Boss Trump’s withdraws US from Paris Climate Agreement, to the delight of
fossil fuel interests and other reactionary forces
Bob Sheak, November 15, 2019
Trump’s decision to withdraw formally from the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement
According to an entry in Wikipedia, “[o]n June 1, 2017, United States President Donald Trump announced that the U.S. would cease all participation in the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change mitigation (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_withdrawal_from_the_Paris_Agreement).”
This was not a surprise. Wikipedia continues: “Trump stated that ‘The Paris accord will undermine (the U.S.) economy,’ and ‘puts (the U.S.) at a permanent disadvantage.’ [And] During the presidential campaign, Trump had pledged to withdraw from the pact, saying a withdrawal would help American businesses and workers. Trump stated that the withdrawal would be in accordance with his America First policy.”
Further clarifying the rules of withdrawal, Wikipedia notes that “in accordance with Article 28 of the Paris Agreement, a country cannot give notice of withdrawal from the agreement before three years of its start date in the relevant country, which was on November 4, 2016 in the case of the United States. On November 4, 2019, the administration gave a formal notice of intention to withdraw, which takes 12 months to take effect. So, the earliest possible effective withdrawal date by the United States cannot be before November 4, 2020, four years after the Agreement came into effect in the United States and one day after the 2020 U.S. presidential election. The White House later clarified that the U.S. will abide by the four-year exit process. Until the withdrawal takes effect, the United States may be obligated to maintain its commitments under the Agreement, such as the requirement to continue reporting its emissions to the United Nations.
“While celebrated by some members of the Republican Party, international reactions to the withdrawal were overwhelmingly negative from across the political spectrum, and the decision received substantial criticism from religious organizations, businesses, political leaders of all parties, environmentalists, and scientists and citizens from the United States and internationally.
“Following Trump’s announcement, the governors of several U.S. states formed the United States Climate Alliance to continue to advance the objectives of the Paris Agreement at the state level despite the federal withdrawal. As of July 1, 2019, 24 states and Puerto Rico have joined the alliance, and similar commitments have also been expressed by other state governors, mayors, and businesses.”
By any evidence-based reasoning, this was a terrible decision for all those who want a sustainable world to live in. Bear in mind, however, his decision should, unfortunately, not be viewed in isolation of a larger political reality dominated by a long-standing climate denial movement lead by mega fossil-fuel corporations. Of course, Trump has happily fallen in line. In addition to always wanting the limelight, he likes being associated with the powerful and rich and, for all the thousands of twitters, he never acknowledges the growing body of scientific evidence that substantiates the reality of increasingly catastrophic climate change. His decision to withdraw formally from the Paris climate agreement is also another confirmation of his right-wing ideology and the sheer recklessness of his actions and policies. His motto of “Making America Great Again” is based on the belief that it’s best for the US to avoid multilateral treaties and trade deals and approach such matters by negotiating bi-lateral deals, always with the looming threat of sanctions, military action, or trade wars. He is a mixed-up troubadour and facilitator of America’s empire and the idea that America’s power is unmatched and must remain as such.
In the present case, he wants to go along with the long-standing energy status quo and maximize the extraction and use of fossil fuels. But to support a fossil-fuel dominated energy system, he must – and does – discount or ignore what the science says about “climate change,” dismissing the accumulating body of scientific evidence as fake science. He seems untroubled by the indisputable evidence that there is a rise in the incidence of extreme weather events (wildfires, hurricanes, droughts, floods). He never speaks about how the oceans may soon be emitters rather than absorbers of the sun’s heat, or how sea levels are rising and threatening coastal cities and regions, or about how the oceans are becoming increasingly acidic and polluted and threatening all aquatic life. He is even appears to be buoyed psychologically by the current massive deforestation efforts in Brazil and across the world because it means enterprises are making profits and environmental activists are being defeated. He pays no attention to the fragility of our industrial, chemically based, agriculture and its negative effects on the soil or how the runoffs from the over use of herbicides and insecticides pollutes waterways and, in some cases, lead to the creation of dead zones in the ocean.
At the same time, as mentioned, Trump’s decision to withdraw formally from the Paris climate agreement needs to be put in a larger context for us to understand how his action is undermining a long historical process, involving at various times scientists, national leaders, the UN, environmental activists – all slowly coming to an understanding of the links between fossil fuel emissions, and the rising global temperature, and the multiple harmful effects that stem from all of this and seeing the need for serous action. His decision, along with his policies overall, continue leading us up a path toward increasingly climate-related catastrophes and, if nothing or too little is done, possible societal collapse, if not worse.
The discovery in 1896 of how human activities drive global warming
There has been a long journey preceding the gathering of nations in Paris in December 2015. Richard Monastersky and Nick Sousanis point out in an article, “The Fragile Framework,” published by Nature on November 24, 2015 that as early as 1896 “the Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius calculated how changes in the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere could warm or cool Earth.”
Arrhenius “later suggested humans were raising the planet’s temperature and it would become noticeable in a few centuries.” Arrhenius was right on how human activity was causing the earth’s temperature to rise and that would affect the whole planet, but wrong on how long it would take for this to have a substantial impact. (https://nature.com/articles/527427a).
