The real goal is to get the government to stop tipping scales in favor of specific industry. Climate change is a manifestation of government failure to be a fair referee of the free market. We have a bunch of regulations and a bunch of subsidies that support one industry over the other.
Climate change is a failure of government. Instead of trying to achieve a free market so new technology and innovators have incentive and accessibility, we give subsidies to everyone who has a lobbyist. The biggest subsidy is the one for free pollution, which is not fair for any political system. You can’t rake your leaves onto your neighbor’s lawn. Climate change is a bunch of people raking leaves onto others’ lawns. We get to belch gasses for free. They don’t have to pay hospital fees, or any number of effects of pollution. Nobody wants to pay for their pollution. If we forced companies to pay for their pollution and removed subsidies, we have a free market where you pay for your pollution and not compete for political patronage.
-Alex Bozmoski, Director for Strategy & Operations at the Energy and Enterprise Initiative, republicEN.org, a conservative energy advocacy organization
The 23rd annual UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP 23) has just wrapped up in Bonn, Germany in what will prove to be a very interesting year for climate policy. Earlier this year, President Trump announced that the United States will withdraw from the Paris Agreement, an international agreement to reduce emissions adopted at COP 21 in Paris in 2015.
It comes as no surprise that there is a good bit of misinformation about the Paris Agreement making its way around mainstream and social media. In keeping with the rest of 2017, the Paris Agreement has become another partisan dividing point etched clearly along party lines, which is unfortunate for many reasons, not least of which being that the Paris Agreement is a low-risk commitment that reflects fundamental conservative values.
Among conservative critics, there are four major complaints about the Paris Agreement:
1. The emissions reductions goal for the US would put the country at a disadvantage – the measures required to reduce emissions by 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025 would unfairly hurt the US economy
2. President Obama didn’t get Congressional approval before joining the Agreement
3. The US taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay other countries to meet their Paris Agreement goals
4. The US shouldn’t have to help competitors (like China and India) with their reductions goals, nor should the country be unfairly restricted so that competitors with fewer restrictions can take advantage.
Points one and two can be addressed with the same fact: the Paris Agreement is not a treaty. It is a non-binding, voluntary agreement that can be renegotiated, and joining such an agreement does not require congressional approval. Rather than completely withdraw, the US can simply restipulate its emissions reductions commitments so that it is more favorable to US interests. For example, if the current commitment would harm the US economy or put the country at an unfair disadvantage, President Trump can renegotiate the terms.
In June 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni released a joint statement that stated that the terms of “the Paris Agreement cannot be renegotiated since it is a vital instrument for our planet, societies and economies.” They likely hoped that their strong stance would compel President Trump to fall in line with the agreed-upon targets for the US. However, based on the legal terms of the Paris Agreement, they cannot prevent the US from renegotiating, and in fact every member country has the same sovereign right to renegotiate.
The point of this is to establish a starting point while also allowing flexibility for policy changes, shifts in values, and changes in leadership. President Trump has full authority to change the terms of our country’s commitment, which would be a much easier and much faster process than withdrawing. Contrary to popular perceptions, the official process for withdrawing from the Paris Agreement will take almost four years. Little attention has been placed on the fact that the decision to withdraw won’t take effect before November 4th, 2020 – a detail that bears significant value since the next presidential election will take place one day prior, and a new president could re-enter the Agreement within just 30 days of being sworn in. That kind of political instability would seriously damage the country’s reputation and standing.
The Paris Agreement is not the Kyoto Protocol. In fact, the Paris Agreement is non-binding because of the Kyoto Protocol. In 1997, several months before the Kyoto Conference (COP 3), the US Senate unanimously passed the Byrd-Hagel Resolution which stipulated that the US would not become a signatory to any protocol that required unfair mandatory emissions reductions or “would result in serious harm to the economy of the United States.” A binding emissions reductions agreement would not have been approved, which leaves only one outcome: the Paris Agreement did not require congressional approval because it is non-binding, and President Obama and his administration actually played a major role in making sure that it was.
Since the Paris Agreement is voluntary and non-binding, it is important to note that there is no enforcement clause and countries are not obligated to meet their reductions goals. Failing to meet emissions reductions goals by 2025 would result in zero penalties and even in the case of the Kyoto Protocol, signatory countries failed to meet their targets and yet no penalties were incurred.
3. US taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay other countries to meet their Paris Agreement goals
This concern is a result of conflating two separate things. The Paris Agreement does not require countries to contribute to an international fund for developing nations; that is the Green Climate Fund, which is a separate (and also voluntary) fund that wealthy nations can contribute to if they so choose. The Green Climate Fund is designed to help developing nations meet their emissions goals and adapt to changes to their environment. This includes technology leapfrogging: instead of going through their own carbon-heavy industrial revolutions and increasing fossil fuel consumption, this fund can help developing nations develop 21st century energy infrastructure like wind and solar. Of course, not everybody will support sending taxpayer money to other nations, and that’s why it is a voluntary grant that is not part of the Agreement. Once again, this emphasizes the respect for national sovereignty that is built into the Paris Agreement.
