We Will Always Have Paris

We Will Always Have Paris

I know that like me, many of you are disheartened and angry by President Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of the Paris Climate Change Accord. While this is an incredibly short-sighted decision based upon ideological nonsense that will damage our nation’s standing in the world, it is not the end of the Paris agreement nor of the United States’ move toward a carbon-free economy. Alden Meyer, the Director of Strategy and Policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, is the most knowledgeable person on international climate negotiations that I know. Alden has participated in this process for over twenty years, and I found his recent blog post on the topic most informative.

It is my expectation that we will see other signatory nations move ahead with (and even strengthen) their commitments to reduce emissions, particularly as the drastic reductions in the cost of renewable power reverberate through the global economy. Many international leaders will take Trump’s decision both as a personal affront and as evidence of his disdain for the interests and concerns of their citizens. As Alden points out, this will diminish the standing of the United States in world affairs, and make it harder for other nations to collaborate with the United States on trade, terrorism, and other critical issues. George P. Shultz, the U.S. secretary of state under Reagan, noted that “Global statecraft relies on trust, reputation and credibility, which can be all too easily squandered. If America fails to honor a global agreement that it helped forge, the repercussions will undercut our diplomatic priorities across the globe.”

As a scientist, two things pain me greatly about this decision. First, we need the American federal government to lead a robust research effort to develop the future technologies that will support an economy that actually has negative carbon emissions by late in the second half of this century (e.g., where we are actually removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as part of our economic activity). The existing national commitments under the Paris agreement are only a small down payment on the changes required, and we will need a focused and comprehensive research and development effort if we are going to prevent the most serious impacts of climate change in the future. This is something that must be led by the federal government, not states and cities.

Perhaps more importantly, it is distressing to see that Trump is comfortable making this decision without regard to evidence. While not directly denying climate science (as he has done in the past), the speech is full of inaccuracies, and demonstrates that the President sees no need to deal with a physical reality scientists have understood since the 19th Century and have been warning Presidents about since 1965. Trump said “So we’re getting out. But we will start to negotiate, and we will see if we can make a deal that’s fair. And if we can, that’s great. And if we can’t, that’s fine.”

No, it’s not fine, it is denial of physical reality. I am greatly heartened to see the response of our Governor, in collaboration with government and business leaders from all around the world. Michael Bloomberg, ex-Mayor of New York City, is coordinating a group of cities, states, and corporations that will attempt to deliver the carbon emission reductions committed to by the United States. Bloomberg Philanthropies has committed $14M to the United Nations Framework on Climate Change to cover the US contribution to this organization should the US decline to provide its share of the organization’s operating expenses (UNFCC was created by international treaty in 1989. The Paris Agreement and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change operate under its umbrella). Trump said he was elected to represent “the people of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” to which the Mayor of Pittsburgh replied, “I’m appalled that the President used my city to justify his unacceptable decision.” The Mayor reiterated his City’s commitment to the goals of the Paris Accord, as have 246 US Mayors (update: it’s now 391 Mayors).

My plan is to continue my personal and professional commitments to seeking reduction in greenhouse gas emissions while helping the Bay Area plan for the impacts we know are coming (“Avoid the unmanageable while managing for the unavoidable”). The global response to Trump’s decision demonstrates the importance and the power of collective action, particularly in California, which is picking up the mantle of national leadership being abdicated by the President. As the California’s legislative leaders said after Trump’s election, “California was not a part of this nation when its history began, but we are clearly now the keeper of its future.”