Cool Your Jets About Paris

Let’s not make a fetish of the Paris agreement. It is not NATO. It is not even NAFTA.

Niall Ferguson

It was as if the world’s oceans rose by a foot in a day. No decision since President Trump’s election has aroused a bigger storm than his decision last week to withdraw from the Paris climate accord. Murray Energy, America’s largest private coal miner, applauded. Pretty much everyone else with a Twitter account was against.

Of course, you would expect the Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer to call it a “devastating failure of historic proportions.” You knew former president Barack Obama would be unable to resist condemning Trump for “reject[ing] the future.” And you can’t have been surprised to see The Economist’s editorial head explode (“unconscionable and fatuous”).

More startling were the objections by some of America’s biggest corporations: not only Apple but also General Electric, Dow Chemical, and even Exxon Mobil. The boss of Goldman Sachs took to Twitter to condemn Trump. The boldest entrepreneur of our time, Tesla’s Elon Musk, declared that he was withdrawing from the president’s advisory councils.

Conspicuously absent from the Rose Garden, where Trump made his announcement, were Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who used to run Exxon, and the president’s daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner. Even the Democratic mayor of Pittsburgh disavowed Trump, rebutting the president’s claim that he was “represent[ing] the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.”

Yes: If the goal of this announcement was to reestablish the coalition of “globalists” that Trump ran against last year, then this was a resounding triumph for his populist éminence grise, Steve Bannon.

My view on global warming has always been that I am not qualified to judge the science, but I can take a view on the most rational form and scale of insurance. The plausible costs in terms of flooding, harvest failure, and mass migration will end up being borne by our children and grandchildren more than by us. We therefore need to pay an insurance premium on their behalf, and the obvious one is to invest in technology that reduces carbon dioxide emissions, if necessary encouraging such investment with subsidies for clean energy and taxes on “dirty” industries.

You can be a climate change “denier” and still support this approach. Roughly half of American greenhouse gas emissions are produced by road transport and buildings, twice as much as can be attributed to the manufacturing industry. Making the American way of life less dirty and wasteful seems an uncontroversial goal, and reducing the fossil fuel consumption of cars, trucks, and buildings is the obvious way to go. We should therefore all live in solar-heated apartments close to our solar-heated workplaces, recycling all waste products and covering longer distances in electric cars, preferably self-driving, since artificial intelligence drives more safely than humans do.

The trouble is that getting from where we are now to that city of the future is far from easy, and there will be many losers along the way. In his speech on Thursday, Trump justified withdrawing from Paris in terms of protecting manufacturing and mining jobs — “and I happen to love the coal miners,” he added. “It is time to put Youngstown, Ohio, Detroit, Michigan, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania . . . before Paris, France,” declared Trump, not to mention before Beijing, China, the world’s number one polluter. I hate to say it, but this is not stupid politics.

Let’s not make a fetish of the Paris agreement. It is not NATO. It is not even NAFTA. It is a nonbinding accord, dependent on voluntary commitments (“nationally determined contributions”). Unlike its predecessor, the Kyoto Protocol (which the last Republican president also pulled out of), it does not set targets with legal force. Does China gain more from Paris than the United States? Yes. China’s commitment is only that its CO2 emissions will peak by 2030, at the latest. The US commitment was to cut its 2005 level of emissions by 26-28 percent by 2025. (It is already halfway there.)

The Paris agreement asks democratic polities to make sacrifices for future generations. They have become quite bad at that. It asks rich countries to make sacrifices for poorer countries. This, too, has become a hard sell. It asks the American Empire to bind itself to a supranational agreement. The Empire does not like doing that, which is why it is also not a member of the Inaternational Criminal Court and has not ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The Paris agreement also asks a country in the midst of a fossil-fuel revolution (the extraction of shale gas and tight oil) to restrain its development of these resources.

Above all, Paris asks inland Americans to make sacrifices for coastal Americans. Funnily enough, people in Middle America don’t worry much about rising sea-levels; they do worry about job losses caused by environmental regulations. True, on average around 70 percent of Americans think global warming is happening (though only 40 percent think it will harm them personally). But the states with below-average concern about climate change are the states that voted for Trump. Meanwhile, California and the other liberal strongholds can go ahead and stick to the Paris agreement if they so choose. I predict they will and that US emissions will continue to fall.

President Trump has been much mocked for a sleepy, late-night tweet that introduced to the world the word “covfefe.” I have a message to his virtue-signaling critics: Wake up and smell the covfefe.


This piece was originally published in The Boston Globe