I’ve gotten involved with several friends across multiple Facebook pages in discussions over President Trump’s recent decision to exit the Paris Climate Change Agreement. One of my friends asked me point blank how I could support President Trump’s decision, given that the President likely made it to fulfill a campaign promise rather than out of any particularly strong feelings one way or the other about the environment or the agreement itself. I promised him a separate response on the matter. That comment got too long for a comment and turned into its own Facebook post . . . which eventually got too long for a Facebook post and turned into . . . well . . this.
Read on, if you care to . . .
I don’t particularly know or care about President Trump’s reasoning – particularly given that he seems to change his motives more often than he changes his socks. What I care about are his actions. I *do* support the President’s withdrawal from the agreement (though I would prefer that he do so by bringing it to a treaty ratification vote in the Senate, which it would surely fail). Barring that, however, I think withdrawal under the terms of the agreement as written and signed by President Obama is the second-best alternative. Here are my reasons:
1. It’s not a legitimate agreement
Eugene Kontorovich, Law Professor and specialist in Constitutional and public international law, notes that the Paris Agreement is best understood as a treaty. Kontorovich notes that the Paris Agreement is atypical of the class of international accords, known as Sole Executive Agreements (SOEs), to which a nation’s executive can commit on his own, outside of his country’s legal ratification process – as President Obama did with the Paris Agreement.
In particular, Kontorovich notes, SOEs are hardly ever used for multilateral agreements, and never for global ones.
Additionally, Kontorivch notes, an SOE binds only to the executive who enters it, and can’t be used to hamstring future administrations. The Paris Agreement, however, has an extraordinarily long, four-year exit process that is explicitly designed to make it difficult-to-impossible for a future President to exit.
Kontorovich also notes that several other parties to the agreement treated it as a treaty and ratified it through their legislative treaty processes. He explicitly names the U.K., China, Japan, Australia, the Philippines, Brazil, and Jamaica as having done so, and refers to the U.S. as an “outlier” for failing to seek full ratification as a treaty.
As such, Kontorovich argues, President Trump can’t truly “withdraw” from the Paris Agreement, because the United States never legitimately entered into this treaty in the first place.
2. If it is a legitimate agreement, it’s based on the wrong goals
Personally, I find Kontorovich’s reasoning persuasive. Your mileage may vary, of course, but even if you grant that the Paris Agreement is a legitimate use of the President’s authority to engage in Sole Executive Agreements, it is based on the wrong goals.
Advocates of robust climate change policies like to cite that “97% of climate scientists” agree with them.
The truth, though, is a bit more nuanced. Among other goals, the Paris Agreement seeks to “Recogniz[e] the need for an effective and progressive response to the urgent threat of climate change,” “Recogniz[e] . . . the particular vulnerabilities of food production systems to the adverse impacts of climate change,” and “Recogniz[e] the importance of the conservation and enhancement, as appropriate, of sinks and reservoirs of the greenhouse gasses referred to in the [UN Framework Convention on Climate Change].
These are drifting into the realm of policy statements, not scientific ones. And all of them fall outside the 97% scientific consensus. To get to these policy statements in the Paris Agreement, one has to pass through eight conclusions first:
1. Climate change is occurring
2. Human activity is contributing to climate change
3. The contribution of human activity compared to natural causes of climate change is significant
4. The overall impact of climate change is significant
5. The impact of climate change is a net negative
6. The impact of climate change is significant enough, and negative enough, to warrant human intervention
7. Human intervention in general is capable of preventing and/or reversing the significant, negative impacts of climate change.
8. A specific set of human interventions is warranted to reverse the significant, negative impacts of climate change.
While climate change is certainly a hotly-debated topic both inside and outside scientific circles, Cook et. al (2016) is arguably the best and most current representation of the pro-consensus position. This paper is a consolidated examination of several consensus estimates across the scientific community. Its consensus, still debated, extends only to points 1-3 above: Climate change is occurring, human activity is contributing, and that contribution is a significant driver of the observed climate change.
Now, to be sure, there are dissenting scientific estimates out there, but for the sake of argument I’ll set aside (for now) the criticisms of Cook et. al’s methodology and cede them the consensus argument here.
