On Thursday, President Trump announced that the United States will pull out of the Paris Agreement on climate change. Judging from Trump’s speech in the White House Rose Garden, he based this decision on false information, false logic, and a false understanding of what the agreement was supposed to accomplish. According to a senior White House official, the fact that it also disappointed European allies was “a secondary benefit.”
There’s an argument to be made that Trump’s decision to pull out of the climate deal isn’t as big a deal as it’s being made out to be — because we were already doomed. The goal of the agreement is to prevent the global temperature from rising 2°C (3.6°F) by 2100. The U.S. is the world’s second-largest source of climate pollution, and its cuts would have made up more than a fifth of the climate agreement’s emissions reductions by 2030. As the Washington Post explains, even in the best of circumstances, the Paris agreement might not be ambitious enough:
… even with the United States and all other countries doing their best to meet their commitments, that agreement still was not strong enough, at least not in its first round of country-level pledges, to keep the world from warming above the threshold of 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) that scientists have identified as a marker beyond which we’ll see truly “dangerous” change. (We’re already a bit over 1 degrees Celsius now above preindustrial temperatures.)
These national pledges are voluntary, so the biggest blow to the Paris agreement came on November 8, when America elected a man who embraces climate-change denial and swiftly began rolling back his predecessor’s progress on the issue.
As The New Republic’s Emily Atkin wrote, there’s hope that Trump’s decision will spur others to get serious about climate change:
Leaving, on the other hand, could be the wake-up call the country needs. Americans are notoriously apathetic about climate change. Perhaps abandoning our commitments will finally generate the widespread moral outrage and fear needed to effectively address the crisis. Perhaps a lack of federal government action will motivate state and local governments to amp up their own emissions-reduction efforts. And perhaps the absence of the U.S. in climate negotiations will strengthen the resolve of the rest of the world to fight this existential problem.
But regardless of the precise moment Trump undermined the achievements of the Paris accord, or whether there’s still a way to save ourselves, ditching the best framework we’ve come up with for coming together to fight climate change is still horrible. Here’s a look at the consequences.
Trump accurately noted on Thursday that even if all nations meet the commitments they made under the Paris Agreement, research suggests it would only reduce the global temperature by two tenths of one degree Celsius by 2100 — a “tiny, tiny amount.”
John Reilly, the lead author of the 2015 Massachusetts Institute of Technology report that number was pulled from, explained that the agreement allows countries to increase their commitments, and emphasized that the authors’ point was that more work is needed.
“The logic that, ‘This isn’t making much progress on a serious problem, therefore we’re going to do nothing,’ just doesn’t make sense to me,” Reilly told the Washington Post. “The conclusion should be — and our intended implication for people was — not to overly celebrate Paris, because you still have a long journey in front of you. So carb up for the rest of the trip.”
Plus, small changes in global temperatures could have massive consequences. For instance, a 2013 study predicted sea levels could rise by 2.3 meters for each degree Celsius of global warming. Even tiny levels of sea rise could mean more frequent and more destructive storms.
There are many factors that influence global warming aside from the U.S. federal government, so it’s hard to predict the exact impact of Trump’s decision. The AP took the question to two dozen scientists and one group predicted that if the U.S. alone fails to meet its emissions targets, the planet would warm by 0.3 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. Another group put the number at 0.1 to 0.2 degrees Celsius.
Each fraction of a degree means we’re likely to pass the 2-degree threshold faster, which would result in “ecosystems being out of whack with the climate, trouble farming current crops and increasing shortages of food and water,” according to the National Center for Atmospheric Research’s Kevin Trenberth.
The Fossil-Fuel Industry
Trump complained that under the Paris agreement, “China will be allowed to build hundreds of additional coal plants. So, we can’t build the plants, but they can, according to this agreement. India will be allowed to double its coal production by 2020.”
The agreement says no such thing. The coal industry is declining in China, India, and the U.S. due to market forces. Other energy sources like natural gas, wind, and solar are cheaper and cleaner. CNBC reported in January that Trump may not be able to curb the push toward wind and solar power:
… investors say goals adopted by more than half of U.S. states are what’s driving growth in renewable energy projects, and Trump will have little effect on these efforts. They also note that more corporations are pledging to draw power from renewable sources, and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle last month renewed subsidies for solar and wind energy firms.
Pulling out of the Paris Agreement won’t save America’s fossil fuel industry, and according to coal companies themselves, it might actually hurt them. Several major U.S. coal companies, including Cloud Peak Energy Inc and Peabody Energy Corp., urged the Trump administration to stay in the agreement.
“The future is foreign markets, so the last thing you want to do if you are a coal company is to give up a U.S. seat in the international climate discussions and let the Europeans control the agenda,” a U.S. official told Reuters. “They can’t afford for the most powerful advocate for fossil fuels to be away from the table.”
Trump repeatedly emphasized that his decision would protect American workers, and he cited an estimate by the conservative Heritage Foundation, claiming that the Paris Agreement could “cost America as much as 2.7 million lost jobs by 2025.”
