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President Trump Should Ignore Advice of Obama Administration Officials on Paris Agreement

Todd Stern was President Obama’s top climate negotiator. The Paris Agreement is as much his “legacy policy” as it is Obama’s. So it comes as no surprise that Stern, in a recent Washington Post op-ed, urges President Trump to stay in the pact, warning “You will regret it if you don’t.” Stern has it backwards. Trump will rue the day if he fails to pull out.

Trump should already know this. The same political and diplomatic “blowback” that is causing him to waiver on his promise to withdraw is exactly what the Agreement is engineered to mobilize repeatedly, for decades to come, against any U.S. leader who dares to champion the American people’s freedom to develop the nation’s vast energy resources.

If even Trump capitulates to such pressure, how will weak-kneed establishment Republicans stand up to the browbeating and intimidation?

Trump seeks to replace Obama’s war on coal with a pro-growth energy policy. But if America remains in the Paris Agreement, the next progressive in the White House will be able to pick up where Obama left off, making treaty-like “commitments” to penalize and ultimately bankrupt U.S. producers of coal, oil, and natural gas.

Trump wants his legacy to be one of U.S. “energy dominance.” The Paris Agreement, however, is designed to preclude such a future by mobilizing international and domestic pressure against the very sorts of deregulatory initiatives Trump is pursuing. If we stay in the Agreement, U.S. leaders will continually have to negotiate domestic energy policy with foreign leaders, multilateral bureaucrats, and various non-state actors, many of whom are hostile to fossil fuels, and none of whom puts America’s interests first.

Nor is that all. America cannot remain a party to an Agreement demanding “ambitious” emission reductions to avert planetary disaster without inviting litigation when elected officials fail to deliver. “Non-binding” emission-reduction pledges can have costly legal consequences, as the Netherlands government learned.

Citing numerous “non-binding” declarations made by national governments in the context of annual U.N.-sponsored climate change conferences, The Hague District Court ruled that those governments have embraced a “duty of care,” and that the Dutch government must take action consistent with the goal of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, specifically by cutting national emissions at least 25 percent by 2020.

Retaining the Paris Agreement as an official U.S. commitment can only increase the likelihood that activist judges will rule against policies, like Trump’s, that plainly flout the Agreement’s emission-reduction goals and purported “scientific” rationale.

Although the Agreement itself specifies no penalties for non-compliance, proponents warn that U.S. firms will be subject to trade sanctions—carbon tariffs—if the United States pulls out. But if that is the case, why wouldn’t U.S. firms also be vulnerable if Trump, instead of withdrawing, replaces Obama’s “ambitious” emission-reduction pledge with a commitment to “drill baby drill”? Indeed, as former Secretary of State George P. Shultz and Ted Halstead unwittingly reveal in a recent op-ed, Paris proponents want and expect the pact to usher in a new era of retaliatory trade sanctions.  

The best way to nip such mischief in the bud is to remove the U.S. stamp of approval from an Agreement providing “save the planet” pretexts for predatory trade policies.

Okay, having explained why Trump will regret breaking his promise to pull out of the Paris Agreement, let’s examine Stern’s argument for staying in.

Stern’s first move is to play the national security card. He quotes the Pentagon’s 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), which describes heat waves, sea-level rise, and shifting weather patterns as “threat multipliers that will aggravate stressors abroad such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability, and social tensions—conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence.” He continues: “Could the Pentagon reason that climate change is important but the Paris agreement is not? No. Climate change is a global threat that can be countered only by global action, so an international regime is essential.”

Well, of course DOD called shifting weather patterns and the like “threat multipliers” and “conflict accelerants.” What else could they say during the most climate obsessed administration in history?  Secretary of State John Kerry proclaimed climate change to be “perhaps the world’s most fearsome weapon of mass destruction.” President Obama told Coast Guard Cadets that “climate change constitutes a serious threat to global security, an immediate risk to our national security,” that “climate change is one of those most severe threats” America faces, and that “the threat of a changing climate cuts to the very core of your service.” With bombast like that, what is noteworthy is the Pentagon’s rhetorical restraint. Unlike Kerry and Obama, the QDR stopped short of calling climate change a national security threat.