Here’s what Arrhenius’s insights implicitly captured, as described by Bill McKibben: “When we burn them [fossil fuels], the carbon atoms combine with oxygen atoms in the air to produce carbon dioxide. The molecular structure of carbon dioxide traps heat that would have otherwise radiated back out to space. We have, in other words, changed the energy balance of our planet, the amount of the sun’s heat that is returned to space” (Falter, p. 21).
Concern about global warming grew
Naomi Oreskes points out that “Scientists have been seriously investigating the subject of human-made climate change since the last 1950s and political leaders have been discussing it for nearly as long.” Oreskes is professor of history of science and affiliated professor of earth and planetary sciences at Harvard University (https://www.commondreams.org/views/2019/11/11/greatest-scam-history-how-energy-companies-took-us-all-in).
The momentum is sidetracked
ExxonMobil’s research confirms the link between fossil fuel emissions and then hides it and helps create a reactionary movement to dispute it
Evidence about the link between fossil fuels and the climate crisis was uncovered by research carried out by ExxonMobil in the 1970s. However, the research findings by this oil giant were hidden from the public after it became clear that such research would potentially have a crippling effect on the oil industry and its profits. It is an example, among many, of how corporate power can have decisive and negative impacts on government policy and public understanding of the issue.
Inside Climate News journalists published a series of reports, based on eight months of investigations, on how scientists at Exxon Corporation (now ExxonMobil) were in the late 1970s and into the 1980s leaders in climate research. You can see the full series of articles at: http://insideclimatenews.org/content/Exxon-The-Road-Not-Taken.
In collecting the evidence, the Inside Climate News journalists “interviewed former employees, scientists and federal officials, and consulted hundreds of pages of internal Exxon documents” and “combed through thousands of documents including those held at the University of Texas-Austin, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.”
The scientists at ExxonMobil carried out research that documented the connection between the burning of fossil fuels, emissions of carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas effect from growing concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere, and the potential deleterious impacts on humankind and the environment. The view among some in the corporation was that such research would enhance Exxon’s competitiveness in any future energy transition away from fossil fuels.
But in the late 1980s, Exxon executives decided that the corporation’s future profitability would continue to be in oil and gas. The research then took a back seat to the corporation’s continuing commitment to fossil fuels. But there was more than that. Exxon also spent the next decades up to the present promoting the position that the “science” on climate change was uncertain and in creating a network of think tanks to foster this view, while giving a platform and support to “independent” and “skeptical” scientists to generate doubt and confusion about global warming/disruptive climate change. Exxon thus became one of the chief forces in slowing down a transition away from fossil fuels, especially oil and gas, and toward an environmentally sustainable energy system. It unfurled its massive resources to influence elections, lobby government, manipulate public opinion through its public relations offices and media ads, and generally to mislead and confuse the media, government officials, and large segments of the public. This was done while climate scientists in the U.S. and other countries were finding more and more evidence of global warming and a host of ever-more harmful effects to people and ecosystems.
Again, Exxon Mobil was not alone in these efforts.
The mega-energy corporation was joined by other corporations in the fossil fuel industry, industry trade groups, the auto industry and other industries, and other powerful economic, political, and media forces such as the Chamber of Commerce, right-wing media, and the Republican Party. In a recent article, Naomi Oreskes documents the large network of groups directly connected to the fossil-fuel industry that were created or recruited to advance climate-change denialism (https://www.commondreams.org/views/2019/11/11/greatest-scam-history-how-energy-companies-took-us-all-in). Here’s some of what she writes.
“If only it has just been that one company, but for more than 30 years, the fossil-fuel industry and its allies have denied the truth about anthropogenic global warming. They have systematically misled the American people and so purposely contributed to endless delays in dealing with the issue, among other things, discounting and disparaging climate science, mispresenting scientific finding, and attempt to discredit climate scientists.”
“In the 1990s, these allied outfits included the Global Climate Coalition, the Cooler Heads Coalition, Informed Citizens for the Environment, and the Greening Earth Society. Like ExxonMobil, such groups endlessly promoted a public message of denial and doubt; that we weren’t really sure if climate change was happening; that the science wasn’t settled; that humanity could, in any case, readily adapt at a later date to any changes that did occur; and that addressing climate change directly would wreak the American Economy.”
“Similar messaging was pursued by a network of think tanks promoting free market solutions to social problems, many with ties to the fossil-fuel industry. These included the George C. Marshall Institute, the Cato Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and the Heartland Institute.”
In some cases, they personally attacked the reputations of legitimate scientists. Republicans in the US Congress invited representatives of the climate denying groups to hearings to offer testimony that buttressed the fossil-fuel industry’s climate positions.
Intentionally deceptive and false
Oreskes identifies and debunks the main climate denying arguments of the fossil-fuel corporations. Here are the highlights. She writes that climate-change (crisis) deniers have falsely claimed and continue to falsely claim:
#1 – that “climate change will be ‘mild and manageable.’” She counters: “literally hundreds of scientific reports over the past decades, including those US National Climate Assessments, have affirmed that any warming above 2 degrees Centigrade will lead to grave and perhaps catastrophic effects on ‘health, livelihoods, food security, water supply, human security, and economic growth. The UN’s IPCC [International Panel on Climate Change] has recently noted that avoiding the worst impacts of global warming will ‘require rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy… infrastructure … and industrial systems.”
#2 –that “global prosperity is actually being drive by fossil fuels.” This may have been true during the Industrial Revolution that began in mid- or early-1800s, the overwhelming scientific and observation evidence now finds that “[d]ruptive climate change fueled by greenhouse gas emissions from the use of oil, coal, and natural gas now threatens both the prosperity that parts of this planet have already achieved and future economic growth of just about any sort.”
