For ardent environmentalists, the topic of ‘climate change’ is one of the most impassioned areas of political thought. It has become a position held with religious zealotry in certain circles, with adherence to a strict dogma and any thought of opposition to the fundamental belief is considered almost blasphemous. It is considered by passionate adherents to be ‘science’ and even the slightest disagreement is a sign of ignorance and analogous to believing the earth is flat.
It is not surprising, then, that President Trump caused quite a controversy when he announced yesterday that he was withdrawing from the Paris Climate Treaty,
So what is the debate and why would the President pull the largest economic power in the world out of the Treaty? To fully answer that question, we have to look at the overall issue of ‘climate change’ and then at the Paris Treaty itself. Let’s take these in order.
There are two questions to the climate debate, though only one is generally addressed: 1) are global temperatures warming and 2) if so, is human activity the cause?
Because human-caused climate change has become akin to a religion for many, it’s hard to sort through actual data. Everyone, on both sides, seem to have an explanation for data that doesn’t agree with ‘their’ view, rather than using data to form their view. So let me cite my source for saying that the answer to the first question is ‘probably’. According to information compiled and shared on Global Temperatures by Michael Carlowicz, based on data from NASA and shared on NASA’s website, global temperatures have risen less than one degree Celsius since records began being kept around 1880. That is .8 degrees in not quite a century and a half. And that is why Thinking Man thinks the answer to the first question is ‘probably’ rather than a full affirmative, because that small of a change is not quite definitive proof, and certainly not in line with the three degrees rise in temperatures by 2025 predicted by proponents of the Paris Climate Treaty predict.
The answer to second question is much more in doubt and yet is assumed to be a given by those who think drastic action is needed now. We know with relative surety that global temperatures have fluctuated and changed significantly over time. Or maybe ‘global’ is too broad a term, as what we know, or at least what Thinking Man is familiar with, comes mainly from Europe and the northern hemisphere. For example, we have strong evidence—from the field of botany, archeology, meteorology and historical documents—that there was a period of warm temperatures in the early Middle Ages which some have said are at least as warm as the temperatures of the last few decades. This was followed by a decline in temperatures. There are some who have studied in the field that have even suggested that the plague that swept Europe during the Middle Ages-the Black Death-was exacerbated by falling temperatures which meant that there was a decline in land available for farming. The corresponding shortages of food pushed the number of deaths even higher as those already weak from disease could not get adequate nourishment.
Thus, the answer to the question of whether any rise in global temperatures is caused by man is questionable, at a minimum. According to estimates, the temperatures during these historical warm and cool periods during the years of roughly 900-1450 rose and fell more than the .8 degrees we have seen over the last century and a half. So why would we think that the last century and a half is unique when we have seen more variation in our own past? An objective answer would say that we can’t, at least not based on the evidence.
Separately from those questions, but germane to the discussion is the fact that ardent environmentalists suffer from a number of miscues on the topic, which tends to damage credibility. For those of us pushing the upper limit of middle age, we can remember sometimes contradictory pronouncements on the dangers of what is now called ‘climate change’. During parts of the last part of the last century (which was only seventeen years ago but sounds so much farther away), the danger from climate was not warming but freezing. Climatologists at that time borrowed the phrase ‘nuclear winter’ from the Cold War, and told us that the danger was the buildup of gases in the atmosphere, which would block out the sun’s rays and then lead to a global cooling effect. Alas, that ‘science’ did not last to the end of the century. Then the concern became ‘global warming’ but when that proved to be too difficult to show easily, the term was discarded and we now have ‘climate change’.
Climate change hero Al Gore famously predicted that the Arctic ice caps would be completely gone by roughly 2016. Alas, he was off. By a lot. Arctic ice has declined in the last four decades, something on the order of 5-6% (not quite 100%, as Al Gore suggested). Yet the effect has not been ‘global’, as the Antarctic ice cap has actually expanded, according to NASA. What does that mean? I’m not sure, but what we can say is that global warming isn’t as a sure of a thing as some suggest that it is. And other predictions have been off, as well, almost universally. (Advice to those who believe strongly in human-caused global warming: stop making predictions on a science that is, at best, inexact, and which can be demonstrably disproved if they don’t hold up).
Ardent believers, as can often be the case in any religion, try to explain everything by their pre-disposed doctrine. One example is especially memorable for the author. As a resident of Florida, where hurricanes are always in the back of your mind, I remember the years in the early 2000’s as ones that had several hurricanes that hit the US. We were told that global warming was likely the cause and that we should expect increasingly violent and extreme weather patterns as the effects of global warming snowballed (no pun intended). But back to the advice on avoiding predictions-the last several hurricane seasons have been more calm than predicted. And the US is close to setting a meteorological record because we have now gone nine and a half years without a major hurricane hitting the country (though in fairness, that doesn’t mean there have been no major hurricanes at all, just that they haven’t hit the coast).
The Paris Treaty
On the specifics of the Paris Climate Treaty, there were problems with the Treaty even aside from the discussion about climate change although they obviously are closely intertwined.
The Treaty was of questionable validity to start with from a legal perspective. President Barack Obama—the former constitutional law professor—failed to submit the treaty for ratification to the Senate, who is required to ratify any treaty according to the Constitution. Thus the Treaty was never ratified, which may be a small practical point as the Treaty laid out specific goals but required no specific actions to reach those goals and no penalties if the goals weren’t met.
Under the agreement, the US agreed to cut atmospheric emissions by 26-28% from 2005 levels by 2025. The Chinese, by contrast, got agreement to keep increasing emissions until 2030. India also had terms much more lenient than the US. Additionally, the US was to send billions of dollars to developing countries to help them reach their climate change goals, in addition to any domestic US cost, making this Treaty like many international agreements in that the US would be footing most of the bill.
The cost to the US economy to meet the environmental demands is estimated over a trillion dollars. Yet, despite the cost, if it makes a significant impact to saving the planet it would be worth it, proponents argue.
So what will be the effect of all countries fully implementing the Paris Climate Treaty? According to proponents, the total impact will be just under one degree. If every signatory nation meets the goals, then temperatures will warm about a degree less than they would have with no action. Critics estimate that the change would be closer to two tenths of a degree.
So if one would set aside the obvious inequities in the Treaty and then also accepts the assumptions that Treaty advocates propose, the terms become pretty clear. At the most concise and fundamental, it boils down to a simple question: is it worth trillions of dollars to the US and world economies to slow global warming by one degree or less?
A recent analysis by the Rhodium Group estimated that, under Mr. Trump’s policies, United States emissions will now most likely fall ‘only’ 15 to 19% below 2005 levels by 2025 instead of the 26-28% goal under the Treaty. Extrapolating that based on the original goals, it suggests that even pulling out of the Paris Climate Treaty would, all other things remaining equal, reduce global warming by half a degree but at a dramatically reduced price tag to the economy.
So the bottom line to the whole debate is “what are we willing to pay for half a degree?”