Contrary to pro-Paris propaganda, fossil fuels support wealth creation, technologies, and organizational capabilities that have dramatically reduced climate-related risks and made the world more livable. For example, since the 1920s, global deaths and death rates related to drought—historically the most lethal form of extreme weather—declined by 99.8 percent and 99.9 percent, respectively. Similarly, although U.S. urban air temperatures have increased since the 1960s, heat-related mortality has declined, decade by decade.  As a proportion of global GDP, weather-related disaster losses have declined about by one-third since 1990. Those trends reflect an increasingly “sustainable” civilization, not one facing multiple national security threats from climate change.

Environmental conditions do affect national interests including military operations. For example, the brutal Russian winter helped defeat the Nazis in World War II. However, there is no valid national security case for staying in the Paris Agreement.

As environmental researcher Bjorn Lomborg points out, even if all Paris parties fulfill every promise contained in their “nationally determined contributions” (NDCs) by 2030, the total temperature reduction will be 0.048°C (0.086°F) by 2100. The reduction in the policy-relevant future (the next quarter century) will be even more miniscule—too small to affect any climatic factor that might be supposed to impinge on national security. Stern’s tautological argument that “a global threat can only be countered by global action” conceals the Paris Agreement’s climatological irrelevance.

What’s more, as security analyst Jeff Kueter points out, “The environmental conflict literature offers little support for claims of droughts, floods, storms, or resource scarcities leading to conflict within states or between states,” in part because so many other factors—political, geographic, and economic—affect national interests. Kueter also notes that “if the declining rate of economic growth is a key variable for triggering instability and conflict, then the greenhouse gas mitigation approach can be critiqued using the same national security arguments.”

Indeed, as this blog has explained, the Paris Agreement’s mid-century emission reduction goal cannot be reached unless developing countries dramatically reduce their current consumption of affordable energy from fossil fuels. Yet more than a billion people in those countries have no access to electricity and billions more have too little access to support development. Forcing already energy-poor nations on to an energy diet will not promote global stability and peace.

Stern next argues that “As a matter of diplomacy, withdrawing from the Paris agreement would be a stain on the legacies of both the president and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, an act of diplomatic malpractice.” He explains: “Countries large and small, rich and poor, are deeply invested in Paris because they understand the peril of climate change and know the Paris agreement cannot be truly effective without U.S. engagement. They would see withdrawal as a slap in the face, disrespecting their fundamental interests and, in turn, eroding the United States’ diplomatic capital.”

Balderdash. The Obama administration committed “diplomatic malpractice” when it negotiated and then unilaterally adopted the Paris Agreement without submitting the pact to the Senate for its advice and consent. According to the United Nations, a nation properly joining a multilateral agreement “follows its domestic approval procedures . . . or domestic constitutional procedures.” However, in joining the Paris Agreement, Obama flouted our domestic constitutional procedures by evading Senate review. That alone is a sufficient reason for Trump to pull out.

Withdrawing from the Agreement will leave egg on the faces of President Obama, former Secretary of State John Kerry, and Mr. Stern, who decided to stake the good name of the United States on a risky political and legal gamble. But all their principal foreign counterparts knew it was a crap shoot. They knew a majority of states were suing to overturn the Clean Power Plan, the centerpiece of the U.S. NDC emission-reduction pledge. They knew about the U.S. treaty process. They knew a Republican might win the 2016 elections. It is not Trump’s job to spare Obama officials from embarrassment because things didn’t work out as they planned.