#3 – that “fossil fuels represent ‘cheap energy,” though they are hardly cheap when one takes into account “not just the price of extracting, distributing, and profiting from them, but what it will cost in all our lives once you add in the fires, extreme storms, flooding, health effects, and everything else that their carbon emissions into the atmosphere will bring us – they couldn’t be more expensive.”
#4 – that “fossil fuels are the solution to the energy needs of the world’s poorest.” No. “As Pope Francis, global justice leader Mary Robinson, and former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon – as well as countless scientists and advocates of poverty reduction and global justice – have repeatedly emphasized, climate change will, above all, hurt the poor. It is they who will first be uprooted from their homes (and homelands); it is they who will be migrating into an increasingly hostile and walled-in world; it is they who will truly feel the heat, literal and figurative, of it all.” What do they need? “They need affordable energy” – solar and wind power.
#5 – that renewable energy is too costly. “According to Bloomberg News, however, in two-thirds of the world, solar is already the cheapest form of newly installed electricity generation, cheaper than nuclear, natural gas, or coal.” And there are technological advances that address the intermittency challenge. “Between 2010 and 2017, the price of battery storage decreased a starling 79% and most experts believe that, in the near future, many of the storage problems can and will be solved.”
#6 – that, under Trump, greenhouse gas emissions have been cut. “In fact, US CO2 emissions spiked in 2018, increasing by 3.1% over 2017. Methane emissions are also on the rise and President Trump’s proposal to rollback methane standards will ensure that unhappy trend continues.”
Despite the reactionary denialists, an international movement did emerge to address the climate crisis
[I’ll draw in this section and the next one on the article by Richard Monastersky and Nick Sousanis, “The Fragile Framework,” published by Nature on November 24, 2015 (https://nature.com/articles/527427a).]
Jim Hansen’s 1988 congressional testimony
On June 23, 1988, 102 years after Arrhenius discovery and after the emergence and flourishing of the climate-change denial movement, “NASA s scientist James Hansen told a US Senate hearing that humans were having a clear impact by burning fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas. This is an important example of how science follows its own trajectory, unless squashed by authoritarian or fascistic government. Hansen testified: “The greenhouse effect has been detected, and it is changing our climate now.” Hansen’s testimony helped to spark a series of UN organized international meetings to address the issue
Representatives of Nations from around the world gather to figure out how to address the climate crisis
Subsequent to Hansen’s revelations in 1988, “the United Nations created the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1988 to assess the issue.” In its first report, the IPCC forecasted that if current trends continue until 2100, the world would be 4 °C warmer than it was in 1850, far above the 2 degrees level later adopted by the international community. At 4 degrees Celsius, rising ocean levels would be a major problem because half of humanity inhabits coastal regions; indeed, at this level, a problem for all of humanity.
Then in June 1992, more than 170 nations gathered for the Earth Summit in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. Representatives of the nations in attendance “adopted the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which declared: “The ultimate objective of this Convention … is to achieve … stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” While this was an unprecedented step and while there was concern that global action was needed quickly, “it contained no binding commitments.”
Recognizing this problem, “nations gathered in 1995 in Berlin to “negotiate a stronger accord. But the assembled countries couldn’t agree on specifics,” until Angela Merkel, Germany’s environmental minister at the time, brokered a deal that gave countries two years “to agree on emissions limits for developed nations. It was limited to developed countries because they have been responsible for most of the problem. However limited, some nations were expected to come up with targets reducing their carbon emissions.
As scheduled, countries gathered in Kyoto, Japan in December 1997 “to hash out a new treaty. But the representatives couldn’t agree on how much developed nations should trim their respective emissions. The European Union called for a 15% cut. Island nations demanded a 20% cut. Japan proposed a 5% cut. And the US wanted developing countries to act to propose limits on carbon emissions. In a last-ditch effort, negotiators reached an agreement called the Kyoto Protocol. This was progress. The Protocol divided the world in two, “industrialized countries with emissions limits and developing countries without.” Furthermore, agreement also allowed for flexibility in how countries met their commitments.” For example: “Developed nations could get credit for reducing emissions in poorer ones.” Specifically, “Developed countries promised to cut their overall emissions to 5.2% below 1990 levels for the period 2008–12,” with each country determining its own target. In the end, however, the US, with the support of then US President George W. Bush, refused to ratify the pact because of concerns that the American economy would suffer while developing nations increased their pollution without limits.
In the meantime, global temperatures soared, partly as a result of the rising carbon emissions from China’s booming economy along with the absence of international standards. In the US, there were political divisions over the issue. Some politicians, like US Senator James Inhofe, denied the “phony science” on which global warming rested and called any such claims “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.” Such denial or avoidance of the growing scientific evidence became a prominent position of Republicans and the Republican Party. Some Democrats such as US Representative Henry Waxman took an opposite view, defended the science, and cast blame on ExxonMobil and other major US oil corporations of manufacturing controversy and promoting doubt on the reality of global warming. From this viewpoint, the big fossil fuel corporations led efforts to stifle any political action by the US federal or state governments to stem fossil fuel emissions and to garner support, by whatever means, to continue and expand policies fostering fossil fuels.
