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Prof. Haas & columnist Zuckman: "US withdrawal from climate accord neglects big picture"

Columnists Peter Haas and Julie Zuckman: "US withdrawal from climate accord neglects big picture".


Sunday, June 04, 2017

And now we have Parxit. On Thursday, President Trump announced that the United States will withdraw from the 2015 Paris agreement on climate change. What does this mean, and what are the effects?

This decision neglects the ongoing big picture, which is the global transition to a non-fossil fuel-based economy. Corporate America has already recognized that this transformation is underway, and is promoting it while carving out lucrative niches. The Paris agreement helped send signals that a greener energy economy is a major goal for the world’s governments and citizens.

Trump’s justifications are ill founded. Paris doesn’t cost net jobs, because coal jobs aren’t coming back and renewable energy is now the major energy-sector job creator. Paris was not a bad deal for America — or for anyone. It doesn’t disadvantage the U.S. economy against India and China, who are already transitioning away from coal.

In truth, Paris is a fairly modest agreement. It was a carefully negotiated deal which surprised just about everyone at the time, and was understood to be as good as was realistically possible.

Nor is it legally binding. Countries were to make voluntary reduction commitments, to which they will periodically return and make more ambitious as technologies and politics advance.

By publishing their efforts, the hope was that countries would learn from one another, as well as shame nations into stronger commitments. Paris also calls for voluntary financial transfers from the richer countries to the poorest countries to pay for energy transitions which were not otherwise affordable. These are not gifts, but an exercise in enlightened self-interest as accelerated energy transitions also benefit industrialized countries from reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

Because national commitments are voluntary, the U.S. isn’t being taken advantage of by anyone.

In signing the Paris agreement, the U.S. pledged to reduce emissions by 26 to 28 percent by 2025 from 2005 levels. During Obama’s presidency, the U.S. transferred $1 billion into the Green Climate Fund that administers such money.

According to the legal terms of Paris, the U.S. cannot withdraw until November 2020. Because the U.S. remains a party to the 1992 United Nations Climate Change Convention, it is still committed to releasing annual reports on U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, so long as the budget for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Agency isn’t decimated, or the responsible NOAA scientists fired.

Parxit will not have significant effects on climate change mitigation.

It was well understood that the Paris agreement wasn’t capable of achieving its goal of holding global warming at 1.5 to 2 degrees C over preindustrial levels of the early 19th century. Even with Paris, the world is on a path to a 3.3-degrees C increase by 2100. As the world’s second larger greenhouse gas emitter, our withdrawal and failure to meet our reduction commitments means that global temperatures will be slightly higher.

Parxit will yield profound political effects.

Abnegating U.S. leadership already has disappointed our European allies, as well as most developing countries which look to the United States to help with their energy transitions. The collateral damage from such a high-profile abandonment of international commitments will have broader effects on other international issues of importance making support for our goals harder to come by.

China may seize the opportunity for the moral and diplomatic high ground on climate change, as well as for multilateral leadership more broadly. China has already signaled its intent to exercise climate leadership in recent years. Faced with overwhelming air pollution, China is struggling to move away from a coal-based economy, and will enjoy vast economic benefits from technological innovation and penetrating global markets, as it already produces and exports the majority of the world’s solar panels.

The Trump administration will likely face a loss of corporate support. Many large U.S. companies, including the important energy sector, have expressed their support for the Paris agreement.

Parxit may have less of an effect than widely thought because, globally, decisions affecting climate change are increasingly being taken by others than national governments. Megacities routinely share information about best practices and technologies. Large states, such as California, have already shaped markets by setting ambitious energy and automobile standards.

By abandoning Paris, Trump has elevated calculations of parochial political interests over long-term economic and health quality for the entire country and the planet. The U.S. could lose its ability to shape forces soon to govern the global transition to a clean-energy future. Parxit imperils U.S. jobs and exports in these revolutionary new sectors.

The world is going to move ahead — with or without us. Parxit removes us from the next great game.

Peter M. Haas is a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he works on international environmental issues and global governance. Julie Zuckman is a retired business writer and public school educator who lives in Florence.




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