Roundtable – The Paris Accords

The Roundtable is a conversation about the news among Torchlight’s writers and editors. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. The conversation happened June 4.

Tom Rich

Welcome to the Roundtable, Torchlight’s weekly discussion of news and events. With us this week are Senior Managing Editor Josh Kyu Saiewitz, Junior Managing Editor David Schmitz, Junior Managing Editor Ryan Duel, Technical Manager James Griffith, Trump supporter Sam Dieffenwierth and myself, and Editor-in-Chief Tom Rich. This week’s topic is the Paris Accords, an international agreement aimed at reducing carbon emissions and combating climate change. President Trump announced this week that the United States would be leaving the Accords, a process which will take four years to complete. All of the Accord’s carbon-reduction efforts rely on goals set by individual nations, so the obvious question is what practical difference leaving the Accords makes. So, team, we’ll start off with a 3-5 word soundoff: what’s the impact of leaving the Paris Accords?

 

Josh Kyu Saiewitz

“Somebody else might save the world.”

 

David Schmitz

Legitimize Trump by decimating Obama.

 

James Griffith

Fully ceding the United States’ status as a superpower.

 

Sam Dieffenwierth

Pisses off lots of countries for political grandstanding.

 

Tom

So we’re not wild about it, it seems. We’ll get to the impact on domestic and international politics, but let’s start with what leaving the Accords means, in and of itself. Josh, you want to expand a little on your thought?

 

Josh

Yeah. So essentially the Paris Accords constitute a non-binding agreement between I think 196 countries, which is every single country in the world except Nicaragua (who has already passed the finish line), and Syria (undergoing a civil war).

We are still part of the Accords because there’s no way to leave the Accords, by design, without going through a process of withdrawal that takes 3 years after the Accords are formally begun, which is about a year from now. The date is right after the vote for the 2020 election, in November.

So Trump has actually announced his intention to withdraw by that date, and (in the meantime) to not do any of the things we said we were going to do.

Consider the Accords like a family anti-smoking pledge. Everybody agrees they’ll stop smoking by the end of the year; Trump says, “Nah, I’m not going to stop smoking.” Taken literally it doesn’t mean anything until the quitting deadline; but symbolically it’s a big fuck you to everybody else and their nicotine patches while you light up another cigar.

 

James

Josh save some words for other people.

 

Josh

Sorry, I went long so I could give some factual background.

 

Sam

The President’s selling it as a way to help Americans in coal country. But our energy mix is switching over to gas/oil anyways, so all leaving the treaty does is flip off pretty much everyone else in the planet for not a whole lot of upside. It also paints a target on our back for the big polluters (India and China) to blame us if and when they don’t meet their targets.

 

James

Our energy mix is switching over to gas/renewables/nuclear actually. West Texas is basically a giant wind farm, they’re building new nuke plants in Georgia, California has had heavy investment in renewables for almost as long as I can remember. That’s by no means comprehensive, just off the top of my head.

By backing out of the Accord we flip a giant bird to the international community and let China perfect LFTR tech we invented, as well as ceding even more solar and wind development to them. [LTFR stands for Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor, a type of nuclear reactor -ed.]

It’s ludicrous, the entire reason solar initially struggled here was China propped their solar industry up with more subsidies than we did which made us unable to compete. This was what caused Solyndra to fail, they had a solid business plan based around more efficient solar panels that couldn’t cut it on $ per watt with the level of investment by China’s government.

 

Josh

Solar costs have dropped pretty dramatically since then, haven’t they?

 

James

Yes!

 

James

Aside from that if pollutants were divided up equally among the world we would have blown through our share in 1944. It’s just really shitty “fuck you, got mine” behavior that cedes additional soft power after we already cast doubt on NATO (after being the only country to invoke Article 5).

 

David

Yes solar has dramatically increased in efficiency and cost reductions, based on advancements that only occurred because of the subsidies so they could compete with fossil fuels!

