President Donald Trump has decided to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord. The United States never should have been in it in the first place, and it’s not even entirely clear that it ever was. In choosing American interests over Davos pieties — in the face of resistance from some within his own administration — the president here has made good on his promise to put America first.
The Paris Agreement is a treaty in all but name: The European signatories put it through their usual treaty-ratification protocols, but the United States did not. President Obama went to great lengths to pretend that the treaty was something other than a treaty because he did not wish to submit it for ratification by the Senate, which was almost sure to reject it — as, indeed, the Senate would likely reject it today. In a government of laws, process matters.
Substance matters, too, and here the Paris Agreement is deficient.
Even if one accepts, for the sake of argument, the alarmist interpretation of climate-change data, the Paris Agreement is unlikely to produce the desired result — and may not produce any result at all. Two countries that are responsible for a large share of greenhouse-gas emissions — China and India, the world largest and fourth-largest carbon dioxide emitters, respectively — have made only modest commitments under the agreement, which puts most of the onus on the more developed nations of North America and Western Europe. Both would continue to emit more carbon dioxide through at least 2030, and both have chosen, as their major commitment, not reductions in total emissions but reductions in “carbon intensity” — meaning emissions per unit of GDP. But these improvements are likely to happen anyway, irrespective of treaties or public policy, due to ordinary economic changes, such as the growth of the low-impact services sector relative to heavy industry, the aging-out of high-emissions vehicles, and the replacement of antiquated infrastructure.
There may be a certain humanitarian appeal in asking the richer nations to pay the higher price, but the developed world already is far more efficient in its use of energy. If you measure greenhouse-gas emissions relative to economic output, the United States already is more than twice as green as China, and it is a middling performer on that metric: France is five times as efficient, Norway and Sweden six times. The real cost of marginal emissions reductions is necessarily going to be much higher in Switzerland than it is in Mongolia.
The Paris Agreement fails to take that economic reality into account, and it does so in ways that could end up making emissions worse rather than improving them. For example, limiting the amount of coal consumed by North American power plants would not necessarily reduce the amount of coal consumed on Earth — and climate change is, famously, a planetary issue — but would instead most likely result in shifting coal consumption from relatively clean North American facilities to relatively dirty ones in China — the U.S. already is a net exporter of coal, and China is the world’s largest importer of it. Global energy markets are no great respecters of idealism, and the gentlemen in Beijing and New Delhi (and elsewhere) cannot reasonably be expected to adopt policies that will materially lower the standards of living of their respective peoples in order to satisfy the moral longings of Western elites. We don’t expect the powers that be in Washington to do so, either, and Trump here has chosen the right course.
The total costs of climate change to the United States would run less than 2 percent of GDP a century from now.
If you consider climate change a moral issue — and acting on it a moral imperative — then the Paris Agreement might look attractive: The desire to do something, anything at all, is very strong in environmental circles. But the question is more intelligently viewed as a question of risk assessment and cost–benefit trade-offs, in which case planning for future adaptation programs is the more intelligent course of action. As the Natural Resources Defense Council estimates the costs (and NRDC is not exactly the Heritage Foundation), the total costs of climate change to the United States — expansively defined to include everything from hurricane damage to higher food costs — would run less than 2 percent of GDP a century from now. Other studies have produced similar findings. Taking radical and expensive action in the present to avoid the possibility of a 1.8 percent hit to a GDP that will be much larger in the year 2100 than it is today is a losing proposition — especially given that the Paris Agreement is far from guaranteed to produce any meaningful results.
Climate change presents the world with genuine risks, and there is of course room for international action in addressing them. But the Paris Agreement takes the wrong approach, committing the United States to a high-cost/low-return program that secures neither our national interests nor global environmental interests. It is part of the Obama administration’s legacy of putting sentiment over substance, and the United States is better off without it.