Politics & Policy

Another Obama Legacy: Americans Will Pay Billions for a Useless Climate Agreement

President Obama with world leaders at the COP21 conference in Paris. (Ian Langdon/AFP/Pool)

Today, Earth Day, President Obama will attach America’s name to the Paris Climate Agreement. Greatly affected, according to gushing accounts in the press, will be the president’s “legacy.” Unaffected, according to math, will be the threat of climate change. And left holding the bill, as seems to happen with each new acquisition for the Obama presidential library, will be the American people.

The agreement’s uselessness stems from its negotiating structure. Each country submitted a pledge of climate action, each pledge was accepted without question, and the sum of those pledges became the deal. Doe-eyed diplomats at the United Nations envisioned this process creating an “upward spiral of ambition,” as they phrased it during the 2014 Bonn Climate Conference. But the major developing countries, whose rapidly rising greenhouse-gas emissions are the driving force behind fears of climate change, care more about economic growth for their impoverished populations. So, as I wrote at National Review Online in December, they submitted pledges to continue with business as usual.

China pledged that its emissions would peak “around 2030,” precisely when the U.S. government’s national laboratory had already estimated the peak would occur. India’s pledge amounted to a slowdown from its current rate of progress. Pakistan said simply that it would “reduce its emissions after reaching peak levels to the extent possible,” which offers nothing beyond a definition of the word “peak.”

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Unsurprisingly, the sum of many pledges to do nothing is: nothing. When the Massachusetts Institute of Technology compiled the pledges and compared them with its own preexisting projection, it found a temperature reduction by 2100 of only 0.2°C. When the analysts compared the pledges with the projection created by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change back in 2000, they found no improvement at all.

Unfortunately, not everyone was in on the joke. Determined to display “leadership,” President Obama made the classic mistake of the kid who hears everyone is going skinny-dipping, strips naked, plunges into the water, and then turns to find his dry and still-modest peers laughing from the shore as they run off with his clothes. While everyone else both literally and figuratively mailed in their commitments, the president pledged a dramatic reduction in U.S. emissions: 26 to 28 percent below their 2005 level by 2025. To further grease the skids of international diplomacy, he committed the United States to lead the transfer of $100 billion in annual “climate finance” from the developed world to the developing countries that are pledging nothing.

#share#The Obama administration concedes its own policies are unlikely to fulfill its own pledge. Third-party analyses, such as that from the Rhodium Group, conclude the policies will get nowhere close. Worse, all such estimates assume that the centerpiece of the Obama agenda, the Clean Power Plan, takes effect. But the Senate has passed a motion of disapproval over the rule and, in response to a legal challenge filed by the majority of states, the Supreme Court has issued an unprecedented stay that suspends its implementation. Meanwhile, as Cato’s Chip Knappenberger has highlighted, new evidence suggests that current emissions are higher than previously thought, making the hill left to climb that much steeper.

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Signing the deal under these circumstances is deeply irresponsible, and Americans will pay for it three times over for many years to come.

Most directly, taxpayers have already sent $500 million to the U.N.’s “Green Climate Fund,” and President Obama has committed billions more — that on top of the more than $10 billion spent annually on domestic green-energy subsidies.

Less directly but more painfully, efforts to cut U.S. emissions rely on policies that drive up the cost of energy for American households and businesses: rules such as the Clean Power Plan that force the substitution of costlier “green” electricity sources for cheaper fossil fuels, and taxes like the president’s “oil fee,” in his proposed 2017 budget, that aim to make fossil fuels more expensive.

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The poor, for whom energy represents a major expense, will feel most of the pinch. The Clean Power Plan and oil fee taken together would have an effect comparable to a $30-per-ton carbon tax, which would cost households in the lowest income quintile $20 billion annually. That is equivalent to raising their federal tax burden more than 160 percent.

#related#Last is the strategic bill, which will come due five years from now when the Paris Agreement calls for nations to reconvene and report on the agreement’s progress. Nations that pledged to continue on their existing course will easily announce success. The United States, probably falling short of Obama’s emissions pledge and probably unsuccessful in fulfilling Obama’s promise to corral $100 billion in annual wealth transfers, will not be so lucky.

Despite being the country that made the ambitious pledge, that pursued the costly policies, and that sent taxpayer funds abroad, it will be the United States that is “failing” on its climate commitments. The American people will find themselves the climate villains, told to do more, asked to give more. But their promise-making, deal-signing president will be long gone. And he’ll probably keep the pen.


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