The true loss of Paris

A friend of mine recently asked, “Will there be any tangible impact to the US pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement, or is it more of a crummy political gesture without a lot of actual affect?”

I thought I would take the opportunity to publicly respond.

The Trump Administration’s withdrawal from Paris is certainly a signal of bad faith to 99% of the world, and compromises the integrity of US leadership in the court of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. But the real tragedy is one about our commitment to climate adaptation, not mitigation. Mitigation is essentially the effort to reduce carbon emissions in order to prevent climate change. Consider that the US has actually been reducing its carbon emissions naturally over the last several decade. Market displacement of coal by natural gas and surges in solar and wind energy generation has been slowly driving down carbon pollution on its own. Nevertheless, that trend will eventually bottom out.

Ultimately, what pulling out of Paris means for US climate mitigation efforts is that the Trump/Pruitt EPA will no longer enforce the Clean Power Plan (CPP) of the Obama era, which used law to restrict the amount of carbon that coal fired power plants could emit. Insofar as coal is going under anyway, it is tough to say how the CPP timeline and our new CPP-absent one would compare. But the CPP would have legally committed us to a 26-28% reduction in carbon emissions by 2026 compared to 2005 levels, which was our promise to the Paris Agreement. Without the CPP there is no mitigation guarantee.

I suspect we will continue to see carbon emissions in the US decline for a while longer because cars are getting more fuel efficient and we’re using more natural gas, wind, and solar for electricity these days. But that will have a soft bottom and likely be subject to some rebound because markets tend to fluctuate non-linearly; and people will see their gas and electric bills go down a bit, and by the Jevons Paradox, react by consuming more.

Abandoning Paris means that the US is relying entirely on natural, i.e. unregulated, market forces for its mitigation efforts, and market forces are generally unreliable, and moreover, our market predictions are often wrong because people aren’t the “rational actors” economic models usually assume.

Paris was a colorful feather in the hat of global cooperation, but as far as mitigating climate change itself goes, we are already well past 400ppm-CO2, and even if we were to cut global emissions to zero today (which we can’t and won’t) we have already locked in roughly another century of warming because the greenhouse effect takes a long time to unfold. That means we are in for even more super storms, drought, famine, exacerbated regional resource conflicts, sea level rise, and human displacement the scale of which we’ve never before seen and to which we will have no choice but to adapt.

The loss of US contribution to Paris’ mitigation efforts is deplorable, to be sure, but what we should truly lament is the loss of US’s international commitment to adaptation. In the 21st century and beyond, adaptation—not mitigation—will be the whole court: king, queen, and jester.

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