We'll Never Have Paris, Because We Can't Have Nice Things


Before I launch into my missive, let me just point out Trump announced withdrawal from the Paris agreement on the official first day of hurricane season. Life is never short of irony.

Before all the focus turns back to the administration’s attempts to obfuscate the truth and obstruct justice, just a few thoughts on the climate deal and the choice to once again cede global leadership. I was afraid it would sink away from the news-o-sphere faster than it did. I’m glad to see it did not. To that end, please check out the insightful – and funny-as-always – piece John Oliver did about the Paris agreement and what it means. And then, if you’re up for it, I’ve got plenty of words below to pile on.

About The Paris Agreement

Keep in mind it was never a binding agreement. Remember when Facebook had the "It's Complicated" description for your relationship status? It's kind of like that. Each country is at liberty to define its own contribution, which is largely due to the fallout in Copenhagen in 2009. That conference was a cluster. Big countries like the US did not want to be on the hook for up-and-coming polluters like India and China. Conversely, developing countries didn't want to be told they couldn't follow the same development path the US and Europe were allowed to travel. Oh, and much smaller countries were tired of being the grass that gets trampled when such elephants either fight or make love.

Given the dashed hopes from 2009 and the lingering six year acrimony, Paris was a big deal because we all finally agreed on *something*. And yes, it's imperfect. It leaves open the possibility of free riding, cheating, "cooking the books" with respect to emissions, etc. But at least it left room for the moral authority of everyone who played by the rules to shame the hell out of the cheaters, get folks in line, and collectively work on achieving big things.

And *that’s* where us leaving the agreement is such a bad idea. China, the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, will now assume a greater role in the vacuum we leave. Trump cited that China is still allowed to build coal power plants. Yes. And so are we, if we want to. But China also committed to containing emissions at a certain level. If they shrug that off in the name of development, what leg will we have to stand on when we want to admonish them for keeping their people in a toxic, emissions-laden fog? Hell, we won’t even be at the table.

Some might argue China’s commitment was vague and weak. So was ours. Offering to reduce our emissions by 20% compared to 2005 levels was a pretty minor contribution given who we are, our role in creating this climate mess, and what we are capable of achieving when push comes to shove (eg: moon landing, medicine, hot pockets, etc.) For those who like to talk about American leadership (and I'm one of them), a truly bold move would have been 20% compared to 1990 levels. But one is more than zero at the end of the day, and I was just glad to see us pn board with some credibility.

Regarding the whole, "the US is on the same plane as Nicaragua and Syria," be careful with that. Nicaragua didn't sign because they feel the agreement is not stringent enough. Nicaragua already has more than 50% of its electricity coming from renewable sources and is on target to be up to 90% by 2030. I understand Nicaragua is nowhere near the size and complexity of the US, but they speak with a helluva lot more authority than some countries on this. As for Syria with all due respect, that country has bigger fish to fry right now.

About US Emissions

First, an honest assessment: carbon emissions in the US have been falling steadily for a few years now without the Paris agreement. This has a lot more to do with the expansion of natural gas in our electricity generation matrix than anything else. There is a good argument to be made regarding the role of the global financial crisis and a resulting drop in electricity demand, but our significant GHG reduction really has more to do with a giant fuel switch.

I admit the environmental impact of fracking is an entirely other discussion that is more complex than I will make room for right now. Suffice it to say, natural gas is the war on coal, and responsible for the decline in energy prices. (Adjusted for inflation, we are currently paying about 70% less for electricity than we were 40 years ago). And if we do it right, (which we won't because our current president is proving to be painfully inept) the US could have very powerful levers to pull vis-a-vis energy diplomacy in places like Russia, Venezuela and the Middle East. Everyone else is playing chess, he is trying to understand Connect Four.

As much as the switch to natural gas gave us a thin veil of altruistic emissions reduction, the truth is it happened because there was money to be made. Lots of it. In fact; it is even threatening emission-free nuclear plants across the country. 3 Mile Island announced this week it is going to close ahead of schedule, and states like New York and Illinois are imposing new taxes and tariffs on consumers to provide the financial lifeline (ie: subsidy) to nuclear assets so they reach the end of their useful life. If new gas-fired generation replaces these assets, our carbon emissions will actually start increasing. And that was not part of the Clean Power Plan. The CPP assumed nuclear assets would stay online through 2030. Once it appeared these plants were in danger, Paris Agreement supporters everywhere said, "Oh dear." File that under Unintended Consequences.

But again, this is where remaining in the Paris agreement was a chance to lead. Bigly. Our precipitous drop in emissions in electricity generation could be matched by our stagnant transportation sector. (See: electric vehicle R&D). Even airlines are looking at biofuels! And we could use all of this to challenge India, China, and others to ratchet things up on their end. One of the biggest challenges in the climate negotiations leading up to the Paris agreement was the US’ lack of credibility. We polluted our way to the top spot and then told others to rein in their carbon use while we made no strides to kick the habit ourselves. Signing the agreement gave us some credibility – finally. Now, we have no such influence in dealing with this global challenge.

