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The Price of Quitting the Paris Agreement


An energy-intensive industrial coalition spent tens of millions of dollars to ensure the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement. The Competitive Enterprise Institute, the American Energy Alliance, the Heartland Institute, Americans for Prosperity and forty other free-market think tanks that signed an open letter urging Donald Trump to pull out were bankrolled by, among others, ExxonMobil and the Koch Brothers, the Kansas-based billionaires who control refineries and pipelines that process 600,000 barrels of crude oil a day.

James Inhofe, Mitch McConnell, and the twenty other Republican Senators that addressed a similar letter to Trump together received more than $10 million from the fossil fuel industry during the last three election cycles. Troves of additional contributions were given through third-party super PACs. If, as a recent study concluded, it takes about $100,000 to increase the chances by 25 to 40 per cent that a member of Congress will change their position on a regulatory issue, then the fossil fuel industry has its bases covered.

The EU and China have jointly pledged to fill the vacuum of US influence. It’s a welcome development, but it will be important to distinguish concerted action from sanctimonious posturing. The EU cap-and-trade system – which has crashed three times, handed billions of euros to Europe’s largest energy companies and produced a low, unstable carbon price – was a chummy compromise with industry leaders who fought against a simpler and more transparent carbon tax in the mid-1990s. The EU’s 2050 emissions target requires as yet unproven ‘negative emissions’ and carbon-capture technologies, in the absence of an expeditious shift to low-carbon transport and the wholesale retrofitting of buildings. The UK and Germany are subsidising coal plants to remain open while reneging on renewables investments; Japan is opening up to 45 new coal plants; and uncertainty about China’s future economic growth could destabilise its venture into emissions trading.

The Paris Agreement took the path of least resistance (and no country fought harder than the US to ensure it was an agreement rather than a treaty). For the sake of inclusiveness after the shortcomings of the Kyoto Protocol and the failure at Copenhagen, the agreement leaves nations to their own devices when determining their non-binding commitments, which currently fall well short of mitigating the worst risks of climate change. There are strong transparency rules, but weak compliance rules. Lots of talk about responsibility, but nothing of liability. Article 4.3 states that countries must commit every five years to ever greater ‘nationally determined contributions’. But this is wishful thinking. Russia, for example, the world’s fourth biggest emitter, has offered little beyond periodic reminders that emissions fell precipitously after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It seems likely that Putin and Trump will revive the $500 billion Arctic oil development project that was temporarily cancelled because of sanctions enacted under Obama.

There is hope that the federal government can be bypassed. The governors of New York, California and Washington have formed a multi-state coalition – the ‘United States Climate Alliance’ – and more than 60 cities have formed the ‘Mayors National Climate Agenda’. Michael Bloomberg has pledged $15 million to UN climate coffers, and there are plans to form a coalition of US companies and states making ‘parallel’ pledges under the Paris Agreement. I look forward to the governors, mayors and CEOs arriving at the next UN climate meeting in Bonn with their pledges in hand and a swagger for the cameras. But the same issue arises of distinguishing concerted action from sententious platitudes. The UN meetings are not designed for monitoring compliance.

James Baker III, Henry Paulson, George Shultz and other Republican elders have put forward a ‘conservative case’ for a carbon tax with all revenues distributed back to citizens as dividends. The proposal includes a ‘border adjustment’ duty on imports from countries that do not price emissions, so US companies wouldn’t be at a competitive disadvantage. The authors had hoped the plan would appeal to Trump’s mercantalist and protectionist bent. They perhaps didn’t anticipate the same logic might be used against the US. Were the EU to apply an average carbon tariff of $50 per tonne of CO2 on US goods, it would raise more than $14 billion dollars a year, or 14 times the amount the US has contributed so far to the UN Green Climate Fund. The move would supply Trump’s nativist base with isolationist ammunition. But if it helped to defeat the president on 3 November 2020 – the day before the US is legally able to finalise the Paris withdrawal – then the US could conceivably rejoin the agreement. And if it costs $100,000 to change the average congressman’s mind, $14 billion will do.

Comments on “The Price of Quitting the Paris Agreement”

  1. Graucho says:

    Since absolutely nothing is being done to stop and reverse the process of deforestation, we all screwed climate wise whatever might or might not be done about emissions.

  2. XopherO says:

    Does the Paris agreement mean very much? As a correspondent from Lancaster University comments in the current LRB, “China’s coal plan alone will double global emissions by 2030…in perfect accord with the Paris Agreement…” The developing nations will continue to develop using fossil fuel energy, while undoubtedly also increasing the use of renewables – hopefully not nuclear. Some control will be exerted but almost certainly not enough.

    If the global warming predictions are correct (whether anthropogenic or not) and there are still some question marks over this, then there is probably little we can do, and Trump’s antics are irrelevant (but a good opportunity to ‘bash’ him perhaps). Instead of spending vast sums on trying to halt the inevitable, would it not be better to spend on mitigating the predicted consequences that are to come – and if they don’t come, or not as strongly as predicted, the money will not have been wasted if spent on protecting against big changes in weather patterns etc, and particularly protecting poorer nations, which are already suffering.

