The following rambling treatise is a concise treatment of the thoughts that went through my mind in the last week or so, during which the President of the United States of America, in his wisdom (or lack of it) announced our withdrawal from the Paris Agreement — an agreed initiative to combat an existential threat to the entire planet.
To put his decision in perspective: let us imagine that an alien force is threatening to take over our planet, in fact, they already have started to do so. They are ambitious, they plan to wipe out the entire human race. All the nations on earth get together and devise a plan to combat this threat. They will all work together, and the stronger ones will help the weaker ones. This is a good plan, and they all agree to it.
We need to separate the concerns. Global warming is caused by greenhouse gases, chiefly carbon dioxide and methane (both odourless and colourless). The nice clean and fresh air that we and the pelicans are enjoying say absolutely nothing about our progress or otherwise on global warming, and neither does the polluted cities of China. It is, however, true that smoke pollution normally is accompanied by the production of greenhouse gases.
The Paris Accord is sometimes more properly called an “agreement”. More line with the French “accord” and Afrikaans “akkoord”.
The earth is warming up. There are still people (and politicians) who deny this, some vehemently, but the evidence is now overwhelming and conclusive. Every month of every year is hotter than same month the year before, by and large. The exceptions are getting fewer and fewer. That means the process is speeding up.
Global warming has consequences. Ice that used to be perennial becomes seasonal, seasonal ice disappears. Ice that was above sea level becomes part of the seas. An iceberg the size of Delaware is breaking free from the Antarctic shelf as I write this (not as newsworthy as Donald Trump mistyping a word). Consequently, the sea level rises. Miami and Fort Lauderdale are now regularly flooded. They call them “King Tides”, but they are just normal spring tides. You can no longer drive down the Keys without encountering several detours due to flooded roads, and sometimes you are stuck until the tide recedes. 40% of Florida’s residents are at risk from sea level rise.
Heat is a form of energy. Energy in the Earth’s atmosphere is what drives weather. More energy, more and bigger cyclones, tornadoes and so on. No big deal.
For our purposes, we are really just interested in whether human activity contributes, and if so, to what extent. Circumstantial evidence suggests that it does, and significantly. There is a correlation between the rise of industrial activity and the rise in temperatures during the period that we have been maintaining records.
We have been worrying about this for a while. Here is a promotional video from Apple, made in 1987, which raises some of the same questions we are asking today. John McCain repeatedly lambasted George W on the subject, and it was even part of his platform — he was considered stronger on fighting global warming than Obama! But that was before Leonardo DiCaprio became involved…
Today, the evidence that human activity does contribute significantly is very compelling, but not conclusive. Also, it is actually based on science, never a good thing. It is easily dismissed by glib mantras such as “I don’t know, and neither do you.”
When presented with a serious risk, with uncertainties such as outlined above, what does a prudent manager do? He calls in a consultant, who has a two by two matrix.
For this case:
The risk is not real, and we do nothing: Nothing happens, very good result.
The risk is not real, and we do something: We expend resources, nothing happens, reasonable result.
The risk is real, and we do something: We expend resources, the risk is decreased, good result.
The risk is real and we do nothing: Catastrophe, very bad result.
I suspect that very few people (and no politicians) have actually read the agreement. I have. It’s not that long or complicated. Here is the gist of it:
The signatories agree to set themselves targets for reducing the emission of greenhouse gases. They set the targets themselves. They can amend the targets themselves. At the end of the first target period, they can set new targets, with the proviso that the new targets be more ambitious. There is no consequence for not meeting the targets.
The signatories agree that their progress on meeting their own targets will be monitored and reported on by independent United Nations monitors. (I know, ever since that incompetent fool Hans Blix couldn’t find the WMD’s we have no confidence in UN inspectors. But they are the best we can do.) So, the whole enterprise is transparent, and the only thing at stake are brownie points (one POV) or the survival of the human race (another).
The signatories also agree that the more wealthy nations will support the poorer nations financially to achieve their targets. This part does concern me, hopefully there will be some robust governance over this.
Oh, and one more thing. Signatories have to give 4 years notice of leaving. The USA will leave the Paris Agreement in November of 2020. I think there is an election that month of that year.
Benefits of Leaving.
Most of the targets set by the USA will be met in any case because a significant number of significant states (and cities) have already put more stringent targets in place and have no intention of quitting them. Similar commitments have been made by non-trivial business entities such as Apple, GE, Goldman Sachs and so on.
The coal mining jobs that will be “created ” by pulling out will not materialise to any large extent. New mining requires investors. Investors are interested and excited by future potential and present profits. They like Apple, Tesla, Facebook, Amazon for the first category, and GE, Exxon, and so on in the second. Just imagine: “Here’s a great opportunity to get in on the ground floor in an industry that is going to explode….er…grow exponentially! Coal! It’s the future!”
We have put a definitive nail in the coffin of our global reputation. “Yes, Angela, you are correct, you cannot rely on us.” But we don’t give a shit what the world thinks.
We no longer have to worry about China not keeping their word on the agreement, because we got in first and broke our word. Big win!
It seems that all the jobs that would have been created in the Green industry will still be created anyway. And all the non-jobs that would have been lost if we stayed in will now be saved, and people can go on scratching a living by flipping burgers and driving for Uber, well at least until Uber brings in the driverless cars.
Oh, and Trump can chalk up what he feels is a “great win” at last.
Effect on our Competitive Situation.
This is really moot. Does anyone seriously imagine that this agreement would reduce our capability to compete with China? In what? Cheap coal mining labour?
In the areas where China and India and Mexico are eating our lunch, they will continue to do so, and this agreement will do nothing to change that for better or worse.