U.S. Election May Undo Efforts to Control Climate Change

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Early indications from Donald Trump are that he is poised to carry out his threat to repudiate the Paris climate agreement and dismantle the EPA regulations intended to implement it. Reuters reported yesterday that his advisors are looking into a number of ways to withdraw from the Paris accord, which is not necessarily a simple process. Trump has also appointed Myron Ebell, one of the most prominent climate change deniers, to lead the transition at the EPA, with the responsibility to recommend key personnel and set new directions for the agency. Ebell directs environmental and energy policy for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a libertarian advocacy group partly funded by fossil-fuel companies. He argues that the EPA’s Clean Power Plan is bad for the economy and exceeds the agency’s legal authority.

What follows is a little background on the climate change issue.

The threat of climate change

The great majority of climate scientists now agree that global average temperature is rising, that the rise is largely due to human changes in the atmosphere due to greenhouse gas emissions, and that continuing the trend will have serious negative consequences: stronger storms, longer droughts, loss of farmland to desert, food shortages, rising sea levels and coastal flooding. Could the science be wrong? Perhaps, but who is Donald Trump to say that it is?

If the science is not wrong, then slowing global warming is a serious economic and technological challenge. It is also a moral challenge, since the benefits and costs of burning fossil fuels are distributed differently. The benefits are distributed economically, going primarily to the biggest sellers, buyers and consumers of fossil fuels, as well as the workers whose livelihood has depended on those industries. The costs will be distributed more geographically, since whether your land turns to desert or your city is submerged will depend on where you live. The path we are on has great potential for environmental injustice, as some people enjoy economic benefits at the expense of others, many yet unborn. If the environmental damage and the resulting social upheaval are severe enough, everybody may lose in the end.

Responding to climate change will require global and national cooperation. Although market incentives have a role to play, such as the incentive to save on fuel bills by buying energy-efficient homes and cars, international agreements and strong national policies are also necessary. This is not a great time to return to nineteenth century nationalism or laissez-faire economics!

The Paris Accord

In December of 2015, the world’s first comprehensive climate agreement was approved in Paris. It set the goal of “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 degrees Celsius [3.6 degrees Fahrenheit] above pre-industrial levels.” The agreement itself does not tell each nation exactly how much to control greenhouse gas emissions. It allows countries to set their own “nationally determined contributions” to the goal, requiring only that they be ambitious, progressive over time, and designed to meet the overall objective.

Even before the U.S. election cast doubt on this country’s commitment, environmentalists were already calling attention to the many possibilities for failure. The temperature goal itself may not be strict enough; the agreement lacks an enforcement mechanism to insure compliance; and even countries with the best of intentions could fail to deliver on their promises.

The agreement stipulated that it would go into effect only when countries producing at least 55% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions formally approved it. That threshold was reached this month when the European Union ratified it, just a few days before the U.S. election. As it stands now, 109 countries representing 76% of emissions are now on board. Since the United States represents 18% of emissions, U.S. withdrawal wouldn’t kill the agreement, but it would be a serious blow to its prospects for success, especially since some other countries might follow suit. If the world’s largest economy is not going to bear the costs of change, why should others?

The Clean Power Plan

Under the direction of President Obama, and under the authority of the Clean Air Act, the Environmental Protection Agency issued the first national standards to address carbon pollution from power plants. According to the EPA, power plants account for 31% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. The new regulations are intended both to reduce emissions from power plants powered by fossil fuels and to promote alternative forms of energy.

Taking into account the regional energy distribution system, the EPA sets emission goals for states, while allowing the states some flexibility in how they go about meeting the goals. Specifically, the regulations aim to (1) make improvements in coal-fired plants to reduce their carbon emissions, (2) move away from coal toward lower-emitting natural gas, and (3) promote renewable energy sources like wind and solar. The plan includes a Clean Energy Incentive Program to induce states to move in that direction.

The regulations try to balance the need to reduce emissions with the need to maintain the reliability of the country’s electricity supply. To avoid disruptions, emissions reductions are phased in over a period of up to 15 years.

Over 100 companies and 28 states are litigating some aspect of the Clean Power Plan. In February of this year, the Supreme Court stayed implementation of the plan pending further judicial review. The Supreme Court itself is likely to weigh in sometime next year.

Many ways to delay

The transition to cleaner forms of energy was never going to be quick and easy. The fossil fuel industry is very powerful, and their influence on politicians considerable. Although Donald Trump promised to “drain the swamp” and fight the “special interests,” reducing the influence of Big Oil was probably not what he had in mind. Maybe he could be persuaded to take environmental regulation more seriously, but not if he surrounds himself with climate change deniers like Myron Ebell.

If President Trump persists in his disregard for science and the environment, he has many ways of blocking action on climate change. He would not have to completely renounce the Paris agreement. That would be difficult, since countries that have already signed it are not allowed to leave it until at least 2020. Leaving sooner would be a violation of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, the parent agreement that was ratified by the U.S. Senate and later produced the Paris accord. However, Trump could direct the EPA to revise the regulations that implement the agreement, a process that could take years, or just appoint administrators who decline to enforce them. The United States would simply endure the international embarrassment of missing its emissions-control targets.

Another thing Trump could do is carry out his threat to cut off contributions to the Green Climate Fund, which was set up for richer countries to help poorer ones with the costs of transitioning to cleaner energy. India has already declared that its participation in the global effort depends on such assistance.

I remember how, during the 1980s, the response to the international AIDS crisis was delayed by the Reagan administration. That was partly because of their fiscal conservatism, and partly because they thought of AIDS as a “gay disease” affecting only a morally suspect minority. (AIDS was once called GRIDS–gay-related immune deficiency syndrome.) A delay of several years in getting AIDS research funded no doubt cost many lives. I can’t help wondering how much environmental damage may be done before conservatives start taking the threat of climate change seriously. Scientists warn of a tipping point when the global warming trend becomes irreversible. Future historians may marvel that we worried more about Hillary Clinton’s email server than about the planet.

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