Why Withdrawing From the Paris Accord Matters


Opinion by Jeff Bleich

Originally published on Medium 

With all of the hyperbolic statements about Donald Trump and his policies (many by Trump himself), it can be easy to treat all things as equally “disastrous.” They aren’t. Some things are just talk, some are reversible, some will have a bad but temporary impact. But Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords is different. It will have enormous and likely irreversible effects on things that matter to all of us and future generations. This is not opinion. Rarely has a decision been so roundly condemned by every person who actually understands the subject — scientists, business leaders, and economists. Here is why.

The Future of the Planet: The Paris Climate Accord was signed by 195 nations to keep the planet from warming to a level that scientists say would produce irreversible consequences. It was signed by every nation (except Syria and Nicaragua). This includes China — the highest carbon emitter in the world — and many poorer nations who recognized that they will suffer economically. They signed on not because they don’t care about their own economies, but because the science is irrefutable. Scientists’ predictions are all coming true, but faster. The polar caps are actually melting faster than scientists predicted, the “sunny day” floods in Miami confirm that oceans are rising faster than expected, and the heartbreaking destruction of the great barrier reef proves the scientists were, if anything, too conservative. The ocean is getting warmer, more acidic, and subject to extreme weather events. By ignoring facts and ignoring science, in a single act, this President cost us the most precious thing we have in the fight against climate change — time. If sea temperatures rise two degrees, there will be no way to stop our environment entering into a tailspin. With one political act, we may have lost the only time we have to stop it.

Abandonment of American Leadership: 195 nations also signed the Paris Accords in part because of American leadership. An earlier attempt in Copenhagen had been derailed by the self-interest of other nations. Only the U.S.’s commitment, and ability to bring other large emitters into line could have accomplished this deal. After abandoning our allies and partners in two major treaties in only four months, no nation on earth fully trusts that America will continue to keep its word. A leader that does not command the trust of others, can no longer command. So, this is not merely an environmental disaster, it is a body blow to American leadership. We will feel this the next time there is a terrorist attack and we need to mobilize other nations in the world as we did after September 11. We will feel this when a tyrannical nation invades the borders of another and we need to call on nations in the region to repel them. We will feel this when the lawless world of cyberspace results in some terrible event, and no rules exist to prevent it escalating. In the absence of American leadership, there is not Chinese leadership, or Russian leadership, or European leadership. There is no leadership. This may be the moment historians look back on as the beginning of the end of the American century.

The American Economy: The economic effects of some decisions are hard to predict long-term. This isn’t one of them. The American business community is virtually unanimous in opposing this decision. This includes fossil fuel companies like ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips. It includes the most aggressively capitalist company in the world, GE. They agree because this will cost America jobs, valuable patents, and competitiveness around the world. Here’s why. One of the reasons the American economy has rebounded was that we pioneered ways of extracting natural gas that made this lower carbon fuel cheaper than coal and oil. Regardless of how people feel about natural gas, it costs less in the U.S., and gave us an economic advantage. This was due to the fact that Americans saw some climate accord coming, and did what Americans do — we innovated. We created whole new industries of lower carbon products from sustainable energies to emissions free cars, and U.S. industry has invested billions of dollars in this technology. Being in the lead has generated new jobs, created entirely new industries, and given Americans an advantage. Without the incentives created by the climate accords, demand will slow down here, and the best technologists in the world will leave, while opportunities accelerate elsewhere. Money that the U.S. would have made — from patents and sales and having a built-in advantage — will be lost. And so will massive numbers of jobs. Today there are nearly as many people employed by renewable energy companies as by fossil fuel companies. This move does not save jobs, it simply preserves jobs that were dying by killing an equal number of jobs of the future.

This is not a gaffe. It is not Donald Trump insulting a diplomat. It is not him announcing a plan that Congress will never approve. It is not another ethical lapse. It is a historic decision that imperils our nation’s future.

In the face of this, the only option is for individual states to commit to reduce carbon emissions. Only California can lead here because it is the largest, most populous, and best positioned state in the Union to do so. And it must. This is not because the law requires it, not because it is popular, not because partisan politics compels it.

California must lead because — if we do not — no one else can, and all of our children will inherit a poorer and more dangerous world.

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