That still leaves points 4-8, around which no such near-universal consensus exists. Certainly there is plentiful evidence for these points, but there is also plentiful evidence against them. If we know (again, for the sake of argument) that climate change is occurring and that human activity is driving it, then we’re jumping straight to the end-game of committing tremendous global resources toward very specific policy solutions without first reaching scientific consensus around the other conclusions.
Will the impact of climate change will be significant?
If so, will the negative impact be serious enough to warrant human intervention?
If so, is human intervention even capable of accomplishing anything meaningful?
The Paris Agreement never even asks – much less answers – these questions. It just assumes a “yes” on each point and barrels through to the signatures at the end. Furthermore, doom and gloom environmental predictions have proven wildly unreliable in the past, as have the models we’re using to guess at what the future might hold, meaning that the laundry list of assumed “yesses” is dubious, at best.
That being the case, if we’re going to take the actions necessary to make the deep cuts to global CO2 output envisioned by the Paris Agreement, we need much more of a justification than the current scientific consensus actually provides.
3. If it’s based on the right goals, it’s worthless as a means of accomplishing them
That assumes, of course, that we are in fact taking the actions necessary to make the deep cuts to CO2 output envisioned by the Paris Agreement. Let’s assume that all eight points above are, at some point, demonstrated to be conclusively true. Climatologist James Hansen, who is arguably more responsible than any other for bringing scientific analysis of climate change into the public eye over the past thirty years, certainly believes they are – as he has spent the better part of the past three decades telling anyone who will listen.
Hansen is one of the most vocal proponents of Anthropological Global Warming (AGW) theory. And James Hansen thinks the Paris agreement is, in his words, “a fraud.”
4. If it is a worthwhile means, then there are more effective methods to achieve the same goals
But suppose Hansen is wrong (it certainly wouldn’t be the first time he’s been wrong about this stuff). Suppose the Paris agreement is in fact an effective means of accomplishing what it says it wants to accomplish.
The simple fact is that there are other mechanisms for reducing CO2 emissions than the policies countenanced by the champions of the agreement . . . policies, in fact, that are absolutely excoriated by the people who advocate for the sorts of carbon-trading and carbon-trapping efforts envisioned by the Agreement.
Let’s look at some of them:
Fracking: Hydraulic Fracturing as a mechanism for extracting natural gas has already drastically reduced the U.S. overall carbon footprint from the production of the fossil fuels we currently use every day, and anticipated technological advancements to the procedure promise to do so even more in the near to mid-term future.
The Natural Gas Revolution: Fracking is just one element of the overall shift from coal to Natural Gas for the U.S. economy’s energy needs. This shift has drastically reduced our national carbon footprint.
Pipeline Construction: Transporting oil via pipelines is safer and better for the environment than moving it by boat or train.
Nuclear Power: One of the safest and greenest methods of energy production in existence, and THE safest and greenest method that is capable of scaling to the extent needed to make a significant difference.
If you like the idea of reducing this country’s CO2 output, you ought to love fracking, natural gas, pipeline construction, and nuclear power. For some reason, most self-proclaimed environmentalists . . . don’t.
The argument against these technologies is the same as the argument against the Paris Agreement: They’re too little, too late, with too much potential downside. The argument in their favor is the same as the argument for Paris: They represent an incremental step in the right direction. The only difference is that these technology shifts are actually already doing what Paris only claims to hope to accomplish. It’s illogical to support the incremental steps in the Paris agreement, while opposing the even more effective incremental steps these technologies enable.
5. If this is the most effective method, it’s at the expense of the U.S.
Let’s assume you don’t buy that the up-sides of these technological advances outweigh their down-sides. If you truly believe there is no more effective method of combating the climate change you believe to be a global emergency, then by necessity you believe in lowering the standard of living here in the United States. That’s because the average American’s carbon footprint is 20 metric tons per year, five times the global average of 4 metric tons per year.
That’s not just the result of American greed, either. This study found that even an American homeless person eating out of a soup kitchen has a carbon footprint of 8.5 metric tons per year. It’s because of the way U.S. infrastructure (which benefits everybody, even the homeless) is set up. Unlike other participants in the Paris agreement, the only way the United States can achieve the results envisioned in the Paris agreement is to make deep cuts to services like roads, courts, education, and law enforcement.
