The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change


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Independence

Happy American Independence Day.

The best of America has always been an ideal to which reality aspires in an irregular and sometimes ambivalent way. Our principle of equality has always been marred by racism, sexism, and various other interrelated isms, and yet the principle itself is valuable as a stated goal—and for much of our history, we have enjoyed a more egalitarian, and more participatory political and legal system than much of the rest of the world. It is not true that anyone can be anything if only they work hard, but hard-working people do have more latitude here than they might, as the flow of economic refuges to our borders attests. We are not the bastion of democracy that we should be, but we are the imperfect bastion that we are.

Anyone who thinks that the United States is the greatest and most perfect country on Earth has not been paying attention. But anyone who cannot tell the difference between the US and a third-world dictatorship hasn’t been paying attention either.

So, with that caveat, I’ll get to my point: the US is not currently independent.

Russia did try to get Donald Trump elected. Whether their involvement was decisive is debatable—it’s possible he would have been elected anyway. That Candidate Trump himself actually cooperated with Russian interference on his behalf has not been proved and might not be true. Yes, his public joking, during the campaign, to the effect that Russian hackers should help him is not, by itself, a smoking gun that he actually expected him to do so, or that any quid pro quo arrangement was made between the American oligarch and any Russian counterpart. That other people connected to the campaign were actively working for, or trying to work with, foreign entities during the campaign is also not proof, nor is the fact that President Trump has some odd financial ties to foreign entities (the extent of which we don’t know because he won’t release his taxes) proof. The whole thing is suspicious as all get-out, but we don’t actually know.

But the fact remains that by attempting to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement, President Trump is acting in the interests of Russia (and Saudi Arabia) and not those of the United States. Maybe he’s doing it out of the “goodness” of his own heart, a spontaneous volunteerism with no prior planning or thought of reward, but he is acting in the interests of a foreign power.

I’ve argued previously that pulling out of Paris, and otherwise minimizing or reversing American action on climate, is the primary reason for Mr. Trump’s presidency, the true central plank of his personal platform. His rhetoric on the subject of the economy and American security, his dog-whistles to white nationalists, his consistent vocal abuse of women both individually and collectively, all of that can be chalked up to either personal proclivity or empty campaign promise. A wall on the border with Mexico would do nothing whatever to protect his constituents’ job prospects or personal safety, even if Mexico did pay to have it built. Getting out of Paris, though, is the one campaign promise he’s acted on and the only one that will actually help anyone.

It will help the owners of the fossil fuel industry.

I said that part already. What I did not point out before was the way in which acting on behalf of that industry constitutes selling out American interests in favor of those of other countries. It is true that Russia has powerful interests in oil, but so does the United States. While transnational corporations are, in some ways, independent of any country, Exxon, for example does have an American origin and the US still produces substantial amounts of coal, oil, and natural gas. It’s possible to tell this story as one of private, corporate interest, and many of the interested parties are Americans.

But the United States doesn’t need the fossil fuel industry. We have a fairly diversified economy, a highly diversified resource base, and we’re a net exporter of food. There is huge economic opportunity for us in a properly managed transition, and we’ll likely survive, or even come out ahead, as fossil fuel prices drop due to lessened demand. Russia is simply not as well prepared for the shift. Oil is its primary source of national wealth.

While I haven’t looked into what climate change will do for Russia, I don’t imagine that a rapidly warming planet is actually good for that country. And Russia did, in fact, sign the Paris Climate Agreement. But even if they don’t have less to lose that we do to a changing climate, certain elements within Russian society do have more to gain from hanging on to fossil fuel a little longer.

And we do have a lot to lose. Most of our major cities are coastal and thus vulnerable to sea level rise and a possible increase in hurricane activity. Much of our landmass is already capable of experiencing killer heat waves, and thanks to air conditioning, many of our most vulnerable citizens live in places that get dangerously hot (like Arizona and Southern Florida)—a problem that will only get worse. Increased drought and increased flooding will likely interfere with our agriculture. In many areas, our use of irrigation water is already unsustainable. The United States already gets more tornadoes than any other country on Earth, and while there is no way to tell whether climate change is increasing tornadic activity (there’s no reliable baseline data), it is a fair bet that it will. Political and economic instability in other countries caused by climate change represents a major threat to American security.

Mr. Trump is willing to risk all that for the sake of short-term economic gain—by people other than us.

I want to make very clear that I do not have anything against Russians as a people. Russia is not, at present, a free democracy, so I don’t hold its people accountable for what their leaders are doing. I also want to make clear that I’m not blaming Russia for America’s troubles. While it does seem clear we are under attack, our vulnerability to such attack is entirely home-grown. I’m only pointing out that our laws and government institutions are currently being used to protect a foreign government’s revenue stream at our expense.

241 years ago today, we told the world we weren’t going to let that happen anymore.

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About that Tango in Paris

Last week, a family member landed in the hospital. They’re out again, now. No, I will not go into any detail. Yes, that was why I was too busy, both physically and psychologically, to post.

Last week, too, President Trump announced his attention to leave the Paris climate pact. I’d been getting little notifications for a while that he was considering doing so, and that I should sign things or contact people to object. I signed nothing and contacted nobody. I felt like I was treading water, and there were other swimmers clinging to me. I could not spare the mental energy.

