A lot has been written these last several days about the meaning, motivation and consequence of Trump’s decision to pull the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Accord; much more will be. The decision is unfortunate at many levels–not, however, at all levels.
The near-term notoriety of an issue central to life on earth—whoever you are and wherever you might be living—is a good thing. It and its many subtexts, e.g. environmental justice, federal support of energy and climate research, the reach of federal environmental regulations, etc., are topics needing to be discussed regularly by the global community—not simply after black swan events.
In these few days away from Trump’s decision, I want to address several of the issues I think most salient to Trump’s announcement and to consider how they might be addressed by clean energy and environmental advocates going forward. It is impossible to cover all the issues involved in a single blog column—actually, in a thousand columns. Still, we must start somewhere.
Scratching out notes for this article, it became clear my starting point for a post-pull-out discussion was not going to focus on hard science and statistics—nor even much on legal issues. Laws—whether of Nature or societies—are of course integral to finding workable solutions to global warming.
The disciplines of physics, engineering, materials research, economics, law and others guide us in what to use in our efforts to combat climate change. They do not, however, tell us much about why anyone chooses to combat global warming.
To even come close to understanding the why of things, we must rely on some inexact blending of softer sciences like psychology and a whole lot of anecdotal experience.
“It may be the netherworld of policymaking, but it is the world in which President Trump resides—not simply resides–RULES”
Failing to understand why anyone would defy the facts, is to fail in the effort to create a lasting framework, within which the nations of the world can collaboratively and successfully combat the common threat.
It makes absolutely no difference whether The Big D believes climate change is a hoax foisted upon the world by China. He was presented with the facts and still chose to erase the nation’s signature from the document.
In announcing his decision, he did what he always does–spoke flaringly to his supporters.
For Donald J Trump—The World Is A Stage
Thursday was a sunny afternoon in Capital City—neither too cool nor too hot. A perfect day for the business at hand. The day’s business having been Trump’s announcing his decision to pull the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Accord.
Reaction was swift. As usual, word of the decision had leaked out hours before, giving the pundits plenty of time to prepare. With tongues limbered and key boards ready—Donald John walked up to the microphone.
After a few words of concern and sympathy about the day’s terrorist attack in Manila (that no one seems sure was), the President led up to the announcement reminding the audience of the absolutely tremendous economic progress his administration has made since Election Day and the brilliance of his recently concluded trip abroad.
He made a special effort to reference his meeting with G7 and NATO nations:
In my meetings at the G7, we have taken historic steps to demand fair and reciprocal trade that gives Americans a level playing field against other nations.
These were not idle prefatory comments; they expressed the foundation of the decision to withdraw from Paris and to respond—if obliquely—to mounting criticisms of his time in office. The reminders of his tough stance with NATO and G7 nations were guaranteed to be well-received by the intensely partisan audience—one conspicuously without the Kushners, Ivanka and Jared.
The headlines have all said about the same thing. To paraphrase: He Finally Did It! Just what the It was, depends upon your point of view.
Trumpeters define the It as getting out of a bad deal that:
…undermine[s] our economy, hamstring our workers, weaken our sovereignty, impose unacceptable legal risks, and put us at a permanent disadvantage to the other countries of the world.
Climate defenders have a different opinion. Just prior to President Trump’s formal announcement, the Democrat’s most outspoken climate defender Senator Sanders (D-VT) suggested:
President Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement is an abdication of American leadership and an international disgrace. At this moment, when climate change is already causing devastating harm around the world, we do not have the moral right to turn our backs on efforts to preserve this planet for future generations.
June 1, 2017 will be etched into history as the date the U.S. broke its promise to the 194 other signatories on the Paris Climate Accord. The truth is, any chance Trump would leave the nation’s signature on the agreement was doomed when polls closed on November 8, 2016.
Think Facts Matter? Think Again
The Donald, somewhat unusually, offered statistical data to justify his Paris decision, e.g. compliance with the terms of the Accord could cost America 2.7M jobs by 2025 and cut cement production 23 percent by 2040. He was undoubtedly provided the numbers by senior staffers like Steven Miller, Stephen Bannon, Scott Pruitt and conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institute.
The three S’s have been leading the charge against the Paris Accord even before Trump’s inauguration. They are seen having beaten back the efforts of Ivanka, Jared, Secretary of State Tillerson and Energy Secretary Perry to keep the U.S. a member of the international community. Unlike their boss, these boys understand how infusing nationalist sentiments with statistical pheromones makes them mysteriously more attractive.
Statistics are by no means immutable proofs; they are meant to present absolutes, e.g. 6 not 7 clowns, relationships, e.g. A is 2x B, or directions, e.g. the trendline is rising. Their ability to accurately reflect values and directions is dependent upon the framework in which they are placed and the assumptions made.
Even seeming absolutes can be easily manipulated by how they are presented. A simple example is:
- Russia reported today its hockey team came in second in yesterday’s competition.
- The report went on to say the U.S. hockey team came in second to last.
A seemingly straightforward bit of reporting—until you bother to look up the event and discover there were only 2 teams in the competition. Is the reporter guilty of something in this example?
Certainly not of lying-exactly. The U.S. team’s position relative to the Russian was as advertised. A good case could be made for unethical, I suppose; then again, that’s something of a value judgement based on what the reporter’s readers would prefer reading. Matters ethical and deceptive—as we found out just before the November election have to do with intent.