Amidst it all, the scientific evidence accumulated. In 2007, the IPCC, which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize that year, declared: “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal.” The research by 2009 indicated that carbon emissions should not exceed 1 trillion tons if nations wanted to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius” (3.6 Fahrenheit). But the “world had already used up more than half of that budget” and was continuing the wrong track.
The next important meeting of the nations occurred at the 2009 Copenhagen summit. Activists “organized demonstrations around the world to push for tighter emission caps,” though their efforts failed while the negotiations delivered only a “provisional accord,” but no treaty or binding agreement.
The process continued in 2010, when the nations met in Cancun, Mexico, and agreed to set a general target to limit warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius and also created “a Green Climate Fund, supported by developed countries to help poorer ones reduce emissions and adapt to climate change.” The developed countries were expected to contribute US$100 billion a year to the fund by 2020. And for the first time, all countries agreed to reduce emissions according to their different responsibilities and capacities.” More than 160 countries had submitted their pledges by 2014.
The stage was thus set for what was to become an historic meeting in 2015 in Paris, historic because it was the first international agreement in which nations agreed to establish targets limiting carbon emissions and to a process by which their success or failure would be assessed.
The terms of the 2015 Climate agreement
The following summary of the context, goals, and limits of the December 2015 UN climate meeting in Paris is provide in a Wikipedia entry titled “2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2015_United_Nations_Climate_Change_Conference).
“The 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP 21 or CMP 11 was held in Paris, France, from 30 November to 12 December 2015. It was the 21st yearly session of the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the 11th session of the Meeting of the Parties (CMP) to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.
“The conference negotiated the Paris Agreement, a global agreement on the reduction of climate change, the text of which represented a consensus of the representatives of the 196 attending parties. The agreement enters into force when joined by at least 55 countries which together represent at least 55 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. On 22 April 2016 (Earth Day), 174 [some report 186] countries signed the agreement in New York,  and began adopting it within their own legal systems (through ratification, acceptance, approval, or accession).
“According to the organizing committee at the outset of the talks, the expected key result was an agreement to set a goal of limiting global warming to ‘well below 2 °C’ Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels. The agreement calls for zero net anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions to be reached during the second half of the 21st century. In the adopted version of the Paris Agreement, the parties also agreed to ‘pursue efforts to’ limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C. The 1.5 °C goal will require zero emissions sometime between 2030 and 2050, according to some scientists.
“Prior to the conference, 146 national climate panels publicly presented a draft of national climate contributions (called “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions”, INDCs). These suggested commitments were estimated to limit global warming to 2.7 °C by 2100 [generally considered insufficient]. For example, the EU suggested INDC is a commitment to a 40 percent reduction in emissions by 2030 compared to 1990. The agreement establishes a ‘global stocktake’ which revisits the national goals to ‘update and enhance’ them every five years beginning 2023. However, no detailed timetable or country-specific goals for emissions were incorporated into the Paris Agreement – as opposed to the previous Kyoto Protocol.”
A first step?
The climate summit in Paris ended on Dec. 12, 2015. It culminated in an agreement signed initially by 186 to 195 of the participating nations with the promise that each signatory nation would do something, more or less, to reduce its carbon emissions in coming years. Nothing like this had ever been achieved before.
Craig Welch captures at the time the almost ecstatic feeling, a feeling of profound relief, of many who acclaimed the Agreement in an article for National Geographic (http://news-nationalgeographic.com/2015/12/151212-Paris-climate-change-agreement-fossil-fuels/#.VmyojCdAAK.twitter). He writes:
• “The world came together.”
• “More than 20 years after world leaders first tried hammering out an accord to tackle climate change, representatives of 195 nations on Saturday adopted a landmark agreement that seeks to scale back greenhouse gases and trigger a momentous shift away from coal, oil, and natural gas.”
• “’It’s rare to have an opportunity in a lifetime to change the world,’ French President Francois Hollande told the delegates Saturday, before the final decision came at about 7:30 p.m. (Central European Time).”
• “After the agreement was reached, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon declared, ‘What was once unthinkable, is now unstoppable.”
• “’Countries have united around an historic agreement that marks a turning point in the climate crisis,’ said Jennifer Morgan, international climate expert with the World Resources Institute.”
• “Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore added, ‘Years from now, our grandchildren will reflect on humanity’s moral courage to solve the climate crisis and they will look to December 12, 2015, as the day when the community of nations finally made the decision to act.”
Just a few hours after the final Agreement was announced in Paris on Saturday, December 12, President Obama read a statement to the nation
The President said the Agreement is an unprecedented achievement of historic proportions and it’s taking us in the right direction toward a carbon-free global environment. He also acknowledged that ultimate success depends not only on the signatory nations’ willingness and capacity to follow through on their initial pledges for carbon-reduction but also on their ability to go beyond these pledges. Here is some of what he said:
• “Now, no agreement is perfect, including this one. Negotiations that involve nearly 200 nations are always challenging. Even if all the initial targets set in Paris are met, we’ll only be part of the way there when it comes to reducing carbon from the atmosphere. So we cannot be complacent because of today’s agreement. The problem is not solved because of this accord. But make no mistake, the Paris agreement establishes the enduring framework the world needs to solve the climate crisis. It creates the mechanism, the architecture, for us to continually tackle this problem in an effective way.”
