U.S. President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the 2016 Paris Climate Accord June 1. In the past 24 hours the media has been, in a word, lively. Trump’s decision was an appeal to a base that has hungered for these kinds of dramatic, headline grabbing actions – and the media has not failed in providing the “liberal clamoring” that so energizes Trump’s supporters.
Let’s get my personal politics out of the way. I’m a Green. I’ve got solar panels on my house. I recycle. I drive a Prius. I backpack the Rockies in the summer. I would have handled the Paris Agreement differently, but I certainly agreed with its tenor and thrust. I’m part of the whole “Science is Real” movement because of, you know, the Enlightenment.
I’m not a normal Green, however, because of, you know, the Enlightenment. I can do math. And that means that I’m pretty good at looking into the guts of a topic and sussing out facts and trends that supporters of this or that movement or ideology often find unsettling. Climate change in general and the Paris Agreement in specific are no exception.
As a Green, it might be uncomfortable to admit but the reality is that the market is driving green technology development and application in most economies, especially the United States. If you agree with former President Obama’s statement that cities, states and businesses (i.e. the engines of the US economy) are picking up the mantle of leading on responsible climate action, then the market will ultimately decide how well and how long countries adhere to “green” behaviors.
The real inconvenient truth for those condemning Trump for the Paris withdrawal revolves around fossil fuels. They certainly have problems, but fossil fuels don’t all pollute equally. The new combined cycle natural gas burning power plants that have been going up in recent years have but half of the emissions of coal, and because natural gas is either a waste product out of the shale fields or can now be produced at roughly $2 per 1000 cubic feet (less than half the forty-year average), it is wiping coal from the board. Most Greens hate natural gas because it is cost-competitive with pretty much everything – especially alternatives – but the bottom line is because of shale natural gas the United States is going to meet its Paris commitments regardless of what happens to the agreement itself. With or without Obama, with or without Trump, with or without the EPA, and largely with or without alternative energy sources.
Alternatives just are not ready to take over baseload capacity, and until that happens we are stuck with fossil fuels. Despite the rise in effectiveness in and demand for solar and wind technologies, another inconvenient truth is that peak daily demand for power in most places is just after sunset, while peak seasonal demand in most places is after sunset in the winter. That desperately degrades the solar argument anywhere that has high solar variation between summer and winter (like most developed countries). I, however, live in Texas – a sunny location where peak supply and demand line up almost perfectly.
Between cost and recharge cycle restrictions and safety, battery technology needs at least another decade to work out the kinks before it can really start to square the supply/demand circle. In the meantime, it isn’t as if lithium extraction is the most environmentally sound practice; if you like lithium batteries and electric cars in their current incarnation, you have to love strip mining. And always keep in mind that many of the components of your standard cars are recyclable or reusable, but your Tesla’s fuel cells – or at present any lithium car battery – are definitely not.
Which brings us back to the Paris deal.
It’s unclear what Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris accords will have on climate change, because it’s unclear what a non-binding agreement like Paris could do in the first place. Critics of the U.S. withdrawal who note the U.S. is joining the ranks of Syria and Nicaragua are inadvertently making the point for me: there’s no way a non-binding deal that has members as diverse as Vanuatu, Germany, Brazil, India and Congo is going to be entered into and applied equally across the board. That even the big oil companies – the traditional bugbears of environmentalist nightmares – are on board with the Paris deal shows both how toothless it is but also how much industry has already shifted toward reaching the emissions aims it sets out. And to do so with or without a deal.
I’ve found it particularly entertaining that many seem to be cozying up to China. CNN went so far to publish a story titled “Has Donald Trump Given the World to China on a Silver Platter?” China being the country that has added more soft coal burning capacity than the rest of the world combined during the past decade. Germany is also often feted as the future of Green politics – despite continually moving away from cleaner fuels like natural gas and nuclear in favor of lignite coal. Yes, Germany has installed loads of solar power capacity, but because the sun does not actually shine in Germany all those panels are in essence giant paperweights. U.S. per capita emissions have been collapsing since shale kicked in; China’s have tripled since 1990. Despite Germany’s PR sparkle, their emissions reductions have far more to do with demographic decline than alternative energy. In fact, German emissions reductions have actually slowed since they started their solar buildout.
The booming noise of 10,000 pundits and analysts in what has become standard media covfefe misses the forest for the trees. Trump isn’t just the poster child for an obnoxious new form of politics, but also for a far deeper geopolitical shift that is already past the point of no return. The question is not if China will lead on climate change, or whether France or Germany will pick up the mantle of Leader of the Free World, but the most critical inconvenient truth is that the era of unipolar global leadership is slipping away from us.
Love or hate the United States, love or hate the global order, the United States created and maintained that order to serve its Cold War interests. The Cold War is long gone, and now the U.S. – quite belatedly I might add – is letting the order go. We are no longer living in an age where the U.S. has the will or ability to continue being the lead on everything, everywhere, all the time.
We’re all gaining insight and empathy into the minds of carriage makers in the face of rising automobile production, or whale oil traders at the dawn of the kerosene era. Everything we know for the past 70 years is predicated upon American-instilled international stability. That’s the European Union. That’s the Communist Party of China. That’s Brazilian soy production. That’s Toyota. That’s the iPhone supply chain. That’s even the Paris Accord. None of them can function without the American-maintained Order. We don’t know how to function during such a fundamental paradigm shift.
The end of the Paris Agreement has triggered the ultimate in rear-view-mirror longing. It’s a waste of time to mourn a nostalgic view of what America’s role in the world once was. Our effort would be far better spent preparing for the Disorder to come.