 

James

Fossil fuels are subsidized far more than renewables though so it’s hardly fair.

 

Sam

Reminds me about highways vs Amtrak.

 

David

Similarly, we are in a transition period for transportation development, with alternative fuels being required to continue the push for more efficient (therefore less expensive for the consumer) vehicles. What deciding not to improve our production, consumption, and research with regards to things that the Paris agreement talks about just puts America behind further and further in the global competition. How are our vehicle manufacturers going to compete when China is decades ahead of us in research? They won’t, and so a short term political statement ruins long term viability of entire American industries.

 

Tom

Ok, so lots going on, but I want to return to a remark by Sam from earlier. Sam, you said that pulling out of the Accords allows countries like India and China blame us if they don’t meet their emissions targets. I’m wondering if you could expand on that a little and, more generally, I’d like to hear from the group about how the US–a leader in carbon emissions–leaving the Accords might impact other nations’ behavior.

 

Sam

I don’t think they’ll be carbon-neutral by 2050. I don’t think they’ll even hit the emissions-cutting standards. They’ve each got hundreds of millions of people to lift out of unimaginable poverty and fossil fuels are temptingly cheap compared to renewable energy and nuclear reactors.

Additionally both the current Indian government and Chinese Politburo are unfriendly to the United States. I think they’d seize on any excuse to keep on using fossil fuels and the world’s richest and wealthiest country pulling out of the climate deal provides them ample opportunity to do so. Expect statements around the 2020 deadline on the lines of “well the U.S. isn’t cutting emissions so why should we” and “the U.S. is the real problem.”

 

Josh

This goes to the reason why virtually every country in the world agreed to this pledge, which is not true of previous attempts at global climate change coordination (like Kyoto). Previously the sticking point was that developed countries like the US wanted emissions reductions from developing countries like India and China who were late to the Industrial Revolution and the economic benefits that full-blown fossil fuel usage bring. What changed with Paris is an agreement that developing nations be allowed to actually have more emissions than they do now, on the condition that they reach peak usage and then meet emissions reduction goals on a slightly longer timeframe.

 

Josh

There are internal pressures in both countries that suggest that they’re going to do better than that, even. China wants to deal with its really awful air pollution, which is why they’re heavily investing in nuclear power. India just canceled a coal plant because the economics there are in favor of renewables. Far from both countries looking to blame the US for their failures, they seem poised to beat us to the finish line by a country mile–and then keep on running toward global leadership in the energy industry.

 

James  

There’s more than that. Both of them are already becoming desperate. China is losing arable land to the Gobi every year at an alarming rate, both because of increased water consumption as more and more Chinese have the affluence to afford a more Western meat based diet, as well as climate change. India is having desertification issues as well, and they have a lot of low lying land and less money to deal with their cities sinking than the US or China.

China is on track to peak their emissions before the 2030 date they set. India is lagging harder but they’re doing rad stuff like installing solar panels over their aqueducts that California should have done years ago. Generates energy without damaging any ecosystems and prevents loss of water to evaporation.

They aren’t slowing down, we’re putting a gun to the planet’s head though. That’s not even getting into ocean acidification which is its own nightmare. If we don’t fix that it’s literally an extinction level event.

 

Sam

The question is if they’re going to do it fast enough. Outside of China and India there are hundreds of Third-World countries in this treaty, and most of them aren’t rich enough to switch over to renewables on their own. But they wanted to try, and now the U.S. is pulling out of the treaty. We look bad and we’re not going to be sending money to help them switch.

 

Ryan Duel

We don’t know if anything will be fast enough. That’s part of the problem. The damage from emissions is visible, and will worsen, for decades, minimum. Prevention isn’t really the end goal anymore, but mitigation. The U.S. deciding that cooperating with the rest of the world isn’t in America’s interest hobbles those efforts, but by the time we know to what extent, it’ll be too late. Trump is more than happy to boast about American power and leadership, but he’s chosen to abdicate guiding the world through the biggest threat it faces, to anyone and everyone else. If we’re lucky the world needs America’s help less than thought.

