Au Revoir, Paris

On June 1, President Trump announced that he was withdrawing the United States from the Paris Climate Accord, which had been signed by his predecessor, President Obama. The move to withdraw from the Paris Agreement sparked waves of criticism from environmentalists, corporations, prominent public figures and wealthy individuals. Former head fund manager, billionaire, and major Democratic Party donor Tom Steyer called it “a traitorous act of war against the American people”. Leonardo DiCaprio stated on Facebook that “... the future livability of our planet was threatened by President Trump's careless decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement”. The paradox that these individuals have failed to address is that the Paris Agreement does very little to actually curb climate change, while these individuals are in a position to lead by example and make  real differences. Individuals such as Steyer and DiCaprio, as well as the CEOs of corporations that have criticized Trump’s exit from the Paris Agreement, have the ability to make much more of an environmental impact than the Paris Agreement ever did.

The Paris Agreement’s first, and largest problem, is that the framework it sets up will not meet the goals that it tries to achieve. The wording of the agreement is ambitious, with signatory countries affirming to keep surface air temperatures from rising by “well below” 2 degrees Celsius and urging further efforts to keep the increase limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius by the year 2100. While  fulfilling these goals would have significant an impact on curbing climate change, the combined effect of each country’s Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, or INDCs, will not come close to achieving this goal. According to scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, if every single signatory’s INDC is kept, the rise in surface air temperatures since pre-industrial times would be between 2.7 degrees Celsius and 3.6 degrees in 2100. These amounts are estimated to be between 0.6 degrees Celsius and 1.1 degrees Celsius cooler in the year 2100 than if no climate policy whatsoever was taken in the next century. Compared with the earlier Copenhagen Agreement, which the United States was an author of and a signatory to, the Paris agreement will result in an incremental reduction of temperatures by 0.2 degrees Celsius by 2100. Further research by Dr. Bjorn Lomborg suggests that the incremental impact would be even less, with a 0.17 degree Celsius reduction in temperatures by 2100. Lomborg goes on to estimate that the United States’s contributions to the Paris Agreement would have only lower global temperatures by 0.03 degrees Celsius by 2100.

First off, we see that even in a very optimistic model of the Paris Agreement’s effect, the estimates prove that keeping the rise in temperatures “well below” 2 degrees Celsius seems highly unlikely. Secondly, we see that while the agreement has a substantial impact on lowering temperatures when compared to no climate policy whatsoever, we have to realize that this is an unrealistic way to measure the potential impact of the Paris Agreement. Countries, including the United States, are not going to completely abandon previous climate agreements and their own environmental regulations if they back out of the Paris Agreement. Measuring the impact against having no climate policy whatsoever as a barometer for success gives the Paris Agreement too much credit for its total impact on the environment. When looking at the incremental impact of what the Paris Agreement achieves in comparison to the Copenhagen Agreement, we see that there is little to no real progress in combatting climate change.

Another problem of the Paris Agreement is that the research calculated above assumes that all signatory countries will fully adhere to all of their INDCs, but this is too optimistic. Some of the countries didn’t even provide any clear emission targets with their INDC, as was the case with India, the world’s third largest polluter. China plans to use more coal over the next 5 years, and will not even begin to slow their emissions until 2030. On the other end of the spectrum, many countries have put out unrealistic goals. The United States, has a target of lowering emissions 26% - 28% below their 2005 levels, which is very ambitious. Even with all of President Obama’s regulations on carbon emissions, the United States is still less than halfway to being on track to meet its pledged INDC targets.

Furthermore, another problem with the Paris Agreement is that all of these targets are voluntary and non-binding. If a country wants to change their contributed amount, or simply not follow through on their promised contributions, there is no way to stop them from cheating. President Obama and many of the people who would defend the Paris Agreement would argue that it was the first time where nearly all countries came together, but what exactly did they agree to do? The reason almost every country signed the Paris Agreement is because they are not bound to actually do anything, and will not be forced to contribute to the fight against climate change. They instead volunteered their own contributions, which are “intended” at best, and which they can not be compelled to follow through on if they do not implement these changes. Many countries, such as the United States, have not ratified the treaty through their governing body, meaning that they aren’t even bound to this treaty that forces them to essentially nothing. At least when the Kyoto Protocol was signed in 1997, the commitments were legally binding, even if they were not enforced. The Kyoto Protocol did very little to actually combat climate change, and the Paris Agreement does even less. As a reminder, even if all these countries follow through on every single one if their INDC promises that they are not bound to follow, the estimated incremental effect is still only a reduction of 0.2 degrees Celsius by 2100.

Besides the environmental argument for staying in the Paris Agreement, many have also mentioned the diplomatic consequences of leaving the agreement. If the Trump Administration is able to survive the diplomatic ramifications of revealing highly classified code-word information to the Russian Foreign Minister, and leaking shared British Intelligence relating to the Manchester Bombing, they can survive leaving an agreement that is more or less symbolic. To be fair, the Trump administration’s claim that this a courageous defense of the American worker is also blown out of proportion. Since President Obama never sent the Paris Accord to the Senate to be ratified, President Trump is not under any obligation to follow the INDC goals of the U.S.. Even if the Senate were to ratify the agreement, it still can not force President Trump, or any other administration, to follow the United States’s INDC goals. So just as signing this agreement was more or less symbolic, withdrawing from it is also a symbolic gesture.

Even though the Paris Agreement is not the solution to help curb climate change, the fact remains that something still needs to be done. This is where the over 300 corporations who wrote an open letter to President Trump frantic over the effects of climate change come in. As leaders of some of the most innovative and influential corporations in the world, they can start a bottom-up approach to utilize more alternative forms of energy. As President Obama stated in his criticism of Trump’s decision to withdraw: “simply put, the private sector has already chosen a low-carbon future”, which begs the question of why would they then need a non-enforceable agreement to help them reach this conclusion? Billionaires such as Michael Bloomberg and Leonardo DiCaprio have been outspoken about the need to limit fossil fuels, but their own extravagant lifestyles do not reflect the type of urgency that they ask us to have. For example, DiCaprio’s private jet probably burns more more fuel in 15 minutes than the average climate change denier’s Ford F-150 burns in a year. These individuals are in a position to use their wealth to have a profound impact on climate change, but they can not do so if they have a massive carbon footprint. People like Elon Musk may disagree with Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, but Musk is at least putting his money where his mouth is by using his time, energy, and considerable wealth to combat climate change. Many of the individuals and companies who are worried about the effect of climate change are in a position to follow Musk’s lead, and make an impact in curbing the effects of climate change.

Furthermore, government can still do more to create an environment to phase out fossil fuels and encourage the use of renewable energy. Cap-and-Trade is one way in which we can incentivize renewable energy, as well as providing more tax credits for firms that use less fossil fuels. These actions, along with many others, could help the United States become a leader in the fight against climate change.

Far from being the crowning achievement that it was sold as, the Paris Agreement asked countries to volunteer up hypothetical targets that they could work towards to combat climate change, and then did not even bid them to these goals. It created a fake sense of progress that allowed the world to feel like it was doing something to combat climate change, all the while having very little actual impact. It remains to be seen if the President, and those who criticized his withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, will take action or make any meaningful changes to combat the very real threat of climate change.