• “This agreement is ambitious, with every nation setting and committing to its own specific targets, even as we take into account differences among nations. We’ll have a strong system of transparency, including periodic reviews and independent assessments, to help hold every country accountable for meeting its commitments. As technology advances, this Agreement allows progress to pave the way for even more ambitious targets over time. And we have secured a broader commitment to support the most vulnerable countries as they pursue cleaner economic growth.”
• “Moreover, this agreement sends a powerful signal that the world is firmly committed to a low-carbon future. And that has the potential to unleash investment and innovation in clean energy at a scale we have never seen before.”
• “What matters is that today we can be more confident that this planet is going to be in better shape for the next generation.”
You can find the President’s full 31-page text of the agreement here: http://unfccc.int/resource/docs/2015/cop21/l09.pdf, or at the United Nations: Framework Convention on Climate Change, Conference of the Parties, Twenty-first session, Paris, 30 November to 11 December 2015: “Adoption of the Paris Agreement.”
There were many other laudatory articles on the Agreement. John Atcheson wrote on Common Dreams that the Paris Climate Conference established “a framework in which the majority of the world came together and reached agreements to cut back on carbon, and both developed and developing nations recognized a shared responsibility to act” (Atchison, http://www.commondreams.org/views/2015/12/12/cop-21-what-it-does-and-doesnt-accomplish).
Also writing on Common Dreams, Gwynne Dyer wrote: “We are not out of the woods yet, but we are probably heading in the right direction – and it would be right at this point to put in a good word for the much maligned organization, the United Nations. It is the only arena in which global negotiation like this can be conducted, and its skills, traditions and people were indispensable in leading them to a more or less successful conclusion” (www.commondreams.org/view/2015/12/13/cop21-cheering-and-fearing).
Juan Cole considered that the Agreement, whatever its flaws, “is still important, as a clear signal of sea change in world public opinion” (www.juancole.com/2015/12/after-climate-accord.html). “You can’t address a problem unless you recognize it exists.” He continues: “The argument for moral suasion in international affairs should not be discounted. The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 began as no more than a set of aspirations for human dignity. But it has been incorporated into international treaties and instruments and is the background for the establishment of the International Criminal Court, which has prosecuted war criminals such as Chad’s Hissen Habre. Many of its principles have also been incorporated into European Union human rights law.” Cole would like the United Nations to “establish by treaty an International Climate Court where torts can be decided.”
New York Times reporter Justin Gillis pinned an article titled “Climate Accord Is a Healing Step, if Not a Cure” (www.nytimes.com/2015/12/13/science/earth/climate-accord-is-a-healing-step-if-not-a-cure.html?emc=eta1&_r=0.) Although he had reservations, Gillis also recognized the Agreement of historical importance and as a possible turning point toward a de-carbonized world. He writes:
“And yet 50 years after the first warning about global warming was put on the desk of an American president, and quickly forgotten, the political system of the world is finally responding in a way that scientists see as commensurate with the scale of the threat.”
And then later in the article:
“The deal, in short, begins to move the countries of the world in a shared direction that is potentially compatible with maintaining a livable planet over the long term.
Jamie Henn saw the influence of environmental movements, particularly the divestment movement [calling on financial institutions and pension funds to sell off investments in fossil fuels], in causing the Climate Conference to take positive steps internationally on the climate crisis:
“The fossil fuel industry has tried to critique the divestment campaign from a thousand different angles, but they’ve never been able to argue with its basic logic, which is why every week more and more divestment wins keep coming in. At the reality of the situation begins to sink in, institutions that care about addressing the climate crisis realize that to maintain their investments would amount hypocrisy. Those with moral character, divest. Those who lack it, come under immense pressure to do so.” (www.commondreams.org/views/2015/12/13/after-paris-climate-talks-end-and-movement-continues).
In short, there is a lot to be grateful for. Representatives from most of the nations of the world supported the Agreement, or at least its principal aspiration, that is, to lower greenhouse gas emissions. There is general agreement that fossil fuels must be phased out. Most nations have signed onto an agreement that requires them to reduce the emissions in their own nations. There is flexibility in the Agreement to allow countries to set their own emission-reduction targets within the contexts of their own national situations. There is a framework and process in place for monitoring the progress of the various nation-signatories and for increasing emission mitigation targets. The U.N. seemed to have proven to be an effective organization for organizing the international to take an unprecedented step in dealing with the burgeoning climate crisis.
There were skeptics
The agreement was far from perfect. There were some on the left who were less than impressed. Climate scientist James Hansen perhaps was the most blunt and critical of all, when he called COP21 “a fraud.” He was quoted by Caroline Mortimer in an article for The Independent online as saying the Agreement is just “worthless words.” Mortimer goes on: “Speaking as the final draft of the deal was published on Saturday afternoon, he say: “It’s just b******t [bullshit] for them to say: ‘We’ll have a 2C warming target and then try to do a little better every five years….There is no action, just promises.” (www.independent.co.uk/environment/cop21-father-of-climate-awareness-james-hansen-denounces-paris-agreement-as-a-fraud-a677171.html)
The evidence tends to support Hansen’s disappointment that the national representatives at the gathering were unwilling or unable to take the necessary action immediately to limit emissions from fossil fuels. Hansen had long argued that unless we keep the earth’s temperature from rising no more than 1.5degreesC (we’re now over 1 degree), the climate will fall into chaos, societies will collapse, and our grandchildren will inherit a nightmarish world, if they survive. It appears that the 1.5 degree C target was now unreachable, unless there would be something like revolutionary changes in the policies of the US and other major carbon emitters.