 

James

We are already past the point where carbon capture and dumping lime in the ocean to make it more basic is optional. Unless we just decide it’s cool that all oceanic life dies.

 

Tom

Just about out of time now, so let’s wrap up. It seems like a lot is going to depend on exactly how the impacts of improving renewables, climate change, and international politics combine to influence how the leaders of China, India, and the rest of the developing world act. Sound off, everyone, on these questions: Can the rest of the world, without the US, mitigate climate change to a meaningful degree, and without the US in the Accords, are they likely to make the effort?

 

Sam

Yes and probably not. The U.S. has always held the “big stick” in international relations, and without us to hold feet to the fire I think a lot of other countries are going to value short-term gains over long-term changes.

 

Josh

What I’m excited about is the coalition of American mayors and governors (on behalf of cities and states making up a significant portion of the country’s population) which has pledged to follow the Accords as if Trump had never opened his stupid mouth. They’ve asked that their compact be allowed to be a formal signatory to the Accords, and they’re going to be driving emissions reductions despite the federal government. So it seems that very few people are in favor of failing to save the world, and those people are not going to be allowed to doom us all.

 

James

I’m proud as hell of my Governor (Jerry Brown) right now.

 

David

No, the US is too large of a consumer force that if we don’t or we do a thing, it affects literally the entire world. When we decide not to combat global climate change, then the global climate changes for the worse. I remain unconvinced that Trump hasn’t done this as just part of a program of going through the list of things that Obama did and doing the opposite in an attempt to erase Obama from the record of Presidents. Last month it was health insurance, this week it was the Paris climate agreement.

 

James

Totally agree with regards to this being about nuking Obama’s legacy.

 

Josh

Or burying it under coal, as it were.

 

James

It was already up in the air whether or not it was too late to stop the worst effects of climate change. I think that the rest of the world is going to try like hell even if we don’t help them, they’re already feeling the effects more than we are (for example the Syrian destabilization that led to ISIS is largely an effect of climate change). Even if individual states and cities weren’t stepping up to the plate California still sets emissions standards for the rest of the US; I’m not actually sure what the effects of us backing out are aside from tarnishing our reputation and ability to use soft power more thoroughly. If it’s not too late I think that we’ll do it but it’s gonna be by the hair of our chin.

 

Ryan

The answers to most questions about the future are “We just don’t know.” In any conversation that would mean you need to wait to act until you do know. But we can’t afford that. We don’t know if measures are enough to salvage the world we know, we don’t know if America’s cooperation is required. We don’t know if other countries will be able to meet goals set. But we either try or prepare for things to get a lot worse. The saving grace here is that there is a lot of goodwill to earn all over the world by opposing whatever Trump does. Rather than use the U.S. exit as an excuse to shirk responsibilities in cutting emissions, many can take this as an opportunity to undercut U.S. influence by taking up the mantle. China has everything to gain by doing what Trump just said he won’t.

 

Josh

The only people in the entire world who believe that climate change isn’t happening, isn’t our fault, or shouldn’t be fought are in control of the American government. This isn’t even 23 million people losing health care; this is several orders of magnitude more catastrophic in terms of our social and political dysfunction leading to potentially extinction-level consequences for the rest of the human race. We can do all we can to mitigate those consequences, and we will, but more than any other issue this is why we need to vote these science-denying, world-murdering motherfuckers out in 2018 and 2020. The delay will cost countless lives and countless dollars, and Trump’s abdication of world leadership could signal the end of the US as a superpower, but maybe, just maybe, fixing our politics could still stave off the end of everything. I hope.

 

Tom

Well, that’s a cheerful end to the Roundtable. Thanks as always for a lively discussion, all, and have a great week!

 

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