On June 1st, 2017, the United States officially withdrew from the historic Paris Agreement signed during President Obama’s administration in 2015. The agreement between all but two of the world’s nations (missing Syria, which is embroiled in a civil war and Nicaragua, which felt the agreement did not go far enough) was the culmination of more than 40 years of growing scientific consensus that human activity is increasing the earth’s average temperature. The agreement has two aspirational goals for the world: limit the increase of the earth’s average temperature by 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels and aid developing countries in responding to the consequences of climate change. The Paris Agreement works because every country agreed to collectively acknowledge and respond to a global problem in whatever capacity they could.
To achieve the first goal, each country determined their own targets for reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, which is the leading cause of climate change. This included the reduction levels and time frames, but did not require any plan of how this might be achieved. The reduction pledges, known as National Determined Contributions (NDCs), are 100% voluntary. As with most environmental treaties there are no punitive consequences if the proposed targets are not met, however there are negative consequences to the environment and the health of all of the earth’s inhabitants.
Many scientists worried that Obama’s pledge to a 26-28% reduction in GHG emissions was not aggressive enough, but his Clean Power Plan would have helped continue a downward trend. His strategy was immediately derailed by coal-producing states and may never be implemented, making it more challenging for the United States to live up to its original NDC pledge. There has been progress with energy efficiency, stricter regulations on car exhaust and mileage requirements, and notably the conversion of coal-fired power plants to natural gas, which have nominally reduced emissions. Yet all of these efforts are under attack by the recently elected president who embraces the fossil fuel industry and steadfastly holds the belief that environmental regulations kill jobs.
Source: World Resources Institute
The second goal is for the developed countries to voluntarily contribute to a $100 billion per year international fund, the proceeds of which would be used by developing countries to adapt to the impacts of climate change: rising sea levels, a disruption in the water cycle, rising temperatures and heat-related deaths, increase in communicable diseases, decrease in agricultural output, and increase in more extreme weather events, among others. The money for this fund represents a negligible fraction of the developed countries’ Gross Domestic Product, and would be significantly less expensive or disruptive than responding to a global climate refugee crisis. The Syrian refugee crisis nearly unraveled European unity; this massive migration, one of the largest in history, is only a preview of what is to come.
The decision of the current President of the United States to withdraw from the Paris Agreement is problematic on many levels and his statement contained misleading data and bold-faced lies. The country has historically been the largest contributor to GHG emissions, the pledges for both reduction targets and monetary contribution are voluntary, and participating in this good will international agreement neither kills jobs nor puts the United States at a disadvantage. What value is there in renegotiating a nonbinding agreement? Whatever your opinion of his policies, his decision serves only to underscore the isolationist and protectionist stance of his increasingly controversial and scandal-prone administration.
The world’s response was immediate. World leaders reacted strongly, committing to the global challenge with or without the President of the United States. Now that the United States has abandoned the rest of the world, China, under President Xi Jinping, is taking the lead and the competitive business advantage, particularly in emerging industries and renewable energy that are creating jobs. In the US states and cities are going it alone. New York, California and Washington, along with hundreds of mayors and business leaders, not to mention the majority of the population, will proceed with GHG reductions plans already underway proving that no single person can stand in the way of common sense.
We can debate this shortsighted decision with confused outrage or we can take action. The first thing Americans can do is sweep climate change deniers out of office in special and the midterm elections. We should contact our government representatives from the local up to the federal level and let our voices be heard. We can take to the streets and march, for human rights, science, and equality. We can take a bolder step and run for public office. We can also use the power of our personal choices and our purchasing dollars and achieve our environmental goals.
Our decisions in what we eat, how we live, how we travel and what we buy are made daily. Minor changes in our habits can have dramatic impact on protecting the environment. Simple choices such as eating less red meat, eating locally produced food, reducing our energy usage, using mass transit when possible, and improving energy efficiency in our homes and offices can help save this planet. If you consider our actions like compound interest, with each person contributing a little every day, crowdowdsourcing a solution gives us the power to change the world. Do your part today to save tomorrow.
Image credit: Earth Times