What about the 2 degree Celsius goal?
Craig Welch writes: “Before arriving in Paris, 187 countries, representing more than 90 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions, submitted plans to reduce their emissions in coming decades. [However] [t]hose plans come nowhere close of reaching the goal of limiting warming to 2 degrees – let alone 1.5 degrees. In fact, analysis by two teams – one in Germany, one associated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – say the plans, if followed, would lead to between 2.7 degrees or 3.5 degrees of warming.” (http://news-national-geographic.com/2015/12/151212-Paris-climate-change-agreement-fossil-fuels/#VmyojCdAAK.twitter):
On this point, Dyer similarly writes: “United Nations experts did the math and concluded that these emission cuts fall far short of what is needed. If this is all that is done, then we are headed for at least +2.7 degrees C – or, rather, for a lot more, because of the feedbacks.”
On the question of feedbacks, McKibben gives the following example. “The sea surface temperature has gone up by seven degrees Fahrenheit in recent years in parts of the Arctic. Hidden ice, locked beneath the soils of the Arctic, is now starting melt fast, too, and as the permafrost thaws, microbes convert some of the frozen organic material into methane and carbon dioxide, which cause yet more warming – perhaps, say scientists, enough to add a degree and a half Fahrenheit or more the eventual warming,” (Falter, p. 30).
Atcheson points out, “Scientists know that we are at or near thresholds which have/will trigger feedbacks that will cause even more warming. For example, just 3 of these known feedbacks, by themselves, would add about 2.5 C more warming on top of the 3.5 [2.7 or more] resulting from the Paris agreements, bring total warming to 6 C, or nearly 11 F. At this point we’re really talking about a different planet, not simply a warmed-up Earth.” He adds: “There are no fewer than 12 feedbacks that could amplify warming, so even this could be an understatement.”
Dyer writes that once we have raised the earth’s temperature to 2 degrees C, we have gone too far. “The plus-two limit was always too high. It began as a scientific estimate of when natural feedbacks, triggered by the warming that human beings had caused, take over and start driving the temperatures much, much higher.” This will happen because the “feedbacks will kick in and it will be Game Over.” What we get with plus-two or thereabouts: “runaway warming that can no longer be halted just be stopping human emissions of carbon dioxide. Nature will take over, and we will be trapped on a one-way escalator that is taking us up to +3, +4, +5, even +6 degrees. Hundreds of millions or even billions of people would die as large parts of the planet ceased to be habitable by human beings.” (www.commondreams.org/view/2015/12/13/cop21-cheering-and-fearing)
So far, the evidence supports the Skeptics. The voluntary pledges made in Paris are insufficient
Georgina Gustin writes in November 2019 that, according to a report by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), there is “a dangerous lack of urgency” reflected in the fact that “most countries are not cutting emissions fast enough, and their pledges for the next ten years fall far short of what’s needed” (https://insideclimatenews.org/news/07112019/paris-climate-agreement-pledges-lack-urgency-picc-timeline-warning).
She quotes former IPCC Chair Robert Watson: “The current pledges, even if fully implemented, are placing us on a pathway to a world 3 to 4 degrees Celsius warmer – a world that would have devastating impacts on food and water security, human health, displacement of people, and loss of biodiversity and degradation of ecosystem services.” The report includes such details as these: “Nearly two-thirds of the pledges under the Paris climate agreement are ‘totally insufficient’ to meet critical climate targets” and even if current pledges were full implemented, the world would still be “on a pathway to a world 3 or 4 degrees Celsius warmer….”
Bill McKibben refers to disquieting evidence, writing: “In November 2017, fifteen thousand scientists from 184 countries issues a stark ‘warning to humanity,” depicting “everything from the decline in fresh-water per person to the spread of anaerobic ‘dead zones’ in the world’s seas.” They “predicted [that] we face ‘widespread misery and catastrophic biodiversity loss” [and] soon…it will be too late to shift course away from our failing trajectory.” McKibben also refers to a NASA-funded group that recently created the Human and Nature DYnamics (Handy). This group found evidence to justify a pessimistic forecast: “Global industrial civilization could collapse in coming decades due to unsustainable resource exploitation and increasingly unequal wealth distribution” (pp. 11-12).
The US is failing to meet its inadequate pledge
This point is taken up by Marianne Lavelle in an article also published by Inside Climate News (https://insideclimatenews.org/news/04112019/trump-pull-out-paris-climate-agreement-timing-rules). Her chief point is that, contrary to statements from White Officials like Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, “the consulting firm Rhodium Group estimates that in 2018, as Trump policies took hold, emissions increased 3.4 percent….And the US Energy Information Administration, basing its forecast on current US policies, projected earlier this year  that US greenhouse gas emissions would hold steady through 2050,” that is, would continue increasing.
