“Words Versus Actions” on Climate Change Deal

By Catrina Rorke

Later today, senior administration officials will meet to decide whether the United States will stay committed to the Paris agreement on climate change. It’s a tricky question, even for conservatives.

There’s upside to sticking around. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson wants the United States to stay involved; during his confirmation hearings, Tillerson said, “We’re better served by being at that table than leaving that table.” Secretary Perry at the Department of Energy argues that we shouldn’t abandon the effort but, “we need to renegotiate it.” Staying involved lets the United States frame the international debate, an attractive prospect for our diplomatic interests and ever-expanding energy industry.

On the other side, presidential advisor Steve Bannon and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Pruitt argue for abandoning the international agreement and withdrawing from negotiations. Continuing involvement in Paris may signal complicity in the Obama Administration’s climate agenda and ongoing interest in international climate action, two things directly opposed by a significant block of the president’s base. After all, the President pledged to, “cancel Paris” on the campaign trail.

By late May, the administration has assured us, we’ll know the fate of U.S. involvement.

The international community is none too pleased about the U.S. reconsidering its commitments to Paris. There’s a pervasive sense from the climate action community that if the U.S. backs away from our commitments, the global agreement will collapse and catastrophic warming will be inevitable. There’s a lot of teeth gnashing, finger pointing and fear mongering, but all this concern is overblown for several reasons.

First, the United States pledged to do more than its peers under the Paris deal. President Obama pledged that the U.S. would reduce emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. Research from the American Action Forum suggests that is a more aggressive emissions reduction target than put forward by the EU and Japan; Russia, China and India would all be permitted to increase emissions over the next decade. The Trump Administration is moving to roll back the most aggressive emissions cuts pledged in Paris and our partners know that they could be doing more.

Second, the Paris climate agreement will not achieve the emissions reductions it claims to target. Countries agreed to hold, “the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change.” The emissions reduction targets pledged by all countries, however, won’t come close to achieving that target. The United Nations Environment Programme released a report late last year finding that the world, will fall 12 to 14 gigatons short of meeting the 2°C target every year.

Third, the U.S. is already outpacing the globe in reducing emissions. Energy-related greenhouse gas emissions are already down 14 percent below 2005 levels thanks to substantial switching from coal to natural gas in the electric power sector. The U.S. led the world in emissions reductions over the last decade without comprehensive federal policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, a report from the European Commission based on most recent data showed that E.U. emissions reductions are stagnating; “after four years of decreasing annual emissions…the European Union’s CO2 emissions increased again, by 1.3 percent, in 2015.”

When Secretary Perry suggested we should renegotiate the Paris agreement, he was shedding light on this persistent irony. Though the U.S. has been much maligned as a knuckle-dragger in global climate agreements, it has far and away done the most to achieve measurable emissions reductions. Other nations have built an image of aggressive interest in fighting climate change, but have relied on policies that are long on rhetoric and short on results.

“My point is,” Secretary Perry said this week, “don’t sign an agreement and then expect us to stay in an agreement if you’re not gonna really participate and be a part of it…I said it’s about words versus actions.”

By that measure, the U.S. is leading the charge on solving the climate challenge.