renewable energy because of the Trump action is a baseless canard. China and Europe were catching up in those technologies (if not already surpassing us) while the U.S. was part of the Paris Agreement. Trump’s action doesn’t change that — and nothing prevents this country from keeping its leadership in these technologies. Economic demand will drive technology development, independent of the Paris Agreement.

The Trump decision is predicated on a political calculus that presupposes millions of fossil fuel-based jobs will be jeopardized if we adopt the Paris Agreement targets. You can argue they are wrong, but its hard to deny why they would be concerned about these potential job losses.

“Paris represents an international agreement that puts the U.S. at a disadvantage and does little to change global warming,” says U.S. EPA chief, Scott Pruitt. “The U.S. has made significant advancements in CO2 emissions. We have nothing to apologize for.”

Its hard to ignore the irony in Pruitt’s statement. It is because of the active efforts of the Obama administration that allows him to highlight this country’s achievements in reducing CO2 emissions. That the Trump administration is already rolling back regulations that could reverse these gains is left unaddressed by Pruitt.

But Trump’s critics ignore the realities of climate change as well. The science says the Paris Agreement will be insufficient in stopping the planet’s 2 degree Celsius temperature rise from the pre-industrial baseline.

So what are we left with?  Not much. Global temperatures will continue to rise. The Europeans, China and the U.S. are likely to continue unabated in their  efforts to convert from fossil fuel-based to renewable energy-based economies. And those efforts may not occur soon enough to avoid the significant costs of global warming.

But that is where this has always been heading and no politician, country or political movement is positioned to change that fact.

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About the author:  Kent Kroeger is a writer and statistical consultant with over 30 -years experience measuring and analyzing public opinion for public and private sector clients. He also spent ten years working for the U.S. Department of Defense’s Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness and the Defense Intelligence Agency. He holds a B.S. degree in Journalism/Political Science from The University of Iowa, and an M.A. in Quantitative Methods from Columbia University (New York, NY).  He lives in Ewing, New Jersey with his wife and son.