Examples documenting the growing climate crisis from McKibben’s book Falter
“By most accounts, we’ve used more energy and resources during the last thirty-five years than in all of human history that came before” (13). “In 2015 a study in the Journal of Mathematical Biology pointed out that if the world’s oceans kept warming, by 2100 they might become hot enough ‘to stop oxygen production by phytoplankton by disrupting the process of photosynthesis” and “Given that two-thirds of the earth’s oxygen comes from phytoplankton, that would ‘likely result in the mass mortality of animals and humans” (p. 34). The ice sheets are melting in the Arctic and Greenland contributing to rising ocean levels. Here’s an astounding finding. In the early summer of 2018, “eight-four researchers from forty-four institutions pooled their data and concluded that the frozen continent had lost three trillion tons of ice in the last three decades, with the rate of melt tripling since 2012.” Considering this finding, scientists are now pointing to sea rises of two meters in he next fifty to 150 years.” Sooner than later. McKibben refers to the book by Jeff Goodall, The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World (publ 2017), who notes that the rising sea levels “will create generations of refugees that will make today’s Syria war refugee crisis look like a high school drama production” (p. 40). And, according to the International Organization of Migration, “we may see two hundred million climate refugees by 2050” (p. 42).
Increasingly severe draughts are affecting food production. Already wheat production has stagnated in Australia and the outlook for corn production in the US is poor, with a 3.6 degree Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius) rise in temperature project to “cut US corn production yields by 18 percent” (p. 36). And it’s not only the production of food that is increasingly at risk but also the transporting of food. On this point McKibben writes: “US rivers and canals carry a third of the world’s corn and soy, and they’ve been frequently shut down or crimped by flooding and drought in recent years” (p. 38). Reports also are finding that “raising carbon dioxide levels” speed “plant growth…[and] seem to have reduced the amount of protein in basic stable crops” (p. 38).
Furthermore, researchers have found that bees are affected, as indicated by the decline in “the protein content of the pollen,” which “tracks with the rise in carbon dioxide” (p. 39). There’s more. “…in August 2018, a massive new study found something just as frightening: crop pests were thriving in the new heat…Even if we hit the UN target of limiting temperature rise to two degrees Celsius, pests should cut wheat yields by 46 percent, corn by 31 percent, and rice by 19 percent.” Why? “Warmer temperatures accelerate the metabolism of insect pests like aphids and corn borers at a predictable rate.” With rising temperatures, pests become hungrier and their reproductive rates speed up (p. 39).
McKibben offers documentation of other climate-related crises. For example, he refers examples of how we are polluting and overfishing the oceans. “By the middle of this century the ocean may contain more plastic than fish by weight, partly because we toss away so many bottles and partly because we take far more life from the ocean than it can reproduce.” On this latter point, McKibben gives this example: “Since 1950 we’ve wiped out perhaps 90 percent of the big fish in the ocean: swordfish, marlin, grouper” and adds: “This not surprising when one bluefin tuna can bring $180,000 on the Japanese market, or when 270,000 sharks are killed each day for their finds, which add no taste but much status to bowls of soup” (p. 46). And the dominant industrial, chemically dependent, agriculture system is responsible for the “dead zones at the mouths of all major rivers where fertilizers pour into the sea.” Though “overwhelming threat comes…from the fossil fuel we burn and the effects that carbon dioxide that it produces.” “The deep sea is now warming about nine times faster than it was in the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s.” And coral reefs, including the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Port Douglas in Queensland Australia, are dying (p. 47).
Along with the increasing environmental devastation and human and social costs that accompany rising temperatures, there are rising economic costs. McKibben refers to “testimony submitted by climate scientists to a federal court in 2017 [which] said that if we don’t take much stronger action now, future citizens would have to pay $535 trillion to cope with global warming” (p. 41). He gives this little example, among others. “Take one small county in Florida, which needs to raise 150 miles of road to prevent flooding from even minimal sea level rise. That costs $7 million a mile, putting the price tag at over $1 billion, in a county that has an annual road budget of $25 million” (41).
The unhappy truth is that we are on the road to “biological annihilation,” with already half the planet’s individual animals lost over the last decades and billions of local populations of animals already lost. In 2018, researchers reported that some local populations of insects had declined 80 percent – and its’ hard to wipe out insects” as habitats are destroyed by wildfires, forests cleared for mining and farmland, ranching, and poor agricultural practices, large-scale animal feeding operations, pipelines, new housing developments in suburbia and exurbia.
The evidence documenting the escalating climate crisis continues to be reported
A paper published in BioScience on November 5, 2019 by researchers at Oregon State University, as reported by Julia Conley, says that “[m]ore than 11,000 scientists from 153 countries…officially declared a climate emergency and warned of ‘untold human suffering’ if immediate bold action is not taken to stop the warming of the globe” (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2019/11/05/warning-untold-human-suffering-over-1100-scientists-araound-world-declare-climate).
William Ripple, who co-authored the study and led the worldwide coalition of scientists who warned of the climate emergency, stated: “Global surface temperatures, ocean heat content, extreme weather and its costs, sea level, ocean acidity, and area burned in the United States are all rising.”
The US military brass recognize the climate crisis and, despite Trump, have been taking steps to prepare for it
This is the theme of the just released book (November 12, 2019) by Michael T. Klare, All Hell Breaking Loose: The Pentagon’s Perspective on Climate Change. His major point is that the senior officials at the Pentagon and in regional commands around the world accept the scientific evidence on the climate crisis and, despite Trump, are planning accordingly. He points out in his Introduction (pp. 1-2) that Trump rescinded Obama’s Executive Order 13653 in 2017, shortly after his ascension to the presidency. Obama’s order “instructed all federal agencies to identify global warming’s likely impacts on their future operations and to take such actions as deemed necessary to ‘enhance climate preparedness and resilience.”
