It would take herculean effort for even the most optimistic to find any redeeming value in President Trump’s ill-conceived withdrawal of U.S. support from the 2015 Paris climate agreement.
The negatives are so obvious and loom so large they overshadow the one good thing that might come from abandoning the other 195 signatories and allying ourselves with Syria and Nicaragua — the two countries declining to participate in the global effort to slow the choking of our atmosphere with greenhouse gases (GHG).
The Paris meeting was the culmination of UN efforts since 1988, through its Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, to develop global consensus on the threat posed by global warming and ways to curb GHG emissions. Unfortunately, the resulting reduction pledges are insufficient to keep the increasing temperatures below 2°C (3.6°F) — the level thought to enable us to dodge the worst effects of the warming. But, still, it was the first time the entire world — with two minor exceptions — agreed to work together to reduce the impact of the climate crisis.
The withdrawal of the U.S. from the pact severely reduces its ability to significantly mitigate the problem. Our annual contribution to world CO₂ pollution is 7 billion tons, about 20 percent of the total. That ranks the U.S. as the No. 2 global polluter, with China just ahead at 8 billion tons.
Without concerted efforts by the U.S. to reduce its GHG emissions — efforts to meet our Paris pledge — the entire enterprise can be compromised. Our pledge — and it’s relatively modest — is to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28 percent below the 2005 level by 2025.
Here’s an aside to explain why the situation is so dire and why so many believe we’ve already passed the tipping point — why Paris was too little, too late.
Ask a chemist about the CO₂ molecule. What you’ll hear is frightening. The molecule is “robust” — it doesn’t disintegrate or dissolve easily. In fact, it can take up to 90 years for it to dissolve in the atmosphere. So any molecule coming out of a coal-fired power plant or an automotive exhaust pipe today could still be up there causing trouble until 2107. And, globally, we’re pumping an estimated 35-40 billion tons into the atmosphere annually. That’s over 1,000 tons a second.
The concentration of CO₂ in the atmosphere exceeded 400 parts-per-million last September — a level we’re told ensures the warming will be self-perpetuating. Paleoclimatologists maintain that the last time CO₂ levels were that high — 800,000 years ago — the global temperature was 11°F warmer than today; the seas 100 feet higher. And that’s where we’re heading.
The best that can be said is that rigorous implementation of pledges by Paris Accord signatories can help slow, but not stop, the warming.
So, what’s the good news about Trump’s reneging on our commitment to the planet? The initial outpouring of anger and frustration is leading to concerted efforts to meet our obligations — without Trump.
On June 7, representatives of MoveOn.Org delivered a petition with 2.5 million signatures to the UN, where a meeting on climate action was being held. The petition stated, in part: “We, the undersigned people of the United States of America, commit to mitigating climate change and sign on to the Paris climate change agreement.”
On June 5, Michael Bloomberg, former New York Mayor and special UN envoy on cities and climate change, announced the formation of an organization — http://wearestillin.com — with more than 1,200 members, including mayors, governors, college and university leaders, businesses and investors. In a letter to the UN, Bloomberg declared all are joining forces for the first time to declare continued support for climate action necessary to meet our commitment in the Paris agreement.
On June 5, California’s Gov. Jerry Brown, attending a clean energy conference in Beijing, signed an agreement with China to work together on reducing emissions. He warned that “disaster still looms” without urgent action. He claimed Trump’s withdrawal will prove to be only a temporary setback, saying China, European countries and individual U.S. states will fill the gap left by Trump’s abdication of leadership.
California, not coincidentally, has the world’s sixth largest economy.
It appears Trump’s action has stirred up a wasp’s nest, encouraging a powerful and broad-based grass roots approach to reducing GHG. Who knows, the U.S. may even exceed its Paris commitment — without federal government involvement. In that case, we may have to give grudging thanks to the president for his unwitting help for the cause.
Lorin R. Robinson is an author and former chair of the Journalism Department, University of Wisconsin—River Falls. His latest book is “Tales from The Warming.”
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