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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

We’ll never have Paris: Trump pulls the US out of international climate accord

By Phil Plait

Yesterday, President Trump announced that the United States is withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord. As is typical of the White House these days, this isn’t just a bad idea, but a proactively bad one. It’s like Trump is trying to make the worst possible decision he can.

The 2015 Accord was hammered out by countries across the world with multiple goals, the primary one being to keep the average global temperature from passing more than 2° Celsius above the pre-Industrial Age level. Mind you, by the time the Accord passed we had already passed the +1° mark. We are more than halfway to the 2° mark, and the planet is warming faster now than it has in the past. This shows quite clearly the urgency we must accept to keep our planet from warming past the tipping point.

But there’s more. Right now, developing countries are in a bind. Most of them will be hardest hit by global warming — warming caused by decades or centuries of fossil fuel burning by developed countries, including the U.S. — and, in many cases, fossil fuels are easiest for them to use. So the Accord puts a financial obligation on the part of developed countries to give aid to those whose energy use is ramping up and who need the infrastructure for it. Withdrawing from that means abdicating our own responsibility to those other countries.

Moreover, there’s a strong symbolic piece of the Accord that should resonate with everyone who understands reality: It’s an agreement that we’re all in this together, and we all need to pitch in. A rising sea level affects all shorelines, after all. For much of the 20th and now 21st centuries, the United States has been a beacon of progress in both science and engineering, and we should be leading this effort.

Instead, thanks to Trump and the GOP, we are burying our heads in the parched sand. No other political party on the planet denies global warming as an official stance. Trump has made it clear he puts fossil fuel (especially coal) above reality, and his party is all too happy to follow behind him.

And so, here we are. Trump is pulling us out of the Accord.

2016 hottest year global map

The ramifications of this are not entirely clear, but some trends are obvious enough and easy to extrapolate from. Over history, and I mean all of history, it has always paid off to invest in science and engineering. This has never been more critical than today; whoever invests in alternative sources of energy will be the ones who will lead in the second half of this century, if not earlier.

So, who is doing this now? India and China, to name just two. In India, solar power has become so cheap, it’s undercutting fossil fuel, and that country is well on its way to meeting the Paris Accord goal for itself. China (which, I’ll remind you, has more than four times the population of the U.S.) is increasingly turning to solar, and doing wildly well with it. They’re being quite innovative, and have invested heavily in solar. They’re driving the global market.

Trump has claimed global warming is a Chinese hoax. Whether he believes that claim or not, China is certainly taking alternative energy sources to the bank.

That could be us. That should be us. And this clearly shows that any claim that the Accord is killing American jobs is patently false. The truth (as it so often is) is the exact opposite of Trump’s claim: By looking toward solar and other forms of greener energy, we would be creating jobs and boosting our economy.

Instead, Trump is turning away from solar and trying to subsidize coal even more, specifically in coal country states like West Virginia and Kentucky. But that’s a promise made to be broken.

Here’s the thing about coal: It’s doomed no matter what we do. The demand for coal has been waning rapidly for a while now. Republicans blame the Obama Administration and the Clean Power Plan, because of course they do, but coal was declining long before the CPP (and the CPP will, in fact, save us money as well). Sadly, natural gas is taking the place of coal; this is delaying the inevitable, since we need to wean ourselves off of that carbon dioxide-producing fuel as well. But either way, shoring up coal because of jobs in a handful of states is, in my opinion, just craven politics. It’s a way to gather votes, and not an actual solution. Those jobs will disappear anyway.

That’s harsh, but it’s reality. And because it’s real, we must do something about it. I don’t know what that action would be in detail; I’m not an economist. But it’s easy enough to recognize the need.

However, the government, certainly the current administration, won’t even think about greener energy production like solar and wind. The Solutions Project — an effort to quantify and stump for alternative energy sources — finds that West Virginia would do well with solar, as would Kentucky. If Trump and the GOP are so concerned about jobs, then why don’t they ask this simple question: How many jobs in those states would be created if we took alternative energy sources seriously?  

Kentucky going 100% renewable energy

And so, this is why I’m very unhappy with Trump pulling us out of the Paris Accord. It signals that we don’t care about global warming, that we don’t care about helping other countries with it, and together with Trump’s other policies (like putting full-blown climate change denier Scott Pruitt as head of the EPA, for example), it’s a huge flag showing that we’re willing to cede energy leadership in the 21st century to other countries.

This is more than just foolish. It’s contrary to everything the United States strives for as a nation. It shows that we stand against essentially the entire world when it comes to climate change. It also makes it clear that, once again, the U.S. as a nation will delay taking any real action to slow or stop global warming, action that we should’ve taken a decade or more ago.

This is a complete failure of leadership, across the board. It’s also a threat to our national security.

My hope in part is that, at least internally to the U.S., the Paris Accord isn’t necessarily load bearing. Solar power is not only gaining ground here, but is, in many places, cheaper than fossil fuel*. The market is bearing out the reality of advances in engineering and science, with or without the treaty. That’s the good news, such as it is.

But we will still look like fools to the global community, and worse, we’ll look like selfish fools. We have an obligation to the planet at large, and this administration is abrogating that.

The rest of my hope lies in 2018. That’s an auspicious date for two reasons. One is that it’s when we’ll have mid-term elections in this country, which is our best hope for throwing the anti-science congresspeople out of office. The other is, that’s when the signatories of the Paris Accord will meet again to “take stock of the collective efforts in relation to progress towards the goals set in the Paris Agreement.”

I don’t know what progress we’ll have made by then, but I hope that, in 2018, we’ll be taking the first steps toward, at the very least, stopping our regression.

* That link goes to the U.S. Department of Energy website, and the White House has been taking down many Obama-era pages that have a pro-green energy message (as well as, chillingly, many that discuss the reality of climate change). If that link gets taken down, try this one.