by Ted Nordhaus, Alex Trembath
The response to U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement on climate change has been swift but often contradictory. For example, Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, could only offer faint praise for the accord in a December 2015 New York Times op-ed, charging that it did just enough “to keep both environmentalists and the fossil fuel industry from complaining too much.” McKibben changed his tune this past week, claiming that the U.S. withdrawal from the accord “undercuts our civilization’s chances of surviving global warming.”
Other advocates of the Paris climate deal, including many leading voices in the U.S. business community, have also offered rather unsatisfactory arguments for the United States to stay in the agreement: that it is non-binding and doesn’t actually require emissions cuts. Under this rationale, Washington should stay in to maintain influence over the negotiations, which is a de facto appeal to Trump to stay in the agreement in order to weaken it.
There is, of course, some legitimacy to all of these arguments. The Paris deal was too weak to achieve climate stabilization targets, but an important step toward reaching a politically sustainable framework for global action against climate change. Continuing U.S. engagement is probably in the United States’ best interest, even if it doesn’t hit its non-binding commitments. The history of these sorts of agreements, after all, has mostly been one of promises made and not kept, at least when keeping them entailed politically or economically difficult trade-offs, as was the case with the Kyoto Protocol.
But those facts are mostly irrelevant in the face of the over-the-top rhetoric that continues to attend the climate debate. Many proponents of the accord—including such signatories as former U.S. President Barack Obama, former British Prime Minister David Cameron, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi—made sweeping claims about its significance, despite the fact that the nations of the world had made non-binding commitments to business-as-usual decarbonization that they would have undertaken in any event. Then, to appease critics who felt the accord hadn’t gone far enough, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) proceeded to host a debate among member nations about whether the international target for stabilizing global temperatures should be to limit further warming to a two or 1.5 degree Celsius rise. Yet virtually all sober assessments have concluded that even under the best of circumstances, temperatures are almost certain to significantly exceed the two degree target.
All of this has provided rich fodder for opponents of climate action, who have simultaneously argued that climate mitigation efforts are a charade that has failed to reduce emissions and that the commitments made in Paris risked destroying the U.S. economy.
Trump’s decision, and his inane rationale for it, is, in the end, what one can expect after decades of prioritizing symbolic action and political preferences over pragmatic efforts to address the issue. Environmentalists, from leading NGOs such as NRDC to leading advocates such as McKibben, have intentionally conflated climate science with their long-standing ideological preferences for regulations, taxes, and renewable energy. Global agreements have focused primarily on long-term commitments to emissions targets rather than practical and specific actions to reduce emissions in the short-term. It was no surprise that Trump felt little obligation to the ideological commitments of his political opponents or the symbolic commitments of an international order that he predicated his presidency upon unseating.
PARIS’ WEAKNESS AND STRENGTH
The tragedy of the Trump administration’s decision last week was that the Paris accord marked a turn away from an endless and impossible negotiation among the 190 members of the United Nations over long-term and unenforceable temperature targets and movement toward a bottom-up, technology-focused negotiation among the major emitters. The commitments made at Paris centered on specific measures and actions the nations that account for the vast majority of global pollution were actually willing to take to reduce emissions today rather than on some far-off future.
Implicit in those commitments was the recognition that real progress toward mitigating climate change would require the alignment of long-term emissions reduction efforts with the short-term economic and geopolitical interests of top emitters such as the United States and China. Making that shift required participants to recognize, again mostly implicitly, that economic and geopolitical interests would trump climate commitments when push came to shove, as for instance was the case when Japan reneged on its Kyoto commitments after the Fukushima disaster.
This was both the weakness and the strength of the new framework that emerged at Paris. The commitments don’t add up to two degrees and aren’t legally binding. But those are precisely the reasons why so many nations were able to make the commitments they did make—because they represented modest actions that brought both economic and emissions benefits and because nations weren’t on the hook if for one reason or another they were unable to deliver.
POLARIZING THE DEBATE
Unfortunately, the climate discussion has been so poisoned, at least in the United States, that even an open, flexible, and non-binding framework has proven a bridge too far. Those who question why Trump would withdraw from an agreement that actually required nothing of the United States, at great cost to both our international reputation and our ability to shape the future of international climate negotiations, miss the point. The move was purely an eye poke to Trump’s political opponents, served up to cheers from his nationalist base.
Trump’s decision is in part a result of the well-documented effort by ideologues and economic interests on the Right to polarize the climate debate. In recent years, however, climate advocates themselves have worsened the divide. After the failure to pass cap and trade legislation in the U.S. Congress in 2010, many climate advocates concluded that the problem was that it had been a bloodless, technocratic effort. In their eyes, Obama punted on the climate issue because there hadn’t been a well-organized grassroots constituency demanding that he expend more political capital to pass comprehensive legislation.
Although couched as a strategy to build a broader and more inclusive movement for climate action, climate advocates focused on the practical task of building a larger and more vocal constituency within the Democratic Party by turning up the rhetoric of climate catastrophism, demonizing the fossil fuel industry, and making issues such as approval of the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines into litmus tests for Democratic politicians.
