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Forget Paris: On the Second Anniversary of Trump’s Pullout

Robert P Murphy, Institute for Energy Research

The Paris Agreement never had a chance of seriously denting global CO2 emissions.

Two years ago, President Trump announced he would begin the formal process of withdrawing the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement. At the time, the media and climate alarmists went ballistic—for example, famed physicist Stephen Hawking saidTrump’s action would push Earth “over the brink.” And yet, as I’ll show in this article, the Paris Agreement has always been a giant exercise in symbolism over substance; it wouldn’t come close to solving the climate “problem,” even on the terms of the alarmists. Whether one thinks climate change is a minor issue to watch, or a full-blown existential crisis, either way Trump’s action should be welcomed. By challenging the reverence for the Paris Agreement, Trump’s pullout gave permission for scientists and others to think about alternative approaches rather than globally-coordinated political control over energy and transportation.

Paris Agreement Was Going to “Fail” Even On Its Own Terms

The most important point to emphasize is that the Paris Agreement was not going to deliver humanity from the scourge of climate change, if we stipulate the alarmist rhetoric for the sake of argument. From the website, here is the latest estimate of the Paris pledges and the implied level of global warming through the year 2100:

As the figure shows, even if all of the countries (including the U.S., which is still technically part of the Agreement) met their Paris pledges, warming is projected to hit 3.0 degrees Celsius—well beyond the “safe” levels of either 1.5 or at most 2.0 degrees, which are the now-fashionable targets.

What’s worse, the figure also shows that the actual policies now in place will yield projected warming of 3.3 degrees Celsius, because it’s easier to promise to do something than to actually do it.

For another piece of evidence, consider that back in April 2017, David Roberts at Voxupdated his article arguing that no country on Earth was taking the then-popular 2 degrees Celsius target seriously. Note that this was before Trump made his announcement about Paris.

For these reasons, we shouldn’t take seriously the argument that Paris would’ve worked just great, thank you very much, except that Donald Trump came along and ruined it. (Rob Bradley patiently dismantles that particular claim over at MasterResource.)

Empty Pledges Are a Feature, Not a Bug

Now to be sure, the fans of the Paris Agreement would dismiss my criticism above, by arguing that once the basic framework of a global agreement is in place, then we can tighten down the screws and get some serious emission reductions.

Yet this is foolish optimism. The only reason so many countries signed up for Paris is that the pledges were non-binding, and beyond that, in many cases the pledges were virtually meaningless.

For example, Oren Cass back in 2015 explained that the “Intended National Determined Contributions” (INDC) of India and China were arguably less ambitious than what would probably happen under business-as-usual. In other words, India and China’s initial “bids” for what they could do to help in the battle against climate change, involved no actual sacrifice since it’s normal for countries to reduce their emissions-per-unit-of-GDP over time.

Even more hilarious, in a 2017 article Cass quoted from Pakistan’s pledge, which was “committed to reduce its emissions after reaching peak levels to the extent possible.” If you think about it, every country could quite confidently make such a pledge: Once emissions reach their peak, they would come down thereafter. That’s why the peak level would be a peak, after all.

To repeat, this is not a coincidence. The only way to get all of the governments of the world to sign on to Paris, was for them each to realize that they weren’t actually on the hook for anything. (Incidentally, the reason it’s the Paris Agreement and not the Paris Treaty is that the framers didn’t want the U.S. Senate during the Obama years to get a crack at rejecting it—the way they voted down the Kyoto Protocol during Bill Clinton’s Administration. This isn’t my conspiracy theory; the fans of aggressive government intervention on climate say the same thing.)

For this reason, it’s duplicitous for fans of Paris to cite it as a robust political framework with which to “get serious” about emission reductions. The near-unanimity of the deal would fall apart, once individual countries were expected to sacrifice their economic growth and take one for the team.

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