Quitting the Paris Climate Pact in Historical Perspective

Quitting the Paris Climate Pact in Historical Perspective
AP Photo/Branden Camp

Until last week, Richard Nixon was responsible for the two worst-conceived American energy policies. On June 1, Donald Trump’s announcement of U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords displaced all competitors as the worst presidential initiative on energy in our nation’s history.

Nixon, in August of 1971, imposed wage and price controls on the American economy, including energy. Later, in November of 1973, he embraced mandatory federal allocation of energy supplies during emergencies. The controls on the broader economy did not survive his administration, but the energy part of them – popular with Democratic majorities in Congress and not fully repealed until 1981 – proved more durable and contributed heavily to the energy woes of the 1970s.

To his credit, Nixon also launched the modern movement to balance energy and the environment by establishing the Environmental Protection Agency, signing strong legislation like the Clean Air Act, issuing the first presidential statement on the need for ’clean energy,’ and supporting larger research and development budgets for energy technologies. He often made reasonable attempts to address the economic, environmental and national security implications of energy.

By contrast, Trump’s statements about energy and climate appear unmoored from historical context and current realities, with his administration even taking the position that the potential impacts of pollution didn’t need to be discussed when crafting environmental agreements. Besides withdrawing from an international climate pact that has surprised even its supporters with its effectiveness, the current president has appointed one of the nation’s leading climate skeptics to head the EPA. He has also proposed slashing energy research activities, from coal to solar – science and technology funding that has, over time, contributed to the economic vibrancy of numerous industries and the public welfare.

Protecting the atmosphere from human-generated pollution has posed an especially challenging problem for policymakers over many decades. This type of pollution is invisible and without noxious odors. Carbon dioxide is likely to remain in the atmosphere for a century or more, requiring a very long-term perspective. Most pollutants have only local or regional impacts, but those from greenhouse gases are global, necessitating international agreements to slow the warming of the planet.

Despite these difficulties, 165 nations in 1992 initially signed onto the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – a precursor to the Paris agreement.  This pact expressed a united concern “that human activities have been substantially increasing the atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, that these increases enhance the natural greenhouse effect, and that this will result on average in an additional warming of the Earth's surface and atmosphere and may adversely affect natural ecosystems and humankind.”

The countries with the most developed economies accepted a goal of stabilizing their emissions of greenhouse gases at 1990 levels by 2000. At the urging of the United States, the targets were voluntary rather than mandatory. At a time when the National Academy of Science had issued several reports on the threats of climate change and science skepticism in Washington was less prevalent, the U.S. Senate approved the treaty on a unanimous voice vote, joining 196 other nations in eventual ratification.

The Rio pact seemed to settle that climate change was a challenge worth confronting, but the signers acknowledged that cuts in emissions would be necessary at some point and that the targets should be binding.

The Kyoto Protocol, negotiated in 1997, created a system of cap-and-trade for the affluent nations with mandates for cuts based on 1990 baselines. The United States, for instance, agreed to cut its emissions by 7 percent, although there were multiple ways to reach the target, including purchasing credits from other countries.

The United States proved to be a major stumbling block to the success of Kyoto. First, unlike some other affluent countries, it exerted little effort during the 1990s to stabilize its emissions. Over the decade, its emissions of carbon dioxide – the most important of the greenhouse gases – grew by 16 percent and were projected keep rising. This momentum made the American commitment to cut 7 percent from 1990 level more daunting. Two, there was little indication at any agreement with international support would attract the 67 votes needed in the U.S. Senate for ratification.

American critics faulted the Kyoto agreement for exempting developing countries (including China) from any commitments, for potentially causing serious harm to the American economy, and for failing to indicate how the United States would meet its target – themes repeated in Trump’s rejection of the Paris agreement. Though there were two sides to these arguments, Bill Clinton never submitted the treaty to the Senate for ratification, and George W. Bush formally withdrew from the agreement. The absence of American support contributed to the failure of Kyoto to achieve its objective of setting the world on a sustainable trajectory for climate protection.

Subsequent international conclaves failed to resolve how the world should deal with climate post-Kyoto. Not surprisingly, few anticipated significant progress during the 2015 climate talks in Paris.  Barrack Obama’s approach to the negotiations drew flak from U.S environment groups and European nations, who feared he was abandoning the international cap-and-trade regime, the 1990 baseline, and binding mandates.

The agreement, because it was nonbinding, opened a path for the United States and China to join the effort. Nations could set their own targets and baselines. Future successes would rely on peer pressure and determinations of national interest.

There was another big difference from Kyoto.  In the interim, new technologies had dramatically brought down the costs of natural gas, solar, and wind power. Moreover, the United States had launched mandates for more efficient vehicles. Indeed, the country had already met a substantial share of its commitment. In combination, these factors had made it much easier to lay out scenarios for cost-effective compliance with the goals the country set for itself.

With significant commitments from many nations and vigorous efforts to meet them, the Paris agreement eventually assuaged the fears of environmental groups, on the assumption its gradualist approach would require periodic adjustments.  Paris also addressed the major complaints of climate skeptics by including China and India, avoiding the risks of an international body dictating to the United States, and being achievable with available technologies.

The most obvious cost of Trump’s exit from the Paris agreement is that it unravels years of trial and error to find an approach to climate change that worked in an international context. Because of the number of actors involved, it will be hard to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

The administration’s rationale for withdrawal appears to offer little hope for rejoining the consensus of the rest of the world on climate. The EPA administrator won’t be pinned down on whether human activities are changing the climate.  The president is defiantly oblivious to the new sense of urgency in China, where there is a boom in zero-carbon-emitting power generation, and to the easier path to major reductions in emissions allowed by rapid gains in technology. It appears that the goal posts can always be moved to avoid international cooperation on a major global issue.

The Paris pull out will delay but not torpedo progress on slowing temperature rise. The United States is a pluralistic society. Many American states, cities, and corporations remain committed to the Paris agreement. Still, the Trump decision is likely to look even worse in historical hindsight than it does today.

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