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After Paris: Next Steps for the Trump Administration’s International Climate Agenda

Nicolas Loris, Heritage Foundation

President Trump announced his intentions to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Agreement. On multiple occasions since the announcement, he has mentioned renegotiating the agreement. No amount of negotiating will change the fact that international climate accords are costly non-solutions that commit both the developed and developing world to lower standards of living.

If the President does attempt to renegotiate the Paris Agreement, he should insist that the agreement inflict no economic harm, make meaningful climate benefits, and be submitted to the Senate for advice and consent. Ultimately, however, the President should recognize the framework is an unworkable and ineffective tool for addressing climate change and withdraw from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.


In June, President Trump announced that the U.S. would withdraw from the Paris climate accord. Withdrawing from the Paris Agreement is a wise decision. Compliance would impose significant costs on the U.S. economy and allocate billions of taxpayer dollars to subsidize green energy technologies that are not commercially viable. Indeed, in the highly unlikely event that every country met its promised targets from the agreement, the abated warming would be practically undetectable.

The U.S. must wait until November 2019 to formally submit a notice of withdrawal, which would take effect a year later. President Trump can take several steps in the meantime to protect taxpayers and expedite the withdrawal process:

  • Withdraw from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which has proven to be a costly, ineffective, and unworkable tool for addressing climate change.
  • Make any future agreements (including possible re-entry to the UNFCCC) contingent on ratification from the Senate, thus preventing any future administration from circumventing the treaty process—as President Obama did with the Paris Agreement.
  • Cease from making any further contributions to the Green Climate Fund, which was conceived as a tool for incentivizing developing country participation in the Paris accord, but in reality distorts energy markets and encourages corruption. The U.S. should instead use its seat on the Fund’s board to encourage funding of targeted, effective adaptation projects.

In addition, if renegotiation of the Paris Agreement becomes a reality, as President Trump mentioned, the U.S. should set strict conditions for rejoining what remains a fundamentally flawed and misconceived project. The U.S. also needs to take advantage of its leadership role in the areas of energy and environment to demand and produce improved scientific data on climate change.

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Current Energy and Climate Change Realities

Proponents of the Paris Agreement argue that the accord is just a first step, and that even a little progress toward abated warming is a step in the right direction. Further, proponents claim that minimal temperature impacts do not take into account potentially more aggressive greenhouse gas cuts beyond 2030.

However, the supposition that countries will stick with their respective targets leading up to 2030 and that post-Paris negotiations will lead to deep global de-carbonization of the energy is a rather large and very generous assumption, if not purely wishful thinking.

Flaw Number One: Business-as-Usual Economics. A critical flaw in the Paris Agreement is its perpetuation of business-as-usual, particularly for the developing world. In fact, the current and projected use of fossil fuels, including coal, indicate neither near-term nor long-term targets are attainable. The business-as-usual aspect of Paris is evident in the world’s continued pursuit of more coal as a dependable energy source.

  • Climate Action Tracker estimates that more than 2,400 coal-fired power plants will be constructed by 2030, the vast majority in developing countries.
  • Berlin-based Urgewald projects a lower but still significantly high count of 1,600 new coal-fired generation plants under construction or planned, resulting in 840,000 megawatts of new capacity.

Prioritizing economic growth in the developing world will increase greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Along with China and India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Pakistan, South Africa, Thailand, Turkey, Vietnam, Zimbabwe, and many others are building or proposing to build new coal plants at a rapid clip

In total, Urgewald calculates that new plant estimates represent a 43 percent global expansion of coal spread across 62 different countries, 14 of which previously have not had any coal power at all.

Pakistan, in its nationally determined contribution (NDC), which outlines what each country will do to combat global warming, quite bluntly stated:

Given the future economic growth and associated growth in the energy sector, the peaking of emissions in Pakistan is expected to take place much beyond the year 2030. An exponential increase of GHG emissions for many decades is likely to occur before any decrease in emissions can be expected.

The continued use of coal demonstrates the futility of the Paris Agreement in achieving any averted warming.

Furthermore, there is no guarantee the industrialized world will meet their own targets. Developed countries such as Germany, Japan, Poland, and South Korea also have plans for significant coal plant expansions

Japan plans to build 41 coal-fired electricity-generating units, which it admits will make it very challenging to meet its NDC.

Flaw Number Two: Zero Accountability. The Paris Agreement is non-binding, and countries would face no legal repercussions if they fail to meet their respective pledges. If past international commitments are any indication, many countries could fall short of their Paris pledges.

The predecessor to Paris, the Kyoto Protocol, had legally binding but largely unsuccessful GHG targets.

