By Bill Dawson
Texas Climate News
So. He did it. What will it mean?
After four months of delaying the decision, Donald Trump took to the White House Rose Garden Thursday to reject the appeals of his daughter and secretary of state (ExxonMobil’s former CEO), among many others, and announced he was keeping his campaign promise to start the years-long process of pulling the United States out of the historic Paris Climate Agreement.
Deploying much-disputed economic arguments, Trump made clear that he was playing to his electoral base in industrial (or once industrial) areas of the Midwest: “I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.”
The mayor of that Pennsylvania city, which shifted years ago from steel to other, much cleaner industries such as healthcare, education and technology, replied that withdrawing from the Paris accord was “bad for the economy” and “weakened America in this world.”
That exchange seemed to crystallize much of the immediate public dialogue on Trump’s action.
The pollution-cutting Paris pact, which 195 nations signed in 2015, was hailed at that time as a monumental achievement in global cooperation – perhaps humanity’s last, best chance to take mutual action to avoid dangerous manmade disruptions of the earth’s climate system.
Motivating the accord was a sense of urgency due to a nearly universal scientific consensus that without rapid and substantial cuts in planet-warming emissions from fossil-fuel use, there will be increasingly dangerous climate disruptions including droughts, heat waves, sea-level rise, stronger storms and polar melting.
What will Trump’s decision mean, right now and in the future? Significant uncertainties and unpredictable events infuse all dimensions of that complex question. Much depends on unforeseeable events, but it’s not too early to look at the possibilities.
What is the Paris agreement and how does it work?
The Paris accord was the result of decades of bumpy negotiations on crafting a global response to manmade climate disruption. That protracted diplomatic process was launched under an agreement called the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC, which was adopted at the 1992 Earth Summit with the key support of two Texans – President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker III.
The essential aim of the Paris agreement is to hold manmade warming – the phenomenon driving other climate disruptions – to well below 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels, with an aspirational goal of 1.5 C, in order to avoid the most catastrophic impacts.
To achieve that goal, all participants in the pact agreed to make voluntary and differing emission reductions. The U.S. pledge, for instance, was to cut its greenhouse emissions by 26 to 28 percent below its 2005 levels by 2020. Initiatives begun by the Obama administration were to make up most of that reduction.
All of the voluntary national pledges, however, did not add up to reductions in carbon dioxide and other global warming gases large enough to meet the 2C goal, according to United Nations and independent climate experts. To address that problem, the agreement included a system for national pledges to be reviewed every five years to assess progress and to boost emission cuts as needed, a process called “ratcheting.”
A transparency mechanism sought by the U.S. – mandatory national reports on actual pollution reductions – was also included to facilitate diplomatic pressure on slackers to step up their emission-cutting game. But the pledges are voluntary, without any outright mandates of the kind that Paris critics in the U.S. have consistently and falsely suggested.
What exactly did Trump do?
The president announced that he would halt U.S. compliance with the Paris agreement and start a process to exit the accord, a process that is spelled out in the pact, that could take nearly four years. That will mean the U.S. (second largest carbon emitter after China) will join Syria and Nicaragua (which is moving rapidly toward adoption of renewable energy anyway) as the only non-participants in the pact.
The four-year timetable, the New York Times noted, means “a final decision would be up to the American voters in the next presidential election.”
Trump also said he would try to negotiate changes in the Paris pact, or a new climate agreement altogether – one that would be “fair” to the U.S. The existing accord, he alleged, saddles the country with what he called “draconian” economic burdens – an assertion rejected by many U.S. corporate leaders and independent economists.
In announcing an effort to renegotiate, Trump implicitly indicated the U.S. would remain, for now at least, as a party to the UNFCCC and its continuing diplomatic process, which some of his supporters had urged him to exit along with the Paris agreement.
Will Trump’s action damage – or even blow up – the Paris agreement?
Trump had berated the Paris pact in his campaign, promising to “cancel” it. Taken literally, “cancelling” the 195-nation accord is not something a U.S. president, or any single world leader, has the authority to do.
Nonetheless, Paris supporters have frequently expressed worries that U.S. withdrawal may have damaging ripple effects, prompting other nations to reduce their emission-reducing pledges or even decide to pull out themselves.