    I don’t pretend to be an expert, though I have studied the behaviour of scientists and the philosophy and sociology of science (some time ago), but an awful lot of environmentalists etc are making a living out of this, and research money is readily available to confirm the thesis (pace Popper!). Some may regard this as a cynical comment, but it easier to go on making your living claiming ‘we can halt it’, which is what we would all like, when this is quite unlikely. Sadly the history of science is full of such universal predictions which lead to the wrong response, while those who object, or suggest alternative approaches to the problem, sometimes lose their jobs or are called ‘headless chickens’.

    • SinisaMihajlovic says:

      I wouldn’t consider your comment as cynical. It’s far too unoriginal for such a label. It’s the same blend of doubt that is often seen on this topic: levels of doubt which are rarely held by those people about other topics that do merit doubt.

      Also, you make the false choice of rather than stopping the inevitable (or is inevitable? You state your doubts earlier), we should mitigate the effects (but aren’t there doubts about the effects?) – we don’t have to somehow decide between the two. It would be sensible to do both.

      Also, as someone who also isn’t an expert but has and still does look at philosophy of science – i find it strange to look at the history of science and not notice vast improvements: a lot of the discredited theories of the past didn’t have much theoretical or empirical basis. The idea that the composition of atmosphere affects the temperature of the atmosphere appears to be solid.

      There are doubts about the extent of global warming and the particular changes that might happen, but not that it is. For all the money an environmentalist might make – just consider how much money a scientist would make from the fossil fuel companies by debunking all this, and yet they still haven’t. Don’t be disingenuous.

      • XopherO says:

        I thought it was the effects of global warming that are always put forward as a reason to control carbon emissions, sometimes rather hysterically – and we have had quite a scary list of them. Perhaps there is an argument to do both – attempt to control emissions (it makes sense to control air pollution) and work to mitigate potential environmental threats, but there is little sign that any attention is being given to the latter – no ‘Paris’ agreements. It will also be interesting to see warming data as the El Nino cycle declines.

        Publication of scientific research is strictly policed by the leading journals, and they have poured scorn on anyone who has the temerity to critique the orthodoxy.

        Actually, scientists are supposed to be sceptical of their own theories. Karl Popper said scientists should seek to falsify their theories because typically they seek only to confirm them. He also proposed a demarcation criterion between science and metaphysics – a scientist should be able to specify what evidence he/she would consider would falsify the theory, something the global warmers have not really tried to do.

        Sceptics like me do not deny there is some kind of climate change happening, but sceptical of the specified causes, consequences and what to do about it. I am sceptical about a lot of claims made by scientists – cheating and ‘grooming’ of data are quite common (the latest institutions to be in the frame is UCL). There is a long history of this and why it happens.

        And of course there are other less debatable threats as Graucho points out. Rafaty’s ideas for raising money could be put to attempts to mitigate both – deforestation and climate change.

        • SinisaMihajlovic says:

          It is the effects of global warming that are put forward as the reason for controlling carbon emissions. However, if you were to only attempt to mitigate the worst, you may have missed the far more efficient option of simply not emitting in the first place: technology which we already have, and can feel much more certain that it will be effective.

          No sign that attention is being paid to mitigation? Well, if you want us to look at mitigation NOW, rather than controlling carbon emission – doesn’t that imply that you accept the link between climate change and atmospheric carbon? Well, which is it, Boris?

          Again, you throw up the usual cocktail of doubt that sceptics throw up. A bit here, a bit there – whatever you can grab onto to throw a bit more doubt on to the theory.
          If you are sceptic of all medical and scientific claims and advances, then much respect to you. However, in my experience, climate sceptics are generally just sceptical of that one thing – and their motivation for such doubt is that the theory clashes with something else that they cherish more (but, interestingly, has much less evidential and theoretical weight).

          Anyway, your arguments are rhetoric – hysterical, temerity… Due scepticism is a fine thing, but I can have no respect for an argument that is selectively using any scepticism they can find without much thought. If there are scientific and theoretical objections, wonderful…

  3. XopherO says:

    I have not completely denied global warming, rather suggested that measures taken in mitigation of possible consequences would still be useful if those consequence do not arrive, or in a lesser form, or not at all. I simply added some reasons to be sceptical, because thoughtful sceptics don’t usually get much of a hearing. But my initial premise was that if it is going to happen as predicted it is unstoppable, hence the need to start doing something now to mitigate the catastrophic effects described as ‘inevitable’ by the environmentalists.

    However, futurology is a serious but difficult subject, because obviously the future is difficult to predict, but one must act based on projections. Perhaps the principle tenet of futurology is ‘Don’t put all your eggs in one basket’ or ‘Spread your bets’, or perhaps most apposite is ‘Small may not always be beautiful but at least it is usually more flexible and adaptable than big’. For example, we are trying to build a very big nuclear power facility (perhaps two) that has not been properly tested, but it would make more sense to build several smaller stations to a tried and tested design which can to a large extent be prefabricated off site. Perhaps better to build none. I am astonished that nuclear is proposed as a one of the solutions to global warming. Mega-polluting, and as Chernobyl and Fukushima have shown, also very dangerous. There are small accidents every day which are covered up. And in an age of terrorism…? If this is a way to help prevent global warming, hells bells!

    And I do not appreciate ad hominem arguments. Let us consider wisely different points of view. Without scepticism where would we be? My first name is not Boris but pretty obvious from my alias.

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