June 2017 Newsletter
Climate Change & Pulling out of Paris
In This Issue:
As has become the norm, the reaction to President Trump pulling the US out of the Paris Climate Accord has been either abject horror and condemnation or raucous support and praise. We will attempt to provide a more balanced and nuanced perspective on the issue this month.
First, Some Facts
Reasonable people can disagree on the extent to which human activity is influencing the change in climate and what the appropriate actions should be to mitigate the destructive potential a dramatic shift in climate would entail. But while people are entitled to opinions, they are not entitled to their own facts. And the measurable data says that the Earth’s climate is changing, the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is several standard deviations above the long-term average of the past half million years and that these changes are influencing almost every natural system on the planet.
Figure 1: Carbon Dioxide in the Atmosphere
This chart from NASA is based on the comparison of atmospheric samples contained in ice cores and more recent direct measurements, providing evidence that atmospheric CO2 has increased dramatically above the long-term average in the last 100 years.
Figure 2: Global Temperature Change 1880-2015
It is not up for debate that the globe is warming and the trend is accelerating, 2014, 2015, and 2016 set consecutive records for the hottest years on record. While 16 of the 17 warmest years on record have occurred since 2001.
Again, reasonable people can disagree what these changes will ultimately mean for weather patterns and how they will directly impact humanity, but one measurable effect is the melting of polar ice and the rising level of Earth’s oceans. There is a wide range of sea level rise projections by the year 2100, but the accepted potential range is anywhere from 2-8 feet. That may not seem like a lot, but according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), three feet would “permanently inundate areas currently home to two million Americans.” The worst case of eight feet or more would be catastrophic, creating tens of millions of rising sea refugees worldwide. This is not just a humanitarian and environmental concern but a major geopolitical and national security risk as well.
Figure 3: Global Sea Ice Decline
Global sea ice peaks in September, and we have observed a 13.3% decline in millions of sq km per decade since 1980.
Figure 4: Coastal States at Risk from Global Sea Level Rise
The intermediate projections are for approximately 3 feet of sea level rise by 2100, which will directly affect millions of Americans and billions of dollars of real estate assets.
What Does the Paris Accord Actually Say?
So, the data is clear and the trends are sobering; the Paris Accord must have been a necessary step towards combating this problem and in the words of Michael Moore, Donald Trump just committed a “crime against humanity”, right? Well, not necessarily. The best thing about the Paris Accord was that it got most of the world’s governments to agree on something. However, once one begins to read the actual terms of the agreement, it is easy to find it lacking in a number of ways.
The proponents of this deal framed it as a binary choice. As Matt Lewis writes in The Daily Beast, “you either (a) believe in the consensus on climate change and therefore support the agreement, or (b) you are a denier.” However, there is a third option; that the specific terms and framework of the deal simply weren’t very good.
One primary deficiency relates to process. This agreement was entered on the sole discretion of the executive branch, and in this country, major international agreements that affect the whole United States are considered treaties, which require Senate approval. It is likely that President Obama did not submit this treaty to Congress because he knew he didn’t have the votes to get it approved. Unfortunately, regardless of the merits of the agreement itself, that is not a good enough reason to circumvent the process. In fact, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which was ratified by congress in 1992, explicitly stated that any further agreements that put forth specific timetables or targets on emissions should be submitted to the Senate.
Process aside, the terms of the agreement are arguably lacking as well. Firstly, there are no standards by which countries set their INDC’s (intended nationally determined contributions), and that adhering to these self-defined terms are entirely voluntary, with no enforcement mechanism. This feature likely lead to what many consider the primary failing of the deal; the disparity of targets between the world’s biggest polluters; the US and China. The proponents of the deal will tout the fact that 194 countries signed on; which is almost entirely irrelevant when you consider that the bottom 100 countries contribute less than 3% of all greenhouse gas emissions and the top 10 countries contribute in excess of 70%. This was effectively an agreement among a small handful of countries.
President Obama took the stance, and perhaps rightly so, that reducing emissions is a moral imperative and that the US will achieve a drastically ambitious goal over the next 10 years, reducing our emissions by 26-28% from 2005 levels by 2025. Unfortunately, the Chinese did not set their priorities in quite the same way.
China already far exceeds our emissions, but they pledged to reach peak emissions “around 2030”, a full five years after we would have already met our aggressive target. In other words, the world’s largest polluter would not begin reducing emissions for another 15 years, while we would initiate heavy handed regulations to start cutting today. When put in that context, the idea that this was simply a “bad deal” for America is not such an outlandish statement.
Supporters will say that it doesn’t matter, we need to take drastic action now, while opponents say that this deal was unfair and put us at an economic disadvantage for the next decade and a half. What we see is that there are elements of truth to both arguments. The bottom line is that we do need to act, and we already are. US emissions are on the decline, solar employs nearly five times as many people as coal in this country, and some of the best minds in industry are committed to a future of renewable energy. What we look forward to is the continued innovation coming from the private sector, with the hopes that consumers begin to make environmentally responsible decisions as they become more economically viable.
Figure 5: Emissions Trends and Pledges
China already pollutes far more and at a staggering rate of increase, while the US and Europe are already on the decline.
Figure 6: Employment in Solar Continues to Rise
As solar technology improves, cost comes down and the economics of renewable energy make sense for households and companies to invest in it, the trend towards a sustainable energy future will only accelerate.
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