Initial reactions from world leaders this week, however, didn’t point toward any imminent danger to the agreement as a result of Trump’s decision, but rather in the opposite direction – toward a strengthening of international support for the pact.
The Times summed up those reactions Thursday, reporting that “leaders from around the world maintained a defiant front” in the face of Trump’s action.
Taunting Trump, French President Emmanuel Macron said, for example, that continuing the Paris agreement’s fight against climate change would “make our planet great again.”
Statements recommitting to the Paris process were forthcoming from other nations and alliances including China, Germany, India, Canada and the E.U. Responding to Trump’s renegotiation announcement, Germany, France and Italy declared flatly that the agreement was “not negotiable.”
Joe Barnes, a former career U.S. diplomat who is now a fellow at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Houston’s Rice University, wrote in a blog post shortly before Trump’s action that he expects broader, and negative, ramifications:
It is inconceivable that Western European countries would reconsider their commitments under the Paris agreement simply because the United States pulled out. … [S]uch a move surely would weaken whatever voice we hope to have in future international negotiations on climate change and complicate talks in such areas as trade and investment in which environmental factors will play an increasingly important role.
What will Trump’s action mean for the U.S. economy?
The president said he was withdrawing from the Paris agreement to avoid its purportedly massive job-killing impacts in the U.S., but he had already started un-doing numerous Obama administration actions that were key to carrying out the U.S. pledge under the pact.
As TCN’s Washington correspondent Joseph A. Davis recently detailed, lawsuits by climate-action proponents to protect Obama-era initiatives, along with other uncertainties, obscure any clear view of the immediate or longer-range impacts of Trump’s actions to begin reversing those Obama efforts.
Withdrawing from the Paris pact will deny those litigants one lawsuit argument for keeping emission-cutting Obama-era programs in place. But they can still rely on a formal finding by the Environmental Protection Agency during the last administration that pollution-driven climate change endangers human health and warrants pollution-cutting action – a declaration that has withstood legal challenges.
Trump cited one controversial study, commissioned by Paris opponents, projecting the loss of 2.7 million American jobs by 2025 if the U.S. stayed in the accord. It was an argument consistent with pro-coal, anti-renewables claims by conservative think-tank experts who played key roles on the president’s transition team. Such conservative groups composed a key bloc of support for quitting the agreement.
Those Trump supporters and their adversaries in the climate debate agree on one crucial point: The Paris agreement was crafted to propel a rapid transition of the world economy away from reliance on fossil fuels and toward the adoption of cleaner forms of energy, especially renewables, over a short and challenging period of time – just the next few decades.
For instance, former President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan, centerpiece of U.S. actions to meet its Paris pledge, targets the use of coal, the dirtiest of the fossil fuels, in power plants. The plan’s regulations – now in the process of being halted by Trump – would compel utilities to replace coal in many instances with cleaner-burning natural gas, plus even cleaner renewables like wind and solar, in their production of electricity.
Who disagrees with Trump’s economic assessment?
Lots of experts – not just a large number of corporate CEOs who called on him to remain in the pact – disagree with Trump’s announced rationale. The Associated Press reported that many independent economists it surveyed “have big doubts” about his claim that his Paris action will boost the U.S. economy and add jobs:
They say the agreement would likely help create about as many jobs in renewable energy as it might cost in polluting industries. Should the United States pull out of the pact and seek to protect old-school jobs in coal and oil, it would risk losing the chance to lead the world in developing environmentally friendly technology — and generate the jobs that come with it. [And] climate change itself threatens to impose huge costs on the economy.
Trump’s action came amid an unceasing stream of studies and news reports casting doubt on the future health, even survival, of the lagging American coal industry – which Trump has repeatedly said he wants to revive – even if he succeeds in relaxing or eliminating environmental regulations that affect it.
A couple of particularly striking recent headlines from coal country itself:
“West Virginia’s biggest utility eyes renewables over coal, despite Trump” and “Kentucky coal museum switching to solar power.”
