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What leaving the Paris accord could mean for U.S. and the world

May 31, 2017 at 6:35 PM EDT
President Trump tweeted Wednesday that his decision on the Paris Accord will come “over the next few days,” an announcement that arrives after weeks of signaling he may walk away from the deal. The pact was signed in 2015 in order to reduce carbon emissions. William Brangham speaks with Princeton University's Michael Oppenheimer and Phil Kerpen of American Commitment about what's at stake.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: As we just heard, there are reports that President Trump may not keep the United States in the Paris climate accord, the 2015 agreement signed by nearly 200 nations to reduce the carbon emissions that are driving climate change.

The U.S. is the second biggest emitter of those greenhouse gasses globally.

William Brangham has the story for our weekly segment on the Leading Edge of science.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: You’re going to find out very soon.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: It’s a decision being awaited around the world. President Trump, who’s repeatedly called climate change a hoax perpetuated by China, tweeted that his decision on the Paris accord will come over the next few days.

For weeks, Mr. Trump has signaled that he would walk away from the deal. He pledged to do so on the campaign trail, and has long argued that environmental regulations cost American jobs.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We’re going to cancel the Paris climate agreement.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The president also appointed Scott Pruitt to lead the EPA, a man who, in the past, has sued to stop environmental regulations and who supports withdrawing from Paris.

SCOTT PRUITT, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator: Paris is something that we need to really look at closely, because it’s something we need to exit, in my opinion. It’s a bad deal for America.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: And in March, the president signed an executive order undoing Obama-era climate change regulations. Last week at the G7 summit, Mr. Trump wouldn’t pledge to support the Paris deal, a move that frustrated many European leaders.

That sentiment was repeated today by Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, who strongly criticized the idea of the U.S. walking away from the agreement.

JEAN-CLAUDE JUNCKER, President, European Commission (through interpreter): The Americans can’t just leave the climate protection agreement. So, this notion, I am Trump, I am American, America first, and I’m going to get out of it, that won’t happen.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The original Paris accord was signed by the Obama administration, along with 195 other countries, back in 2015. It voluntarily commits those nations to decrease their carbon emissions to try and slow the rate of global warming.

The goal was to keep additional warming below 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Many scientists argue that warming beyond that level could have serious consequences, global sea level rise, increased storms, heat waves and droughts, and potentially massive dislocation of people from low-lying nations.

For months, President Trump has been under pressure from competing interests.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I’m hearing from a lot of people both ways.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The president’s daughter and adviser Ivanka Trump emerged as a supporter of the U.S. staying in the agreement, the same with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who argues withdrawing could hurt U.S. negotiating power.

Tillerson’s former company, oil giant ExxonMobil, joined a litany of other companies who also urged the president to stay in the deal. Exxon described it as an effective framework to address the risks of climate change.

But other voices urged withdrawal, including chief strategist Stephen Bannon, as did 22 Republican senators, including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who said that it was an important part of rescinding President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which has long been the target of Republican lawmakers.

The Trump administration also took aim today at another rule covering greenhouse gases, specifically emissions of methane. The EPA is now stopping an Obama administration rule that would cut down on methane leaks and pollution from oil and natural gas wells.

But let’s continue our look at what’s at stake if the president opts out of the Paris accord.

Michael Oppenheimer is a professor of geosciences and international affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University. He has been a longtime participant in the U.N. Panel on Climate Change, which produces reports on the subject and won a Nobel Prize. And Phil Kerpen is the president of American Commitment, a conservative group opposed to the Paris agreement.

Gentlemen, welcome to you both.

Phil Kerpen, I would like to start with you first.

We — again, we still do not know if the president is going to walk away from this agreement, but it looks like he is going to. I know you agree with that. So help me understand. Make the best case why he should leave Paris.

PHIL KERPEN, American Commitment: Well, I think the key point to understand is that the Paris treaty has no discernible impact on global average temperature, and, therefore, the alleged climate benefits are illusory.

This is an agreement that, if every country met its obligations, according to the conventional EPA model, it would reduce global average temperature less than two-tenths of a degree in the year 2100. But, of course, these countries are mostly not meeting their obligations.

We just heard from Germany their emissions are up in each of the last two years. The Philippines have already withdrawn from this agreement. And India, which is allowed to increase emissions under this agreement, is building too many coal plants to even meet their target. They are going to go well above it.

The U.S. commitment would only avert an increase in temperature of about 15/1,000 of a degree by the year 2100. So, there is really not much upside here, but there is tremendous downside, because this agreement locks in those EPA regulations you were just talking about in the introduction, the Clean Power Plan, which increase electricity prices about 25 to 30 percent.

That has a very negative impact on consumers across this country with no benefit to show for it. And it also commits the American taxpayer to pay the lion’s share of the $100-billion-per-year Green Climate Fund, a direct wealth transfer to the rest of the world.

And so I think the reason the rest of the world likes this deal so much is that the United States cripples itself economically with regulations, and then it pays the rest of the world for the privilege of doing so in increased foreign aid.

To me, that is not leadership. That is American losership. And the president is right to…

(CROSSTALK)

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Let me get Michael Oppenheimer here on this.

A lot to unpack there, but the substantive criticism that even people who favor the Paris agreement are, it is a voluntary agreement. There are no real binding commitments. Why do you think it is such a greet deal that we ought to stay in it?

