Seeing the Trees for the Forest

So, Trump is pulling the US out of the Paris Climate Agreement.  Except he can’t.  Not until just after the 2020 election.

He could have done it sooner by withdrawing from the underlying UN treaty that gives the Paris Agreement it’s legal teeth, The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, but he decided not to go that route, probably because, unlike the Paris Agreement, getting out of the UN treaty would almost certainly require Senate approval since they ratified the treaty in the first place, and that’s probably not going to work out well for him.   So Trump didn’t go there.

Instead he simply “withdrew” us from the Paris Agreement through executive decree.  Except, as I said, he can’t. Yet.

But he can say that he has, and now his base is saying how wonderful that he lived up to his campaign promise and bowing and scraping while environmentalists and the left are doing the Armageddon dance with great wailing and gnashing of teeth.

They shouldn’t be.

This is a matter of the proverbial forest and the trees.

The Paris Agreement is a non-binding agreement among the countries of the world.  Every country set its own goals for what they could do to limit their contributions to climate warming.  If they don’t meet those goals, there are no legal repercussions.  The idea was that no one would want to be seen on the world stage as not doing their part – the part they voluntarily said they would do.  It was a sort of compliance through threat of nation-shaming idea.  But Trump has no shame.

The countries also agreed to monitor their progress and report on their emissions levels and reductions, using a universal accounting system.  And that part is legally binding under the UN treaty.  So is the part about how soon you can withdraw from the agreement after you signed it.  We cannot leave until after November 4, 2020.

Our participation in the Paris Agreement was done entirely through an Executive Order under Obama.  It’s not a treaty. The plan the US submitted stated that “the United States intends to achieve an economy-wide target of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28 per cent below its 2005 level in 2025 and to make best efforts to reduce its emissions by 28%.” (1)  There is no mention of how many coal plants we can have or how many China can have or any of the other misinformation Trump spouted in his announcement.  This is about reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.  You can read the wording for yourself. (2)

In order to accomplish that reduction, Obama’s EPA created the Clean Power Plan.

The Clean Power Plan is a set of EPA regulations that set limits for emissions by energy producers.  It is the primary way the Obama administration hoped to achieve the goals we agreed to in the Paris Agreement.

The CPP was first proposed at the EPA in 2014.  It went through an extensive comment period and was unveiled by Obama in August of 2015 and published in the Federal Register in October of 2015.  It was immediately challenged in court.  In February of 2016 the Supreme Court ordered that the EPA halt enforcement until the lower courts could make a decision on the legality of the plan.  They still have not done that.

So, when Trump took office, the Clean Power Plan was not being enforced and its legality was still tied up in court.

On March 28, 2017, President Trump signed an executive order directing EPA Administrator to “as soon as practicable, suspend, revise, or rescind the guidance, or publish for notice and comment proposed rules suspending, revising, or rescinding those rules (The Clean Power Plan).  (3)

The Trump Justice Department has requested that the Court of Appeals halt the CPP case and won a sixty day hold on litigation.  Until the CPP is declared legal, it cannot go into effect and it now appears that it will never be declared legal.

Without the CPP in place, the US will almost certainly fall far short of the goals set for the Paris Agreement.  Even with the CPP, projections showed we might fall up to 17% short. Without it the figure will be much higher.

And this is all well and good with the Trump administration.  It is committed to eliminating as many regulations as it possibly can in order to boost profits for those being regulated.  It cares nothing about President Obama’s promises to the global community or the place of our country as a leader in global efforts at anything.  Scott Pruitt, the head of the current EPA, was one of those who brought suit against the CPP in the first place.

The Presidential Executive Order on Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth (March 28, 2017) states:

“Sec. 2.  Immediate Review of All Agency Actions that Potentially Burden the Safe, Efficient Development of Domestic Energy Resources.  (a)  The heads of agencies shall review all existing regulations, orders, guidance documents, policies, and any other similar agency actions (collectively, agency actions) that potentially burden the development or use of domestically produced energy resources, with particular attention to oil, natural gas, coal, and nuclear energy resources.  Such review shall not include agency actions that are mandated by law, necessary for the public interest, and consistent with the policy set forth in section 1 of this order.

“(b)  For purposes of this order, “burden” means to unnecessarily obstruct, delay, curtail, or otherwise impose significant costs on the siting, permitting, production, utilization, transmission, or delivery of energy resources.” (4)

If your focus is strictly on the environment and climate warming, it isn’t the Paris Agreement you should be concerned with.  It’s the CPP.  It’s the other environmental rollbacks the Trump administration had already – before he announced our withdrawal from the agreement – implemented.