About Renewable Energy

It ain’t going anywhere but up. But given Trump’s track record (eg: steaks, wine, casinos, universities, etc.), nobody should be shocked he has picked a losing strategy. In fact, the clean energy sector employs about five times as many people as the fossil fuel industry. Not just coal. Not just gas. Not just oil. The Fossil. Fuel. Industry. Someone out there will claim the renewable sector cannot survive without subsidies. I’d offer neither can fossil fuels. The latter receives six times more subsidies than renewable energy in this country. That ratio is 12-to-1 worldwide.

Pulling out of the Paris Agreement might have ginned up the base that thinks the good ‘ol days are coming back, but check back in four years. They’ll be just as decimated as they were on January 19, 2017. Forget coal. It’s not coming back because coal companies can get more coal out of an automated and robotic process than it can a human workforce. Meanwhile, those who were smart enough to get on the good foot will be doing much better. (I do not write that to denigrate those who have made, or who want to make, a living in the coal industry. Hell, I’d still like to have a shot at being a basketball player, but I have to deal with reality: nothing is gonna make my knees great again. You see my point.)

But while renewables continue to flourish, the industry still lacks the type of major technology shift like we saw with natural gas. Any such breakthrough will be in battery storage. We should be pouring every dime of R&D into it because, well, jobs. That, and it pays to be the world leader in innovation and manufacturing. And of course, jobs.

And while we’re on the business end of things, let’s take a quick look at the response of some of America’s largest businesses, cities and states. They’ve rightly given the president a collective middle finger because good leaders know when to turn their back on a losing idea. They know their employees and citizens have a better shot with livelihoods based in the technologies of tomorrow, especially if that tomorrow is inhabitable.

About the Impact on the US

The world is laughing at us. For the second time in as many weeks, Donald Trump is making a laughingstock of this country by communicating that, at least on his watch, the United States’ word doesn’t count for what it used to. He has effectively communicated that, for the foreseeable future, collective security and cooperation mean very little to us. So when we turn to the global community – a community still engaged in facing a global challenge – and we ask for help in dealing with the global scourge of, say, terrorism.... Who is going to join us after we’ve given them the shaft on this?

Trump says we’ll negotiate new deals. Really? Paris *was* the negotiation. If the US approaches any country on climate related issues, they’re going to laugh at us faster than anyone would laugh at my high school mullet.

Oh, and jobs. Shortly after we pulled out of the agreement, the new French president sent out a message saying, essentially, “France is open for business.” Forget offshoring and outsourcing. If a company can find the support it needs elsewhere and bring its products to market, it will just up and move entirely. So, American Second, I guess. Or third. Or 112th.

About the Environment

Remember that part in Braveheart where William Wallace’s troops are facing the British onslaught and his Irish friend, Stephen, says, “The Lord tells me he can get me out of this mess, but he's pretty sure you're fooked.” ? Yeah, it’s kinda like that. Paris agreement or not, the environment is still in serious danger of crossing an irreversible threshold.

I agree the Paris climate agreement was quite squishy with it’s “well below 2 degrees” metric. Well below? What’s “well below?” And why only two degrees? But again, it was a starting point for dealing with our collective environmental challenge. It’s quite possible our extinction is under way, but instead of one giant meteor wiping everything out, we’re doing it one storm, drought, inch of sea level rise, extinct species and hottest-year-on-record at a time. And should you encounter any of those mooks out there who think global climate change is a hoax or some such other post-intellectual line of thought, send them my way. I’ll be happy to thoroughly explain to them why they are wrong.

What to Keep an Eye On Going Forward

Funding: Programs like EERE at The Dept of Energy, or its Loan Program Office (LPO) are crucial to the kind of financial backing that gets emerging and game-changing technology across the technical “valley of death.” Examine your daily life. How do you like that microwave, GPS, internet, and host of other toys? Game changing and job creating, brought to you by government-supported R&D. But the White House wants to cut a lot of these funded programs. Badly. It will be fought. When was the last time you saw Congress adopt a president’s budget proposal? As I read recently, a president’s budget proposal is like a bumper sticker: it tells you more about the person driving than it does about the car. But keep an eye here nonetheless. It could have more impact than the choice to leave the agreement.

Companies: In a small amount of time, China became home to more than a handful of the world’s largest wind turbine companies. Their quality isn’t quite that of some larger players like GE and Vestas, but they’ve come to play. And watch to see if they move to buy more of the big players. Also, watch to see which companies, who thought they had a supportive environment in the US, pick up and move to countries where they feel more welcome.

State Programs: There are a lot of battles at the ground level regarding incentive programs for consumer adoption of new technology. Elections for local regulators and energy commissions are fierce as utilities battle to maintain the ground that is slipping away and consumers demand more control over their energy choices. Further, watch to see if regulatory frameworks start to be debated – learn what PURPA is and why it’s in any kind of news.

This is far from over. We have a long fight ahead of us - both fixing the environment and putting the intellectual smack down on the troglodytes who think withdrawal from the Paris agreement is a good idea. And that fight is going to require all we have. So rest up. Good night.

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13 Sept 2017 Update: Trump announced withdrawal from the Paris agreement on the first day of hurricane season. Mother Nature responded with Harvey and Irma, two of the worst storms we’ve ever seen, with two or three forming directly behind them. I’m not saying correlation is causation. For now, I’m just saying.

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© 2020 by Mark Konold