The New York Times worried that President Trump would formally pull the U.S. out of the Paris accords. But he doesn’t have to do that since the terms do not actually compel any country to do anything against its interests. The easiest and least provocative path is to just ignore the agreement. Archives around the world are filled with documents that no longer carry any weight because they do not fit current needs. The Paris accords should join them since they were DOA before the ink even dried.
By William R. Hawkins l April 12, 2017
President Trump flanked by administration officials, including EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, and coal miners
On March 28, President Donald Trump went to the headquarters of the Environmental Protection Agency to do something unusual. He acted to boost energy production, lower costs to industry and create jobs across the country; goals to which the EPA had been indifferent, if not outright hostile, since its inception. Trump signed an executive order calling “for an immediate reevaluation of the so-called Clean Power Plan. Perhaps no single regulation threatens our miners, energy workers, and companies more than this crushing attack on American industry.” The Clean Power Plan (CPP) would have closed hundreds of coal-fired power plants and blocked construction of new plants. Then billions would have been spent to replace them with new wind and solar farms (the EPA estimated an annual cost of $7.3-$8.8 billion by 2030). America currently depends on coal for a third of its electricity generation, with a 300 Year domestic supply; so the impact of the CPP would have been enormous. President Obama declared the CPP in late 2015, but it has not gone into effect because of legal challenges mounted by 28 States whose economies would have been harmed.
President Trump also lifted the ban on federal leasing for coal production and other restrictions on the industry, along with those on oil, natural gas, and shale energy. He proclaimed, “We will unlock job-producing natural gas, oil, and shale energy. We will produce American coal to power American industry. We will transport American energy through American pipelines, made with American steel.”
As expected, his action provoked a strong response from those who have branded economic growth and the improvement of living standards a threat to Mother Nature. Greenpeace said in a statement, “This executive order gives us further proof that Trump isn’t a leader, he’s just a fossil fuel industry stooge with a presidential pen.” The allegation that Trump’s action did not show strong leadership meant to “make America great again” was taken up elsewhere in a vain attempt to wound the activist President.
The New York Times took the charge to the international level. In the wake of Trump’s action, “climate diplomats around the world maneuvered to fill the vacuum left by the exit of the globe’s second-biggest climate polluter” alleged an article published the day the executive order was signed. A focus was on what China, the world’s largest polluter would do. It was asserted that “At the heart of the Paris accord was a breakthrough 2014 agreement between Mr. Obama and China’s president, Xi Jinping, in which the leaders of the world’s two largest polluting countries agreed to enact policies to cut their emissions.” Yet, there was no “agreement” in 2014; at least not one Beijing has ever acknowledged. From the Chinese side, there was only a “joint announcement” made by the two presidents at a Beijing summit. Each leader simply stated what they intended to do. There was no negotiation or plan to coordinate these actions. And there was certainly no reciprocity or balance in the statements.
President Obama promised massive cuts in U.S. emissions and the CPP had the ambitious goal of a 32 percent reduction from existing power plants from 2005 levels by 2030. In contrast, President Xi only said Chinese emissions would peak by 2030; that is, there would be no reductions for another 15 years (if then) as China would continue to place economic growth at the top of its agenda. President Xi has set goals of doubling the country’s 2010 GDP by 2020 and moving one billion citizens into urban areas by 2030.
The NYT piece claimed, “Their hard-won deal was seen as the catalyst to bring other countries to the table to forge the Paris pact.” There is some truth in this, but not in the way the NYT meant. The unequal plans presented in 2014, where the U.S. cuts back while China storms ahead, was a grand example of how the UN climate talks have always operated. The ground rules have been the “common but differentiated responsibilities” principle. Under it, developed countries (like the U.S.) have to do everything, whereas the developing countries (like China) do not have to do anything. As the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change states, “the share of global emissions originating in developing countries will grow to meet their social and development needs.” This principle was established at the UN in 1992. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol was based on it. That agreement required 37 “developed” nations to cut back their emissions while placing no requirements on the “developing” world. The U.S. did not become a party to Kyoto because of this unequal mandate; a policy Obama respected during his first term.
However, in the run up to the 2015 Paris conference, the Obama administration conceded that any UN agreement would be based on the “the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities.” This rendered the Paris accord essentially useless despite all the hoopla about how “historic” and “binding” the agreement was; and how it demonstrated a supposed “global consensus” on fighting climate change by reducing economic activity. An examination of the actual document reveals just the opposite.
The parties to the convention clearly held that economic growth and the improvement of living conditions, particularly the alleviation of poverty, are the real priorities. And the freedom of nations to pursue their own goals is given absolute protection in the UN Paris agreement. Consider how Article 4 opens:
In order to achieve the long-term temperature goal set out in Article 2, Parties aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible, recognizing that peaking will take longer for developing country Parties, and to undertake rapid reductions thereafter in accordance with best available science…on the basis of equity, and in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty.
This passage makes it clear that economic growth sets the context of any climate actions. The NYT noted that “Mr. Trump’s order would give the Indian government political space to delay some of its climate commitments.” Most notably, “the provision of cheap coal-fired electricity to India’s rural poor” was mentioned as if this was a bad idea. It is amazing how far out of touch with reality NYT reporters can be.
There is no desire within responsible circles to turn back the clock on economic progress in some vain attempt to “halt” climate change; which in a dynamic world is inevitable. Instead, the practical focus is on how to adapt to any changes from the current climate cycle, just as societies have always done over the millennia. The big debate in Paris was over the creation of a $100 billion fund to support adaptation, not stagnation.
There is no global Green movement for the U.S. (or any other nation) to lead. The true “consensus” remains national advancement, and President Trump is poised to become the leader of that movement.
Of course, America’s rivals will not like this. They prefer to see the U.S. cripple itself. The NYT cited a statement by President Xi about Paris calling on, “All signatories should stick to it instead of walking away from it, as this is a responsibility we must assume for future generations.” This is easy for Xi to say since the agreement puts no burden on China. Beijing has set itself up as the leader of the “developing nations” who want to close the gap in wealth and strategic capabilities with the West; and the climate issue has given them a way to pressure the West to go into decline as they rise. As another part of Article 4 reads,
Developed country Parties shall continue taking the lead by undertaking economy-wide absolute emission reduction targets. Developing country Parties should continue enhancing their mitigation efforts, and are encouraged to move over time towards economy-wide emission reduction or limitation targets in the light of different national circumstances.
So, the West “shall” act, while the rest are only “encouraged” to act within their national interests. Though even in terms of the “developed” countries, there are no set requirements in the Paris accords. That was the one concession to balance, and the key provision that renders the accords meaningless except as an excuse for officials and lobbyists to issue press releases and attend meetings at 5-star hotels around the world at the expense of taxpayers or easily conned donors.
The NYT worried that President Trump would formally pull the U.S. out of the Paris accords. But he doesn’t have to do that since the terms do not actually compel any country to do anything against its interests. The easiest and least provocative path is to just ignore the agreement. Archives around the world are filled with documents that no longer carry any weight because they do not fit current needs. The Paris accords should join them since they were DOA before the ink even dried.
William R. Hawkins, a former economics professor and Congressional staffer, is a consultant specializing in international economics and national security issues. He is a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis, of the Conservative-Online-Journalism center at the Washington-based Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research.