Prior to backing out of the Paris Agreement the Trump administration reversed an Obama administration rule that blocked coal mines from dumping waste into streams and rivers.  Scott Pruitt has put a 90 day hold on implementation of the rules regarding the amount of methane that can be released by the oil and gas sectors created under Obama so he can work on changing them.

The executive order on “energy independence” is a clear roadmap for eliminating any and all regulations that cost the oil, gas, and coal industries anything.  Climate simply doesn’t enter into the equation.

Whether we are in or out of the Paris Agreement makes no difference at all if we are not going to even try to meet the goals we set to counter the effects of climate warming due to greenhouse gas emissions.

Some have asked why Trump couldn’t have simply ignored the goals (as he is) and not created a global outcry by announcing that we were withdrawing.  There would have been no legal repercussions for that.

The answer is entirely political.  Suggestions that this is just a matter of getting rid of another Obama legacy are short-sighted.

While there are no legal ramifications for not meeting the goals, there is, under the UN treaty, the very real legal obligation to report on our progress in meeting those goals.  Since the Trump administration has no intention of meeting them, reporting that we are falling further and further behind would create a constant source of criticism.  By saying that we are withdrawing now, the administration can dismiss the goals and the criticism as unimportant.  The gamble is that it will be less of a campaign issue in 2020 if he withdraws now than if he doesn’t withdraw and fails to come close to a global promise.

Secondly, the dramatic withdrawal and the consequent global outcry comes at a point when it does the most to distract from the administration’s Russia problem.

There is also a huge outcry about how withdrawing from the Agreement hurts the standing of the United States on the world stage and how we will no longer be trusted to keep our word.  One has to question whether our withdrawal will do any more damage or send any worse a message to the countries of the world than not even trying to meet our self-defined obligations.  Either way, the US has reneged on promises and gone back on its word.  Either way, we have lost our leadership role, particularly in climate matters, but overall as well.

All of this was easily predicable during the election.  Trump made it clear that he would roll back regulations.  He made it clear that he would withdraw the country from the Paris Agreement.  Had Clinton won the White House, the Justice Department would be fighting to make sure the courts ruled in favor of the Clean Power Plan and we would have a shot at coming close to the goals set.  Instead, America elected Trump and got exactly what it voted for.

Amidst all the gloom and doom surrounding this issue, there are a few rays of light.

At this point, world leaders have pretty much written off the Teflon Don as an untrustworthy, illiterate buffoon.  German news magazines have called for his impeachment.  The French President beat him at hand squeezing, and his wife refuses any hand holding.  The whole world watched him shove another world leader out of the way so he could be at the front for a photo op.  They are quite aware that his action does not represent the way this country feels about the Paris Agreement.  As we approach the 2020 election and the actual date any withdrawal might take effect, there is the possibility that the parties to the Paris Agreement could be persuaded to postpone action until after the inauguration of our next president.

There also seems to be a strong reactionary movement both at home and abroad to double down on efforts to meet climate goals both in American cities and foreign countries to make up for this blunder on the part of the US government.

That’s all well and good, but it is worthless in the long run unless we begin to address the core problems that have gotten us to this point.

It is a core problem when a member of congress stands up and says that if climate change is a problem, God will fix it.

It is a core problem when a majority of congress rejects the findings of 97% of the world’s scientists and refuses to act on climate issues.

It is a core problem when belief is substituted for scientific study and coordinated world action.

It is a core problem when critical thinking is removed from school curriculums.

It is a core problem when 22 members of congress petition the president to withdraw from the Paris Agreement after taking millions from the energy industry in campaign contributions.

It is a core problem when we subsidize the oil, gas, and coal industries while they knowingly contribute to a climate catastrophe.

It is a core problem when entire states refuse to allow the term “climate change” to even be uttered by state employees.

And the solution to every single one of these and a myriad of other core problems is active, educated voters committed as never before to educating other voters and seeing to it that we change the makeup of our governments from town councils to the presidency.   Only then can we reshape our educational system to begin to work toward a saner democracy.

You can wail and gnash your teeth all you want, but until you, personally, have educated people who have never voted and convinced them that their lives and their children’s lives depend on them voting in every election, from dogcatcher on up, it’s just noise and a higher dental bill.

Your Humble Servant,

Roger A. Shipley, The Willowbrook Curmudgeon


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