As President Obama frankly put it, “Kyoto was legally binding and everybody still fell short anyway.”

Nearly half of the 36 countries with binding GHG emissions targets failed to meet the first round of commitments. Many countries had to buy carbon credits to meet their pledges and were aided by the 2008 financial recession that slowed economic output and consequently reduced emissions. For former Soviet states, emissions were falling before Kyoto was signed.

Canada withdrew from Kyoto in 2012; Japan, New Zealand, and Russia stated that they would not participate in the second commitment period of Kyoto requiring additional cuts in GHG emissions. A non-binding accord like the Paris Agreement, which perpetuates the economic status quo for the developed and developing worlds alike, can hardly hope for a better outcome.

Projecting the shape and scope of climate policy, the energy mix, or the global economy beyond 2030 is an immensely difficult task. Global coal consumption may be significantly lower than projected, or, as energy demands grow, consumption could increase. It is unwise for the U.S. to base costly, ineffective policy today on an unrealistic dream for present day reality and unknowable future energy markets.


Issues with Paris Agreement and UNFCCC Indicate Need for Improved Climate Science

Despite constant use of the words “settled science” and “consensus,” climatologists disagree on a wide range of issues, including:

  • The various causes of climate change,
  • The rate at which the earth is warming,
  • The exact effect of man-made emissions on warming,
  • The most accurate climate data and temperature sets to use, and
  • The accuracy of climate models and how to correct for their biases.

Even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projects a wide range of uncertainty in its projected future warming. Yet, the IPCC has had a powerful role in defining the scientific and political conversation and conclusions about global warming, especially through its guide for policymakers. Its prematurely declared “consensus” that global warming is dangerous, accelerating, and instigated by CO2 has had a far-reaching influence, conflating scientific research with certain economic, energy, agricultural, and social policies. Consequently, many scientists and scientific institutions have become quasi-political lobbies.

Climatologist and former chair of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology Judith Curry recently testified on this issue before the House of Representatives, arguing,

Cognitive biases in the context of an institutionalized consensus building process have arguably resulted in the consensus becoming increasingly confirmed in a self-reinforcing way. An extended group of scientists derive their confidence in the consensus in a second-hand manner from the institutional authority of the IPCC and the emphatic nature in which the consensus is portrayed. This “invisible hand” marginalizes skeptical perspectives and is operating to the substantial detriment of climate science, as well as biasing policies that are informed by climate science. Premature theories enforced by an explicit consensus building process harm scientific progress because of the questions that don’t get asked and the investigations that aren’t undertaken.

Physicist Steven Koonin, former undersecretary of energy for science in the Obama Administration, proposed having a climate “Red Team/Blue Team.” Inspired by the national security community’s Red Team exercise to challenge assumptions, reduce risks and uncertainties, and correct for biases, a Red Team/Blue Team would provide a public, transparent back-and-forth on major issues surrounding climate science.

An anecdote from Koonin’s time at the White House provides telling evidence for the usefulness of this exercise:

The public is largely unaware of the intense debates within climate science. At a recent national laboratory meeting, I observed more than 100 active government and university researchers challenge one another as they strove to separate human impacts from the climate’s natural variability. At issue were not nuances but fundamental aspects of our understanding, such as the apparent—and unexpected—slowing of global sea level rise over the past two decades. Summaries of scientific assessments meant to inform decision makers, such as the United Nations’ Summary for Policy Makers, largely fail to capture this vibrant and developing science.

Objective, transparent science should be an important tool to guide public policy. Independent efforts to more accurately determine the severity of climate change would better inform policymakers so that they can take any necessary actions that are cost-effective, verifiable, and effectual. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt recently announced his agency would be launching a Red Team to carry out a critique.

Carrying the Red Team approach over to the IPCC would be a useful step regardless of whether President Trump attempts to renegotiate Paris, because it would better inform Members of Congress on climate and energy policy.

Next Steps After Paris Agreement: An Opportunity to Demonstrate American Leadership

The Paris Agreement, which committed the U.S. to drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions, was a terrible deal across the board. It would have hurt American taxpayers, American energy companies, and every single American who depends on affordable, reliable energy. It likely will hurt those countries that remain in the agreement. President Trump’s announcement that the U.S. will withdraw from the Paris Agreement was a step in the right direction. The Trump Administration should follow through by withdrawing from the UNFCCC. Renegotiating the Paris Agreement is a non-starter because there would be no terms that would assuage the economic concerns of the deal or achieve any meaningful climate benefit. As the U.S. moves forward with the Green Climate Fund, delegates should make clear that the U.S. will not disperse new funds but will use its seat on the Fund’s board to push for effective adaptation efforts.

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