The Trump administration has sown major confusion around the Paris Agreement — what it is, what it does, and what it has meant for the United States. Luckily, a lot of smart people are writing to correct the record, and to put both the climate accord and Trump’s withdrawal from it in perspective.
Over at the Niskanen Center blog, Jerry Taylor explains with matter-of-fact clarity that the U.S. contribution to Paris represented a long-evolving political compromise on climate, with conservative policy makers having won most of the arguments. Since the 1990s, Republicans have insisted that international agreement had to include the cooperation of developing nations; it could not include any mechanism for penalizing non-compliance; and it couldn’t move too fast. Paris was all that and more:
The Paris Agreement was everything Republicans said they wanted. Every nation on earth (save Syria and Nicaragua) pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. To preserve national autonomy, pledges were non-binding. Each nation was left to decide on its own how aggressive it wanted to be and how climate plans would be designed. Finally, the voluntary commitments for global action were modest but meaningful. The United States and the developed world got nearly everything they asked for in the agreement.
But in an “astonishing display of political schizophrenia,” Taylor writes, “Republicans and the conservative commentariat rejected the agreement on every single one of those grounds.” Never mind that the U.S. contributions was based on a model “proposed by President George W. Bush in Bali during international climate talks back in 2007,” or that developing nations in some cases made extraordinary commitments: An (extremely interesting) independent scientific analysis at Climate Action tracker assesses Ethiopia and Morocco’s commitments as more robust than Japan’s or Russia’s, which it ranks among the weakest. Conservatives now buy into Trump’s line that Paris was a “bad deal,” even though, as many people have pointed out, it really wasn’t a “deal” at all.
Taylor goes on to describe how a similar dynamic played out around the Clean Power Plan, the Obama EPA’s attempt to regulate greenhouse gases from the power sector. The plan was never enough to save the planet—the Vermont Law School’s Pat Parenteau told me once he considered it a “pipsqueak” plan—and in fact, as Taylor notes, it was grounded in conservative principles (states rights and all that.) But Republicans hated it anyway.
There’s just no winning with some people.
Taylor suggests that this conservative turnaround owes its fury to Obama hating, and there’s probably some truth to that. But Jane Mayer, on the New Yorker’s website, traces it back more specifically to a particular political moment when the Koch brothers and other fossil-fueled interests threatened to kill the career of any Republican politician who dared speak out on climate. It’s worth remembering, as New York Times reporters Coral Davenport and Eric Lipton pointed out in a story over the weekend, that John McCain used his climate credentials as a plus in his presidential campaign.
But the Kochs and their “no climate tax pledge,” foisted on members of Congress beginning in 2008, killed any hope of a federal cap-and-trade program—once the conservatives’ keystone “market-based” solution to lowering greenhouse gas emissions—and made pariahs out of Republicans who espoused pro-climate policies watched big money oil-industry donations shift to more oil-friendly primary opponents. Clean energy disappeared from Republican campaign ads.
If you haven’t read Jane Mayer’s book on the Koch’s donor network, it’s worth doing so now. If you have, you might consider reading it again. Emily reviewed it here in March, and made a strong case for how you can’t really understand the current political landscape—Trump included—without knowing its roots in the petrocracy Mayer exposed.
In light of that, Trump’s retreat from Paris, revealed in a speech without, as far as I can tell, a single true fact, was inevitable. In fact, as legal scholar Ann Carlson argues on the Take Care blog, it might have been worse in some ways if he’d kept the U.S. in. The Paris agreement might have provided cover for an administration hell-bent on rooting out climate policy wherever it lurks in federal law and agency, and even, when it can, targeting state climate laws as well. Trump can’t really withdraw from the agreement anyway—the process takes four years—and it was already clear that he had no intention of meeting its goals:
He has repudiated virtually every element of the “nationally determined contribution” submitted by the Obama Administration, including the Clean Power Plan, stringent automobile standards, and limitations on methane emissions. He has produced a budget that provides no money to developing countries affected by climate change, despite the Obama Administration’s commitment of $3 billion ($1 billion of which we have already paid). Indeed, Trump has gone even further to prove his bad faith, zeroing out the U.S. contribution to a fund that pays for international climate negotiations. And, of course, he has proposed slashing budgets for climate staff across every department in the federal government, including the State Department, and eliminating virtually all research and development funds for clean energy.
His much ballyhooed middle finger to the world, on the other hand, has galvanized the opposition like never before. On June 1, the governors of California, Washington and New York announced they’d joined together to form the U.S. Climate Alliance, a coalition of state governments committed to making good on what the U.S. pledged at Paris. By yesterday, Minnesota, Connecticut, Massachusetts and a handful of other states plus Puerto Rico had signed on; Monday Virginia became the 12th state to join on. Together, the states represent 18 percent of U.S. emissions, a small but yet nontrivial contribution to the world’s climate pollution problem.
Move fast, governors.
Global map of the April 2017 land-ocean temperature index anomaly courtesy of NASA.