Some countries may be “deeply invested” in the Agreement, but probably not for the noble reasons Stern suggests. Developing country leaders expect to receive up to $450 billion annually in “climate finance”—much of it wealth transfers from poor taxpayers in rich countries to rich elites in poor countries. All governments expect to gain greater control over private capital investment in energy-related infrastructure. The Paris Agreement is arguably the most ambitious legal plunder scheme in history. Also a sufficient reason for Trump to “cancel” U.S. participation.

Although greedy elites will revile Trump for pulling out, most of the world’s people won’t care much one way or the other. In the U.N.’s My World Survey of nearly 10 million voters worldwide, “action on climate change” ranks last among 16 development priorities, well behind “a good education,” “better health care,” “better job opportunities,” and “an honest and responsible government.”

Lomborg’s Copenhagen Consensus identifies scores of development priorities that would produce more social, economic or environmental benefit per dollar invested than either climate change mitigation or adaptation. For example, every dollar invested in efforts to limit global warming to below 2°C—the Paris Agreement’s central goal—would yield less than one dollar in benefits. In contrast, every dollar invested to reduce global trade barriers would yield more than $2,000 in benefits. To repeat, some prominent Paris proponents view it as the catalyst for a new carbon-centric protectionism. Woops.

Diverting trillions of dollars from spectacularly productive to poor investments will impede social and economic progress, as will restricting poor countries’ access to affordable, reliable, scalable energy from fossil fuels. Other governments that grasp those realities may privately breathe a sigh of relief if Trump pulls out of Paris. Regardless, he will be doing a mitzvah.

Stern claims that “the corporate community, from oil giants to tech firms to industrial behemoths, is strongly in favor of continued U.S. participation.” Whether most “strongly” support it, fear political controversy and the climate litigation fraternity, or must now protect investments they made at Obama’s urging, is unclear.

What is neither surprising nor a testament to the Agreement’s virtue is Big Oil’s embrace. The typical oil giant produces very little coal and lots of natural gas. Carbon pricing schemes aim to make coal less competitive (or even uneconomical) as an electricity fuel. That’s why Enron, a natural gas distributor, lobbied aggressively for the Kyoto Protocol. The endorsement of energy-rationing profiteers is another reason Trump should bolt.

A better test for assessing Paris is whether energy consumers support it. Earlier this week, the Industrial Energy Consumers of America, an association of leading manufacturing companies with $1.0 trillion in annual sales, over 2,300 facilities nationwide, and with more than 1.6 million employees worldwide, told Trump they see “no benefit” in the Paris Agreement, only “significant uncertainty, risk, and job loss.”

Stern says big businesses “also value predictability and hate the political gamesmanship of pulling out of Paris.” On the contrary, the political gamesmanship occurred when Obama tried to give the legally-dubious Clean Power Plan a treaty-like status without going through the constitutional treaty process.

Many firms believe politicians can rig markets in their favor. But nothing is less predictable than the political wheel of fortune. The closest thing to predictability in this world would be a marketplace in which governments, as a matter of principle, and corporations, as a matter of honor, eschew political schemes to pick winners and losers. Perhaps Trump’s greatest contribution to American democracy and international energy policy would be to repudiate the politics of plunder, starting with its most grandiose embodiment—the Paris Agreement.

Finally, Stern claims that big business supports the Paris Agreement because “corporate leaders understand that the transition to clean energy presents one of the biggest economic opportunities of this century, that climate change is a major driver of this transition and that the United States is perfectly positioned to lead it with our unmatched culture of innovation.” Well, if clean energy is the next big thing, why not let competitive markets prove it?

Henry Ford did not lobby for a treaty to curb the use of horses. Edison did not lobby for a treaty to limit the consumption of candles. Google did not lobby for a treaty to hobble snail mail. Amazon did not lobby for a treaty to penalize brick-and-motor stores.

In assessing Stern’s advice, Trump should ponder the wise words of three MIT professors who studied the Carter administration’s energy policies: “The experience of the 1970s and 1980s taught us that if a technology is commercially viable, then government support is not needed and if a technology is not commercially viable, no amount of government support will make it so.”