The moral of my little story is not that numbers can lie—they can–nor that climate deniers do and defenders don’t; absolutes are rarely right, and I know deniers that don’t fabricate and defenders that do.
The takeaway is:
“…debating the numbers may not prove as successful as you would like to imagine.”
The simple reason is that for many deniers global warming is not a matter of facts but of partisan philosophy—which, ironically, is a conclusion for which I will quote some statistics to support.
Environmentalism in the U.S. used to be a fairly bipartisan issue. The Environmental Protection Agency, founded in 1970, was a product of the Nixon administration. But somewhere around 1990, everything changed. And it changed quickly, in ways that had big impacts on our ability to negotiate international environmental accords like the Paris agreement.
(The Obama administration framed the Paris accord as an agreement, which the executive branch can enact alone, not as a treaty, which would require Senate approval, but we’re comparing it to international treaties because that’s the framework it fits in best and because some experts have argued that it ought to be considered a treaty.)
Koerth-Baker references several studies in the article, including work done by the League of Conservation Voters showing a sharpening divergence between Senate Democrats and Republicans that started around 1988 (see Graph below).
The widening gap reflects where on people’s priority lists environment is placed and parallels the results of public opinion polls and calculated voter trends. The figure below showing the difference between Trump and Clinton supporters, who believe scientists understand the causes of climate change, shows the deep divide between partisans.
The graph (below) illustrating the difference between Sanders and Trump supporters is even more stark. Partisans suspicious of scientists are unlikely to accept studies put forth as evidence of climate change or its causes. The best evidence of this is Donald J. Trump.
“The central mistake of climate defenders is believing that the need for the Paris Climate Accord and the continued participation of the U.S. is an obvious and foregone conclusion once someone is shown the latest scientific study.”
The growing gap between partisans is making it increasingly more difficult to have a fair and balanced debate. What was seen in psychedelic technicolor and heard in blaring Dolby sound last November is the phenomenon of:
“I DON’T BELIEVE THE LIE, BECAUSE I BELIEVE THE LIAR.”
The obverse of this showed itself to be just as true:
“I WON’T BELIEVE THE FACTS, BECAUSE I DON’T BELIEVE WHO’S TELLING THEM TO ME.”
Legally, the Thursday announcement did not formally withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Agreement. It merely announced the President’s intention of doing so.
Legal niceties notwithstanding, there is not a whole lot that can actually be done in the real world to force the U.S. to make good on its promises or to enforce its signature on the Agreement. One of the real—although often only whispered—weaknesses of the Agreement is national promises are voluntary and not enforceable under the terms of the Accord.
The actual withdrawal, according to Axios, is being worked on by a small team of administration officials, including EPA Administrator Pruitt. The group must first decide whether to initiate a full and formal withdrawal or exit the underlying 1992 United Nations Climate Change Treaty (UNFCCC).
The two alternatives differ in substantial ways:
Article 28 of the Accord permits any nation to notice its withdrawal three years from the date the Agreement entered into force—November 4, 2016. The earliest the U.S. issue its notice is November 4, 2019. The June 1, 2017 announcement is not technically a notice to withdraw then.
The terms of the Agreement state that upon formal notice, the actual date of withdrawal does not occur any sooner than 1 year. In this case, November 4, 2020.
Exiting the 1992 treaty is a much bigger deal arguably requiring Senate approval. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change of 1992 is a recognized treaty–ratified by President G.H.W. Bush after a Senate vote. To reverse the commitment would take a 2/3 vote of the Senate, as it took a 2/3 vote to originally ratify the treaty.
A major point of contention of supporters of the Paris Accord has been President Obama’s signing the document as an executive action. Obama claimed the Accord was not a treaty and, therefore, not subject to Senate approval. The overriding authority cited was the UNFCCC.
Obama took the initiative because the Republican Senate majority had indicated its opposition to the Agreement. Similarly Republican opposition to the Clean Power Plan prompted unilateral executive action, that has now been ordered reviewed by President Trump via executive order.
The interpretation of the need to formally withdraw from the UNFCCC is arguable; it is by no means presumptive or even obvious. As a practical matter, a successful legal challenge of President Trump’s unilateral withdrawal of U.S. participation in the Accord is unlikely.
Unlike the challenge to Obama’s Clean Power Plan (CPP), a case brought before federal courts is also unlikely to engender a stay of the proposed action. More to the point, the Trump administration and Republican congressional majorities are in the process of de-regulating and de-funding federal environmental and clean energy programs, effectively already taking the steps to implement Trump’s intended pull-back of federal climate protection policies and programs.
If you’re thinking the disregard of substantive statistical and legal arguments makes fair and constructive debate difficult, you’re right. If you are thinking this makes it impossible for deniers ever to become defenders of the environment, think again.
Part 2 of the Paris Yearning series will begin to focus on several of the issues most salient to Trump’s announcement and to suggest how they might be addressed by clean energy and climate advocates going forward. It is impossible to cover all the issues in a single blog column–actually in a thousand columns.
The issues addressed in the next part will begin a longer series of periodic posts examining the arguments—pro and con—used by the Trump administration and Congressional climate deniers to winnow down efforts by the U.S. to study and combat climate change.
Photo Credits Part 1:
Featured image: Courtesy of www.unsplash.com/ photo by Souroush Karimi—graffiti mine.