He mentioned the coal industry several times (noting at one point, “I happen to love the coal miners”), but ignored jobs in renewable energy, which employs more Americans. As Forbes reported in January, figures from the U.S. Department of Energy showed “solar power employed 43 percent of the Electric Power Generation sector’s workforce in 2016, while fossil fuels combined accounted for just 22 percent.”
Once again, other factors may mitigate Trump’s influence over the energy sector, but it seems focusing on renewable energy would do more for job growth.
“It sends a signal both to companies and the 3 million people here who work in clean energy that America doesn’t care about those jobs, and America doesn’t care about the fastest-growing industry in the country,” Bob Keefe, executive director of Environmental Entrepreneurs, a nonpartisan group of business owners and investors, told Fast Company.
Many top U.S. companies — including Apple, Google, Dow Chemical, Exxon Mobil, and Goldman Sachs — had urged Trump to stay in the Paris Agreement. They expressed disappointment over his decision, but said it would have little immediate impact on their plans. The Wall Street Journal reported that their reasons were varied; some operate in states or foreign countries working to cap emissions, while others face pressure from customers and shareholders.
As the Financial Times noted, there’s now a risk that other countries could impose retaliatory tariffs if they “believe they are being forced to bear an unfair share of the burden of tackling a global problem.”
Trump claimed, “Full compliance with the agreement could ultimately shrink America’s GDP by $2.5 trillion over a ten-year period.” Roberton C. Williams III, a resource economist at the University of Maryland, told factcheck.org that calculation, which came from the Heritage Foundation, was a “reasonable estimate,” but it was “expressed in a misleading way.”
The standard, he said, is to express lost GDP as a percentage of total GDP. So the foundation’s total amount — $2.5 trillion in lost GDP by 2035 — would be equivalent to a 0.55 percent decrease on average in the total GDP per year, he calculated. Williams also emphasized that the annual 0.55 percent reduction in total GDP is not to be confused with a 0.55 percent drop in the real GDP growth rate, which was 1.6 percent in 2016. The total U.S. GDP was $18.6 trillion in 2016.
Geoffrey Heal, a resource and environmental economist at Columbia University, looked at the figure in a different way. “The Paris Agreement will cost little or nothing and allowing climate change to proceed would be very expensive indeed,” he said.
As Vox notes, the U.S. pulling out of the Paris accord could be “disastrous” for the global poor:
The World Bank estimates climate effects could push 100 million people worldwide into poverty over the next 15 years. A recent report from the Climate Impact Lab projects that the most damaging effects of climate change will be concentrated in “hot, poor countries” in regions such as Latin America and Southeast Asia, and in sub-Saharan Africa, where climate change is already associated with falling crop production due to record-setting drought.
Trump made it very clear that his decision was about putting “America first,” saying, “I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.” But aside from being morally reprehensible, letting millions of foreigners fall into poverty would hurt America too. Keith Martin, executive director of the Consortium of Universities for Global Health, noted in a L.A. Times op-ed that the Department of Defense has called global warming “an urgent and growing threat to our national security”:
Those serving in the military know better than anyone the effect that poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, poor leadership and weak political institutions can have on nations. On their own these problems are major causes of instability. Compounded by climate change, they will only be exacerbated, creating conflict and humanitarian disasters.
Aside from economic and environmental factors, global warming also endangers human health in a wide variety of ways, from raising the risk of epidemics to increasing the incidence of certain cancers. This isn’t a far-off threat; as Vox notes, studies suggest global warming has exacerbated health issues in just the past few decades.
In one large study involving 450,000 Americans followed between 1982 and 2004, researchers found that increased exposure to the particles in fossil fuel emissions increased the risk of death from heart disease — and particles from coal burning were five times more damaging than other similar particles.
Reducing emissions from coal-fired power plants makes it easier to breathe. Over the past 30 years, the percentage of Americans with asthma has more than doubled, and climate change has been a significant driver of that trend. Air pollution triggers asthma attacks, contributing to lung abnormalities, particularly in the developing pulmonary systems of children.
Public-health experts were furious about Trump’s decision. “Climate change is already harming the health of people in the United States and worldwide through degraded air quality, heat waves, droughts, extreme storms, disease outbreaks, and more,” said Harold P. Wimmer, national president and CEO of the American Lung Association. “Unchecked climate change is a global health crisis that threatens to reverse decades of health gains worldwide, with serious consequences for our children and generations to come.”
Pulling out of the Paris accord is expected to contribute significantly to the decline in America’s global influence under President Trump.
“It’s going to seriously complicate any effort President Trump makes to build a counterterrorism coalition or mobilize the West on any set of policy issues,” Bruce Jones, director of the foreign-policy program at the Brookings Institution, told the Post.
Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, have taken the defeat in stride, according to two people familiar with their thinking on the issue. Their view of their roles in the White House is that they’re playing the long game, helping the president to be successful. And they don’t tally their own influence day-by-day or bill-by-bill.
But in a few decades Trump’s children and grandchildren will likely have a much harder time dealing with his derailment of the fight against global warming. Thanks to rising tides, in 30 years Mar-a-Lago could be under a foot of water for two-thirds of the year, according to an analysis by The Guardian. By 2100, Trump’s Florida resort may be underwater year-round.