If a strong constituency within the party for far-reaching climate action were built, top strategists for groups such as 350.org argued, it wouldn’t matter if most voters didn’t care that much about climate change or if Republicans were at best indifferent and at worst hostile to the issue. Democrats, to be viable at the party and primary level, would have to hew to green climate orthodoxy, and deliver on that agenda once elected, in the same way that Democratic politicians are expected to defend abortion rights and Republican politicians are expected to advocate tax cuts.
Senator Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign exemplified this strategy, forcing his primary opponent, the former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to tack heavily toward the environmental left in the primary and in the party platform. Clinton was forced to reverse her position on Keystone, walk back her support for the shale gas revolution, which has been the largest driver of U.S. emissions reduction over the past decade, and explicitly endorse a carbon tax in the party platform.
But the strategy also ended up having an equal, opposite, and unintended effect on the other side of the aisle. Support for the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines became litmus tests for Republicans. In 2008, then-Republican presidential nominee John McCain supported both domestic and international efforts to cap carbon emissions. In 2012, in his campaign for the presidency, Mitt Romney, who had championed a cap and trade program as governor of Massachusetts, instead ran as an opponent of climate action at the federal level. By 2016 Trump would describe climate change as a hoax and conspiracy by the Chinese to destroy the U.S. economy
Most of the pieces necessary to create the political base that Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris accord has been calibrated to appease had already been in place for a long time. But without the escalating and polarizing organizing strategies of climate advocates in recent years, the backlash against the executive actions of the Obama years might have been limited to things that the Republican Party actually cares about, such as the Clean Power Plan and the methane rule, which disadvantage interests such as the coal and natural gas industries respectively. Pulling out of the Paris agreement, by contrast, was a purely symbolic act, intended to signal political affinity in the same way that banning federal stem cell research or cutting funding to Planned Parenthood signals pro-life constituencies. In the end, polarizing the climate issue has made sense for opponents of climate action. But for those favoring action, the strategy to turn climate policy into a litmus test for Democratic politicians has made sustained policy to decarbonize the U.S. economy harder, not easier.
THE FUTURE OF U.S. CLIMATE POLICY
If the reactions from other nations—and even U.S. mayors, governors, and executives—are any sign, the Paris agreement will survive without the United States’ participation. After all, over 190 countries representing over 80 percent of global emissions remain signatories on the treaty. The shift from mandatory, top-down to voluntary, bottom-up commitments has made the framework more robust and accommodating of shifting political and economic exigencies. Several observers even expect Trump’s exit to galvanize more ambitious action globally.
Since U.S. President George W. Bush’s withdrawal from the Kyoto Accord in 2001, much of the real action on climate change in the United States has been at the state level. Even there, where much of the attention has focused on cap and trade programs established in California and New England, the yeoman’s work of clean energy deployment has been done by direct support for renewable energy—such as state portfolio standards that mandate renewable deployment and federal tax incentives for solar and wind—rather than regulating or taxing emissions
Unfortunately, the emissions benefits of those standards have been substantially eroded by the closure of nuclear plants in recent years, which despite producing large quantities of cheap, carbon-free electricity, are no longer economical in many places due to the growth of cheap natural gas and subsidized renewables such as solar and wind. Continued progress on emissions at the state level will require transitioning from renewable portfolio standards, which privilege wind and solar, to broader low carbon standards that create a level playing field for all sources of low carbon energy and assure that gas displaces coal, not clean energies such as nuclear.
In the long term, though, the pace of innovation and technological change, not international treaties, will be the primary determinant of how much progress the world makes on climate change. Despite how polarized the climate debate in the U.S. Congress has become, energy innovation maintains bipartisan support. Trump’s 2017 budget, which proposed deep cuts to Department of Energy innovation initiatives, such as the Office of Science and ARPA-E, was pronounced dead on arrival by Congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle. Important legislative initiatives to assure a viable pathway to commercialization for a new generation of advanced nuclear technologies has garnered broad bipartisan support and demonstrates that when climate advocates check their ideological priors at the door, progress on key climate mitigation technologies remains politically possible.
Having extracted the pound of flesh that their political base demanded, it is time for Republicans to ask whether it now might be time to hedge on both the uncertainties that are inherent to any assessment of climate risk and the possibility that the current era of cheap fossil energy might come to an end faster than they expect through measures to support clean energy innovation.
Climate advocates, meanwhile, might consider whether continuing to polarize the climate debate around attitudes toward fossil fuels is a wise strategy. Continuing down that path risks allowing policies to promote clean energy innovation and deployment, long broadly popular on both sides of the aisle, to become proxies for the climate debate, in the same way that coal and Keystone already have. Even during the Bush years, Republicans at least gave lip service to the benefits of decarbonization. They supported nuclear energy, federal support for energy innovation, tax credits for renewables deployment, and even, in many quarters, a federal low carbon standard. Some of that still remains, as evidenced by the rejection of Trump’s proposed budget cuts and support for advanced nuclear legislation. Making real progress on climate change will require a decades-long effort to develop and deploy low carbon energy technology. If activists are smart about it, that effort might survive the Trump presidency. But if they aren’t careful, it won’t survive the litmus test politics that have taken over federal climate and energy policy on both sides of the aisle.
This article was originally published on ForeignAffairs.com.