MICHAEL OPPENHEIMER, Princeton University: The Paris agreement isn’t perfect, but it’s an important first step.

And that’s why the statements of Mr. Kerpen are totally out of context. In fact, what is happening is global emissions of carbon dioxide have not increased, in fact, decreased a little over the last three years, for the first time while the global economy was growing, because countries are moving to the new energy sources.

It would be foolish to pull out of this agreement, because, number one, it would do great harm to our relations with our allies around the world. And, secondly, it would condemn the U.S., the world and future generations, our own children, to a world with an unacceptable level of climate change.

And if is a real pity, because the Paris agreement is the first time that all countries of the world put plans on the table to reduce emissions, made commitments to reduce emissions, including China, which is the world’s biggest emitter. They are moving forward. Not only are they moving forward to reduce their emissions. They’re moving forward to make money off the new technologies.

They are the world’s leading producer of solar photovoltaic cells. They are the world’s leading producer of wind turbines. The U.S. is going to be left in the dust if we don’t cooperate with other nations to bring this threat under control.

And I’m sure that President Trump wants to go down in history, but he doesn’t want to go down in history as the president that condemned the world to a dangerous climate change.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Phil Kerpen, let me ask you about this. There is a very strong consensus that if we continue our current path of fossil fuel use, that there are going to be some major implications globally, not just here in the United States, major economic blows, major physical blows to the planet we live on.

What do you argue we ought to do about that?

PHIL KERPEN: Well, I think the policies that we have been pursuing in terms of the fracking boom in the United States, the dramatic increase in gas production that shifted a lot of our electric generation is really what has driven global emissions lower. It is United States’ emissions dropping pretty dramatically that is actually making up for other countries like Germany that are increasing with a heavy-handed regulatory approach.

And so I think that we can have an approach that is not central economic planning through the EPA and we can continue to develop lower carbon energy sources, including continuing the gas boom, which I think is going to be the major driver of lower emissions for the foreseeable future.

And so I don’t know that we have to necessarily choose between those two things, but I do know that an agreement that imposes draconian cuts on the United States, and we take it seriously and implement in a legally binding way, while other countries make promises, and then go ahead and do whatever is in their best economic interests, is not one that serves the United States well or accomplishes those climate-related policy goals that people may state.

MICHAEL OPPENHEIMER: Part of what Mr. Kerpen says is correct. There has been a decrease, a significant one, in U.S. emissions. And that is partly due to the penetration of natural gas.

But a lot of the reduction in emissions that has come in the last few years and is expected to come in the future actually arises from a set of regulations that the EPA promulgated and which it carefully calibrated…

(CROSSTALK)

MICHAEL OPPENHEIMER: Excuse me — that are less than the cost of the damages that climate change will bring.

Now, part of the regulations are held up while the courts decide their legality. But a critical aspect, the regulation of motor vehicle emissions — which, by the way, moving to cars with high fuel economy, helped saved the industry during the financial crisis — those regulations are still in place.

And so, in fact, is the Clean Power Plan. It’s the law until the courts say it isn’t.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Phil Kerpen, can I ask you a question about this?

There are a lot of major U.S. manufacturing companies and energy companies. There’s Exxon, Chevron, Microsoft, Apple, Johnson & Johnson, Monsanto, Dow Chemical — I could go on and on — they all argue that we should stay in the Paris accord.

And they make an economic argument for staying in there. And I’m just curious, don’t you find that argument that they are making persuasive? These are not companies that want to see American industry hobbled in any way, and they think it is a good idea.

PHIL KERPEN: Well, I think large incumbent corporations always look full advantage to protect themselves from new innovative competitors.

And that often comes in the form of begging for government regulation that tends to lock in market share by increasing barriers to entry and making it more difficult for smaller companies that don’t have armies of compliance officers and lawyers and accountants to figure out what I will pay, what the thousands of pages of paperwork that are needed to be in compliance are.

And so there is always this incentive for the largest companies that have an army of lobbyists who want to make themselves important, an army of compliance officers who want to make themselves important to use that to lock in their incumbency advantage.

And I think that is why you have seen all of these large companies pushing for that.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Michael Oppenheimer, last quick question to you.

Let’s say that President Trump decides to pull out. What is the impact? Do you think that the other countries will continue with their pledges, or do you think that they will look and say hey, look, the U.S. isn’t living up to this, why should we?

MICHAEL OPPENHEIMER: I think what will happen is some of the countries that have just recently come around to making plans to reduce emissions will not pull out of the agreement, but will peel off their commitments, and it will reduce the likelihood that the world will move in a safe direction on climate change.

Furthermore — but some countries will keep reducing their emissions, because they’re doing it for a variety of reasons, including protecting their air, like China, which has a bad air pollution problem, and because, as I said before, they want to sell the new renewable energy technologies, the clean technologies everywhere, including the United States, where they are starting to push out coal.

It’s hard for me to believe that the U.S. would subject itself to a less favorable position economically. After all, renewable energy now has four times as much employment in the U.S. economy as does coal production. Why are we looking to the past, instead of the future?

(CROSSTALK)

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: We have to go, I’m sorry to say.

Michael Oppenheimer, Phil Kerpen, thank you both very much.

PHIL KERPEN: Thank you.

MICHAEL OPPENHEIMER: Thank you for having us.

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