Would Mr. Trump have decided to stay in had I gotten involved? I’ll never know, but probably not. He’s been promising to pull out since he was a candidate, I’d be surprised if anything could have changed his mind. Anyway, to claim too much responsibility would seem both masochistic and arrogant. I’m only one person…but swallow too much of that comfort, and I’ll poison myself, come to believe I can’t make a difference at all.

The truth is I can’t change the fact that my family needed me in a very immediate way last week. Nor can I change the fact that I have emotional and physical limitations myself. Everybody does. We just have to hope that we’re not all limited at the same time in the same way, because what we’re up against does not appear to rest, or get sick, or go to sleep.

Had I posted last week, my post would have consisted only of the above, entirely glum admission.

Fortunately, in the intervening days, I have learned that getting out of Paris may be harder than Mr. Trump seems to think. And a growing number of people are deciding that even if Mr. Trump does pull out, the rest of us will stay in.

Still Politically Binding

Mr. Trump can’t just wish away the Paris climate agreement. No party to the pact can formally announce an intention to pull out until at least 2019, and such a decision won’t count as formal until at least 2020. So we’re still in until then.

To get out any earlier would require withdrawing from the 1992 UNFCCC treaty, which was ratified by the Senate–meaning that Mr. Trump can’t withdraw by executive order. He’ll need the Senate’s cooperation, which he may or may not get.

Of course, Donald Trump can simply direct his administration to ignore the agreement–this is exactly what he said he’s doing, actually–which has no real legal teeth. It was specifically designed not to have teeth, in order to avoid having to be ratified by the US Senate. It was designed to be politically binding, meaning that if a country ignores its obligations, everyone else will know to laugh and jeer at what irresponsible ignoramuses that country contains.

Well, prepare to be laughed and jeered at, because there is no mechanism whatever to get out of that one.

What Leaving Paris Means–And Doesn’t

Curiously, Mr. Trump suggested he wants to renegotiate Paris so that it is fairer to the US and doesn’t impose a cost on our businesses. Of course, that is baloney; under the agreement, each country is free to draft its own commitments. If we drafted commitments that won’t work for us (which I don’t believe, but that’s another subject), it’s hardly the fault of the negotiators at Paris.

France, Italy, and Germany lost no time in pointing out that climate action is an economic opportunity, and no, they will not renegotiate with Mr. Trump, thank you very much. They actually intend to put more of their own resources into fighting climate change, in order to make up for US negligence. Good for them.

But the reason I call Mr. Trump’s suggestion of renegotiation curious is that it indicates he feels the need to appease the environmental movement, to at least pretend to care about the climate, even as he makes it very clear that he doesn’t. That’s actually a good sign. It means he is feeling some political pressure, and if we push hard enough, he might actually back down a little. After all, Richard Nixon thought tree huggers were pretty stupid, but public pressure made him an environmentalist president anyway.

So, getting out of Paris by whatever means won’t allow us to escape our politically binding obligations, and it won’t improve the US economy. It might not even have much of an effect on individual US businesses (since we won’t be out for several more years, anyway), and it’s not really the bald-faced political shout-out to climate deniers that it seems, because Mr. Trump is trying to hedge his bets by claiming he wants to improve the agreement.

What, then, is the point?

An article on Politico argues persuasively that Mr. Trump is simply trying to thumb his nose at the global community. After all, he can’t demonstrate what a bad-boy strongman he is by building a wall against Mexico (turns out nobody will pay for it), so this is the next best thing, his demonstration that nobody can tell him what to do.

And at that, his action will be effective.

The State of the Country

In the meantime, a long and impressive list of states and other entities are signing on to Paris, or some version or equivalent of it, independent of Federal leadership.

There are three agreements involved. There is the United States Climate Alliance, which involves states individually committing to “achieving the U.S. goal of reducing emissions 26-28 percent from 2005 levels and meeting or exceeding the targets of the federal Clean Power Plan.” The Alliance will also act as a forum for supporting and implementing new and existing climate action generally.

The Climate Mayors’ Agreement is a publicly stated intention on the part of signatory mayors to also pursue climate action. We Are Still In is an open letter, signed by the leaders of cities, counties, educational institutions, businesses, and investors, stating a pro-climate intention in light of Mr. Trump’s planned withdrawal.

Now, the Alliance appears not to be legally binding. In fact, it can’t be legally binding, because the Constitution specifically forbids the states from entering into treaties with foreign powers or each other without the consent of Congress. Each individual state can legally commit to emissions-reductions goals on its own, something Hawaii has now done. Other states could follow.

The text of the Climate Mayors’ Agreement and the We Are Still In letter do not state any concrete goals and therefore they are not even politically enforceable, as of yet. That is, without goals, it will be impossible to tell whether the signatories are acting on their commitments or not. The signatories also appear to be individuals, not government entities or organizations, meaning that if any of these people leave/get fired/don’t win reelection, all bets are off. But we can hope that the publicly stated intention is a beginning on which more concrete actions and commitments will build.

Personally, I feel a good deal better this week than last. I have more hope.

Nationally, we have work to do. We need to get on this momentum and push it farther. For example, my state, Maryland, has not yet signed on. Marylanders can push our leaders to do so–and residents of other states that have not yet signed on can also push.

Your town, your county, your school, your kids’ school, your alma mater, your employer, the businesses you patronize, push all of them.

The other thing we have to do is make plans to ensure that none of the political leaders who have signed on fail to win re-election.