The president’s own chief economic advisor said recently that “coal doesn’t even make that much sense any more as a feedstock.” While Trump may slow coal’s decline, it’s a longterm trend that he can’t stop, many experts say.
Bloomberg reported this week, for example, that coal’s share in U.S. power generation had shrunk between 2006 and 2016 – a period before implementation of the Paris accord or Clean Power Plan – in all states but Nebraska. In Texas, coal’s share declined by 17 percent.
The University of Texas Energy Institute reported last month that experts participating in a recent UT conference on electricity production had concluded that “market conditions will continue to drive a movement toward de-carbonization of the nation’s electric grid despite the rescinding of stringent anti-pollution measures put in place by former President Obama.”
Obama himself, in a rare public rejoinder to his successor, noted in a statement lamenting Trump’s Paris action that “private innovation and public investment” were already driving job growth in renewables before the climate agreement was signed. The ex-president echoed an array of corporate leaders in saying that nations participating in the climate agreement will be the ones reaping those economic rewards in the future.
What about the environment? It’s called the Paris Climate Agreement, after all.
Like the economy, this is an area where the uncertainties and complexities can seem endless. Consider, for example, the possibility of other American parties somehow making up for some of the emission cuts that Trump’s actions are expected to slow or stop.
Several reports indicated some cities, states and corporations are poised to continue on the Paris-charted path, even in the absence of federal impetus or support. But how much they might cumulatively accomplish is impossible to predict at this point, given the unpredictable number of possible participants in such an effort and their individual levels of commitment.
One leading expert on climate issues (and Trump critic) – Michael Oppenheimer, professor of geosciences and international affairs at Princeton University – did take a swing at generally appraising what Trump’s dismantling of the federal government’s efforts to fight climate change could mean in comments to Bloomberg:
“Four years of the Trump administration may have only modest consequences, but eight years of bad policy would probably wreck the world’s chances of keeping warming below the international target of 2 degrees Celsius. The odds of our avoiding the climate-danger zone would fade to zero.”
Independent climate analysts at three organizations presented a report last month at international climate talks in Bonn that examined possible future scenarios.
These experts concluded that even before pulling out of the Paris accord, the Trump administration’s actions to roll back Obama’s energy and climate initiatives mean the U.S. is likely to fail to meet its initial Paris pledge “by a wide margin.”
“However,” the analysts added, “this is not because existing [U.S.] emissions trends will be completely reversed, but more because this new paradigm will prevent the implementation of new policies that would have been necessary to meet [the emission-cutting commitment].
Meanwhile, they said:
Both China and India [another rapidly growing economy] look set to overachieve their Paris agreement climate pledge. Five years ago, the idea of either country stopping – or even slowing – coal use was considered an insurmountable hurdle, as coal-fired power plants were thought necessary to satisfy the energy demands of these nations. Yet, recent observations show they are now on the way towards overcoming this challenge. This stands in contrast to the decisions of the U.S. administration under President Trump, who appears intent on going in the opposite direction.
The emission-limiting developments in China and India “significantly outweigh” the potential effects of Trump administration actions, the analysts said.
Even so, Bill Hare, a climate scientist and CEO of the nonprofit Climate Analytics group, one of the organizations involved in that analysis, told the Chicago Tribune that Trump’s actions will probably mean it’s tougher to meet the Paris accord’s key goal of avoiding dangerous climate disruption: “President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, combined with the repeal of domestic actions resulting in halting the decline in U.S. emissions, will likely make it more difficult and costly overall to meet the Paris agreement temperature goal of holding warming well below 2 degrees C, and limiting it to 1.5 degree C.”
Read more TCN coverage about the Paris agreement
Powerhouse investors tell Exxon (and Trump): Get serious about climate change
Stay or go? Texas Republicans offer competing advice on Paris climate pact
Wheat or chaff? Weighing the substance of Trump’s actions on climate, energy
Large majority opposes Trump’s pledge to get out of Paris Climate Agreement
Americans in Paris: A European journalist’s assessment of the US role
Historic moment: 195 nations agree to limit warming, turn from fossil fuels
The climate negotiations – ultimately, it all boils down to temperature
Bill Dawson is the founding editor of Texas Climate News.
Image credit: Bill Anders / NASA