What Abandoning Paris Really Means

July 5th, 2017 <-- by Paul Higgins -->

This piece was originally written as a Column for the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. It will appear in the August issue


The decision to back away from the Paris climate agreement is harmful to the United States’ interests. It is a setback for climate change risk management and a blow for U.S. leadership. But the move almost certainly makes very good sense politically for President Trump. That reveals a more systematic problem facing the country. Our policy process creates politically imperative decisions that are at odds with the nation’s interest.

The Paris agreement encourages all nations to deal with climate change while leaving it to each nation to decide for itself whether and how to do that. It does not require any climate change risk management from any nation. If the U.S. stayed in the Paris agreement, the President would be no less free to make decisions about climate change risk management. So the country gains nothing by leaving but does weaken global efforts to manage the risks that we—and all other nations—face.

Despite this, the President can reap big political benefits from withdrawal from the agreement for three reasons. The decision will sound to anyone unfamiliar with the details of the Paris agreement (which means almost everyone) as though President Trump is putting America’s interests ahead of the international community. It will signal clearly which side of the—lamentable—cultural divide on climate change the President sits. And the decision contradicts and weakens one of President Obama’s major accomplishments.

President Trump’s supporters will overwhelmingly be happy with all three of those outcomes so their support for the President will hold steady or even increase. Had the President instead decided to reaffirm the United State’s support for the Paris Agreement, he would almost certainly have disappointed, and possibly lost, some of that support. Many of President Trump’s detractors will be extremely unhappy with the decision, of course, but very few in that group would become Trump supporters if he reaffirmed US support for the agreement. So the political logic behind the President’s decision is fairly clear, at least in the short term.

Whether and how to manage the risks of climate change is a choice, of course—one that is grounded in a basis in fact and that people can, within the limits of that basis in fact, defensibly hold differing opinions about.

Multiple independent lines of scientific evidence from decades of intensive research enable three broad conclusions about climate change: 1) people are causing climate to change; 2) human-caused climate change poses very serious risks to all people of all nations; and 3) there are a wide range of response options that can meaningfully reduce the risks we face from climate change. Many of those response options involve very little sacrifice for the United States as a whole or even come with ancillary benefits that make climate change risk management a great deal.

In his speech announcing his intent to pull out of the Paris agreement, President Trump was silent about people causing climate to change. This suggests that he understands that people are causing climate to change because his justification for leaving the Paris agreement would have been much stronger if he contradicted the human basis of modern climate change.

He also did not specifically talk about the risks of human-caused climate change or the nature of the response options. However, those topics are both implicit throughout his speech. On these points the President’s speech was inconsistent with with the basis in fact.

Most notably, he emphasized that economic harm would come from efforts to address climate change. That is a difficult conclusion to defend because it overlooks the economic harm of having an unstable climate system. To count only the costs of risk management efforts (which are themselves likely overstated as I mention below) and to exclude the benefits of avoiding climate change impacts is an accounting error. The premise is also deeply pessimistic because it assumes that the United States is unable to thrive while managing climate risks—that we are unable to innovate, to find improved ways of meeting our energy needs, and to develop substitutes for goods and services that cause climate damage. None of that follows from the available evidence.

My intent here is not to criticize the President. All politicians need to understand and navigate the political landscape they face. If they don’t, they won’t be politicians for long and they won’t achieve much while they serve.

But it’s harmful whenever political logic leads us away from evidence-based decision-making and to outcomes that run counter to our national interests. This has been the central challenge to meaningful climate change risk management for decades. It’s also increasingly clear that this poses a larger structural problem for the nation—our policy process too often rewards divisive politics over substantive progress. We won’t be able to beneficially address any of the complex issues we face—determining tax rates and budgets or managing health care and climate change—if those decisions are driven by anything other than a good faith effort by all policy makers to serve the interests of the nation. So America’s future greatness depends—perhaps more than anything else—on overcoming the problem illustrated by President Trump’s decision to back out of the Paris agreement.

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