Trump justified his cancellation of the order by asserting “that economic competitiveness – involving, among other things, the unbridled exploitation of America’s oil, coal, and natural gas reserves – outweighed environmental protection as a national priority.” Trump’s command was to “abolish any rules or regulations adopted in accordance with Executive Order 13653.” However, Klare points out, the US Department of Defense quietly but defiantly continued its steps to address the effects of global warming. They did this, Klare finds after investigating Pentagon reports and initiatives, because “many senior officers are convinced that climate change is real, is accelerating, and has direct and deleterious implications for American national security.”
He refers to evidence of that the military have been taking steps “on three crucial fronts: better preparing the military’s own forces and installations to withstand the harsh impacts of climate change; reducing the DOD’s reliance on carbon-emitting fuels; and, not least, cooperating with the militaries of other nations in adopting similar measures.” One basic point is that, contrary to Trump’s policies, US officials have an international aspect in their reasoning on how to deal with the problem. Here’s an example of what Klare’s extensive investigation generally reveals.
“From the very beginning, senior officials have stressed the need to work with other countries in reducing their own climate change vulnerabilities, thereby enhancing regional and international stability. In accordance with this precept, US services have collaborated with foreign militaries in preparing for extreme events, for example, by stockpiling emergency relief supplies, conducting joint disaster relief drills, and helping to harden critical facilities” (p. 236).
The impacts of Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 Paris climate agreement
Climate scientist Michael Mann was interviewed by Greg Wilpert on the implications of Trump’s decision on The Real News Network (https://therealnews.org/stories/us-withdrawal-from-paris-climate-agreement-will-cause-real-harm). Wilpert reminds us that the US is about to become “the only UN member country in the world that is no longer part of the agreement, even though it “is the world’s largest economy, the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases behind China, and historically has admitted more greenhouse gases than any other country in the world.” Recognizing the limits of the Paris agreement, Mann nonetheless says that it is the only international game in play, though one that needs significant improvements. He then notes that there are problematic direct and indirect effects of Trump’s decision. The direct effect is that it further diminishes the chances of averting catastrophic warming of the planet by keeping the planet from warming two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). The indirect effect is that is “sends the wrong message to other major players, in particular China and India.”
Since Trump’s decision to withdraw from the agreement was first made public, Mann says “we’ve actually seen China now begin to build more coal fired power plants, their carbon emissions have gone back up and we have seen global carbon emissions now being to tick back up because of that.” From Mann’s perspective, the only way to have any hope of curtailing or reversing greenhouse gas emissions is by voting Trump out of office in 2020 and voting in a president and US Congress that takes the climate crisis seriously, rejoins the international climate agreement, and takes bold action to phase out fossil fuels and replace them with solar and wind power and undertake massive action to advance energy efficiencies throughout the society.
The evidence that catastrophic climate change is an accelerating problem is indisputable on any scientific or reasonable basis. At the same time, Trump and the fossil-fuel-led movement ignore or dismiss this evidence and continue brazenly to support practices and policies that exacerbate the climate crisis. Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement is just one recent example. The resolution of the conflict will be political, and this makes the 2020 elections of utmost importance, given there is so little time to reverse global warming.
If Trump wins the presidency and one or both chambers of the US Congress remain under Republican control, then the growing efforts, domestically and internationally, to curtail and reverse the problem will be marginalized and ineffective.
So, we want a Democratic victory, but hope for one that reflects a bold vision and agenda to deal with the climate crisis, However, there must be narratives and proposals that include but go beyond the climate crisis to win over enough voters. As Green New Deal advocates insist such a vision and agenda must include not only a green transformation of the economy and support for international agreements/treaties to address the climate crisis, but also an agenda that includes a progressive overhaul of the tax system, that plans and implements job creation and assists in retraining workers for the new jobs, that prioritizes the needs of vulnerable communities, that funds adequately public education, that begins a transition to universal health care, and more.
There are many ways to pay for such a progressive agenda. Naomi Klein refers to a few of them in her new book, On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal (pp. 282-284). The US Congress could simply authorize the funds, “backstopped by the Treasury of the world’s currency of last resort.” She also mentions: the need for a “global minimum corporate tax rate to capture the tax revenue that the Apples and Googles of the world currently dodge with transnational schemes.” The funding for a Green New Deal also “calls for a reversal of monetary orthodoxy, with public investment floating green bonds, supported by central banks.” There should be measures to ensure that polluters pay for the damage they cause. End government subsidies to fossil fuel companies, worth “about $775 billion a year globally, and more than $20 billion in the United States alone.” Subsidies “should be shifted to investments in renewables and efficiency.” Impose a transaction tax on stock transactions on the stock exchange. Cut the military budget by 25 percent. Impose a billionaire’s tax.
Economic professors Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman go into detail on how to create a truly progressive tax system in their recent book, The Triumph of Injustice: How the Rich Dodge Taxes and How to Make Them Pay. For example, they propose: “a sharply progressive wealth tax to curb the forms of rent extraction associated with extreme and entrenched wealth; an effective taxation of global-straddling companies to reconcile globalization of tax justice; a national income tax to fund the modern social state and alleviate the crushing cost of health care” (p. 195). Their wealth tax proposal would tax at a rate of 2% the fortunes about 50 million and 3% above $1 billion, increase the marginal tax rate of the top 0.1% to 60%, increase the corporate tax rate back to 35%.
In the final analysis, though, we only succeed on the climate front if we win politically.