6. If it’s worth the expense, then it’s inequitable not to hold others to the same standards we’re held to
But maybe that’s worth it. Maybe the danger of catastrophic climate change truly is worth completely altering our standard of living in this country in order to reverse it.
If that’s true, then we shouldn’t have to bear the brunt of it. China is the world’s largest coal producer, with the U.S. second and India third. Russia and Saudi Arabia are the world’s largest oil producers, with the U.S. third.
China’s NDC commits to peaking its CO2 emissions by 2030, and lowering CO2 emissions per unit of GDP by 60-65% off 2005 levels (noting that they have already lowered CO2 emissions per GDP by 34% off 2005 levels as of 2014.
India’s NDC commits to reducing CO2 per GDP by 20-25% off 2005 levels by 2020.
Saudi Arabia’s NDC commits to a series of “adaptation measures . . . expected to have significant mitigation co-benefits,” all of which involve modernizing national infrastructure, and none of which has anything to do with oil production.
Russia, while a signatory to the agreement, has not yet ratified it and therefore has no NDC commitments. Russia’s Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) amount to less than they were already planning to do anyway, prior to the agreement.
By contrast, the United States’ NDC commits this country to reduce total greenhouse gas emissions (not emissions per GDP) by 26-28% off 2005 levels by 2025.
In other words, China and India can continue to expand their emissions as much as they choose, so long as their economies expand faster. Russia commits to absolutely nothing at all, and Saudi Arabia commits to a handful of minor infrastructure improvements, while the United States commits to dramatically downgrading its infrastructure and standard of living (which, as noted in #5 above, is the only way to realistically achieve these targets).
One other major player, the EU, also has absolute climate targets – far more ambitious ones than those of the U.S., in fact. But those targets are largely theoretically achieved on the backs of the Brits. The EU’s targets were already dubious before Brexit, but with the UK set to exit the EU, they’re impossible.
7. If the expense and the inequity are both worth it, then surely we can come up with an implementation mechanism that isn’t rife with fraud and abuse
Maybe it’s all worth it. Maybe the fact that it hits the U.S. harder than other nations is justified by the fact that we have a higher standard of living to begin with.
That was certainly the rationale behind the Paris Agreement’s call for $100 billion plus in “climate finance” payments from wealthy countries to developing nations in order to assist with “adaptation and mitigation.” The U.S. committed to lead the way with $3 billion in transfer payments, and President Obama paid $1 billion before leaving office. These funds were drawn from the State Department’s budget to avoid Congressional scrutiny.
They were paid to the Green Climate Fund, a mechanism set up under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change to assist with financial implementation of the UNFCCC’s activities.
As one might expect of a gigantic financial institution administered by the world’s un-elected bureaucrats, the GCF is rife with fraud and abuse. Which means that U.S. taxpayers are, for example, funding “climate resilient housing” that comes without walls, so that the fund can reduce the cost to build each house and get credit for building more of them.
If this is worth doing at all, it’s worth doing without throwing billions of dollars away.
If it’s worth doing at all, it’s worth doing together, rather than penalizing a few countries so that others can continue to move in the opposite direction.
If it’s worth doing at all, it’s worth doing without devastating our economy and our way of life.
If it’s worth doing at all, it’s worth doing in the most effective ways available.
If it’s worth doing at all, it’s worth doing in a way that will actually accomplish what it sets out to accomplish.
If it’s worth doing at all, it’s worth doing in pursuit of the right goals.
And if it’s worth doing at all, it’s worth doing in a way that is legitimate, legal, and in accordance with this country’s Constitutionally-provided mechanism for engaging in global, multilateral, binding agreements, rather than via an executive going around the backs of the other co-equal branches of government in order to impose his will on them.
If it’s worth doing at all, it’s worth doing right. That’s not what the Paris Agreement does, and if we truly want to be leaders on climate change and the very real questions and issues that still surround it, we will lead other nations away from this farce into an agreement that is realistic, equitable, and can be taken seriously.