4. The US shouldn’t have to help our competitors with their reductions goals, nor should it be unfairly restricted so that competitors with fewer restrictions can take advantage
This is a conflation of the Kyoto Protocol and the Green Climate Fund: there is no stipulation in the Paris Agreement that would require the US to financially support competitor nations (or any nation) and all commitments are voluntary and determined by individual nations. There can be no unfair restrictions in an agreement that is voluntary and negotiable. If the US wants to change its commitment, it has the sovereign right to do so.
So, what’s the worst that could happen to the US if it remains a party to the Paris Agreement?
Nothing, it doesn’t change a thing. In fact, simply by participating in the symbolic action of the Agreement, the US will maintain its political influence and will be an international leader in the promotion of technological innovation and free enterprise in renewable energy and sustainable technology.
As it stands, the US will either meet its goals by 2025 or it won’t, as a member of the Paris Agreement or not. Local and state governments and private companies have declared their emissions reductions commitments and support for the Paris Agreement, including the governors of 12 US states and Puerto Rico, and these major brands, among others: Apple, Amazon, eBay, Google, Intel, Microsoft, Nike, Adidas, Under Armour, Uber and Lyft. And it’s not just policymakers and CEOs, the American public also wants the country to remain in the Agreement; the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication recently conducted a poll that found that 69% of Americans say the US should participate in the Paris Agreement.
With such support among local and state leaders, companies, and individual Americans, whether or not the government officially supports the Paris Agreement will only affect the political standing of the US in the world, not the country’s ability to meet its targets. However, if the US government is an official participant in the Agreement, the efforts of US states and companies will be backed by the power of the administration; this sends a message to the world that the US will be an active and powerful influence in global politics and economics in the 21st century.
What’s the worst that could happen to the US if it withdraws from the Paris Agreement?
The country would no longer be allowed to participate in negotiations, might not even be invited to participate in conferences, and would not have any influence on decisions that could directly affect the US. This is not a position the nation wants to be in: with nearly 200 countries making decisions together, not having a seat at the table will isolate the US politically and economically. It is better to be at the table, particularly when major competitors and even enemy nations have a seat, lest unfriendly countries make decisions that could damage the US politically or economically.
A good example of this is the case of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which the US has not ratified. There are a range of views in support of and against this treaty, but by not ratifying it, the US does not have a say in decisions made by member countries – including legal claims to the Arctic Ocean and seabed. As the foremost naval force in the world, the US should be shaping decisions made regarding the Law of the Sea, but the US has isolated itself from that conversation, allowing other nations to make decisions without US input.
Beyond political isolation, the US would also lose the chance to be a leader in energy and innovation. Whether or not the nation is a leader in climate change is not a priority for everyone, but this role often comes hand-in-hand with the role as a leader in clean energy, and there are a number of countries vying for the top spot as the renewable energy powerhouse – China, India, and the European Union being examples. By stepping aside and letting other nations be leaders in energy innovation, the US will give ground to economic competitors and lose the revenue, intellectual property, and strategic value of being a leading tech innovator, especially in a field as fundamental to security and prosperity as energy.
Ultimately, a loss in global influence of this magnitude will extend to the amount of control the US will have over international politics well beyond just energy and emissions regulations. The US cannot afford to allow itself to be sidelined in what could prove to be the most influential issue in modern history.
Again, it doesn’t matter that the federal government doesn’t officially support emissions reduction efforts to mitigate climate change – it matters that the rest of the world does. The US government’s assertion that human-caused climate change is unproven will not influence the decisions made by the rest of the world’s leaders, as evidenced by the rebukes from world leaders (including North Korea, China and Russia) in response to the US withdrawing from the Paris Agreement. The world will move forward with or without the US; the transition to renewable energy will not stop because our government doesn’t approve or because the US coal and oil industry will suffer. It is not the world’s job to take care of our business, it is our country’s responsibility to make sure the transition happens in a manner that protects our own economic interests.
The Paris Agreement inherently reflects central conservative values: individual responsibility and accountability, free market enterprise and innovation, respecting national sovereignty, and expanding US influence abroad. These core values are reflected in the structure of the Agreement which lets countries set their own emissions targets and participate as much or as little as based on domestic priorities and objectives. Maintaining the country’s status as a world leader by participating in the Agreement and driving international policy will ensure that the US maintains economic and political influence. On the other hand, withdrawing from the Agreement will isolate the US, influencing international public perception and allowing other countries to seize the opportunity to overtake the US as an international leader and trading partner.
The symbolic gesture of remaining in the Paris Agreement is a zero cost scenario where the benefits are numerous but the potential losses are steep. From a conservative perspective, the cost-benefit analysis of the Paris Agreement shows that the risks of withdrawing are unjustifiable from an economic and political standpoint; we stand to lose far too much in return for an empty political gesture. Remaining in Paris is safer, less radical, less disruptive, than withdrawing.
In the end, it costs us nothing to remain in the Paris Agreement, and by doing so, it ensures our ability to exert influence on the rest of the world. But if the US continues to hold itself back on the renewable energy transition and doesn’t participate in climate change negotiations, we will be extremely vulnerable to the decisions made by the rest of the world. Federal policies designed to subsidize fossil fuels and restrict renewable energy are going to hold the country back economically, regardless of any consideration of climate change. The world is moving forward regardless – does the US want to be helplessly watching from the sidelines, or influencing decisions from a position of authority?