Stop Freaking Out about the Paris Agreement

Published June 1, 2017

The Week

President Trump has signaled pretty heavily that he wants to pull the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement, and is widely expected to make it official Thursday afternoon.

Cue the impassioned indignation!

The leaders of all other G7 nations have urged Trump to remain in the accord, which seeks to limit greenhouse gas emissions and has been signed by every nation on Earth except Nicaragua and Syria. Secretary of State (and former oilman) Rex Tillerson also wants the U.S. to stay committed to the agreement. Large corporations have opposed the move, and Tesla CEO Elon Musk even threatened to resign from Trump’s CEO advisory council if Trump goes through with it. And of course, no debate about the environment would be complete without Hollywood’s expert opinions. Mark Ruffalo tweeted that Trump would “have the death of whole nations on his hands” (whole nations! Not just parts of nations, whole nations!); Don Cheadle implored the president to change his mind because of the children (won’t someone think of the children?!). Meanwhile Trump has reminded everyone that withdrawing from the Paris Agreement was a campaign promise of his, and has said that it hurts jobs in the Rust Belt, which is a core issue for his core constituency.

But really, all this outrage and controversy is absolute nonsense.

Ever since it was signed in 2015, the Paris Agreement has been a totem to which everyone genuflects. The problem, though, is that beyond allowing people an opportunity to do some serious virtue signaling, the Paris Agreement actually doesn’t do much of anything.

This is not rhetorical exaggeration. As the Manhattan Institute’s Oren Cass has pointed out, each nation’s emissions reduction commitment is based on what is known as “Intended Nationally Determined Contribution” (INDC). In English? That means each nation under the agreement gets to decide how much it wants to reduce its emissions.

This might do some marginal good if you could at least compare emissions and maybe have transparency that would allow NGOs and others to name, shame, and nudge countries that do not reduce their emissions significantly, but developing countries vetoed a move that would have forced participants to set their targets under commonly shared metrics. A number of developing countries, chief among them China and India, have successfully lobbied so that “any obligatory review mechanism for increasing individual efforts of developing countries” was rejected from the Paris framework.

In other words, any country can state whatever metrics it wants. A country can submit a paper napkin that says “covfefe” as its emissions target, and then some years later, declare it has reached its emissions target. And that’s pretty much what has happened. China’s “target” for emissions “reductions” is actually less ambitious than the business-as-usual level, according to an analysis by Bloomberg; in other words, if China does nothing at all to reduce emissions, it will comfortably meet its target. But China at least forecasts some emissions reduction. India’s target shows emissions never peaking or reducing. And yet it is still asking for $2.5 trillion in international aid to meet its “goal.”

This might be why some estimates suggest that the “reductions” the Paris deal will “accomplish” show no improvement at all over the emissions baseline projected by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2000.

Whether you believe climate change is the most serious and pressing issue facing the world, or you believe it’s a big hoax, it doesn’t change the fact that the Paris deal is and always has been a bust. When Mark Ruffalo (or Angela Merkel, for that matter) warns of the dire consequences of leaving the Paris accord, they are blowing smoke. But that also applies to Trump when he claims that leaving the Paris accord will save jobs in the Rust Belt.

So, what will the consequences of leaving the Paris deal actually be? You can argue that by leaving, Trump would signal even more his intent to pull the U.S. out of multilateral frameworks, and that this would further damage relationships with allies. But you could also argue that the United States government lending its credibility to what is really an elaborate charade also damages its standing. It’s all about how the accord is perceived, not what it actually does, which is zippo.

I think climate change is real and worrisome. But I also think it tends to be overblown as a threat, and I’m skeptical of centralized solutions. So this whole theater mostly makes me smirk.

Most of the noise about climate change, like the overpopulation movement before it, has very little to do with the actual substance of climate change, and a lot to do with signaling one’s virtue. If that’s the main thing the Paris deal is supposed to accomplish, then not only is it very successful, but it provides the best explanation for why this issue is generating such passion on both sides to begin with. The most vicious fights, after all, are often the ones where the stakes are the lowest. If the Paris deal actually did something, you might argue about its messy particulars, you might find that it has tradeoffs, and you might try to find compromises.

But if it’s just a symbol, then all that’s left to argue about is just how evil those people are who don’t bow to the symbol.

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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