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The Energy 202: Trump's Paris speech needs a serious fact check

June 2, 2017 12:57 PM
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The Energy 202: Trump's Paris speech needs a serious fact check

Donald Trump spent 131 days contemplating what life would be like if the United States left the Paris climate agreement. Ultimately, he seemed to like what he saw, and followed his gut.

On Thursday, the president made official his long-rumored decision to withdraw the United States from the 195-nation accord.

Speaking outside the White House, Trump fulfilled a campaign promise to remove the United States from the landmark deal aimed at curbing climate-altering emissions and keeping global warming below a threshold -- two degrees Celsius above the global temperature before humans began burning fossil fuels -- at which the worst consequences of climate change are believed by the scientific community to take hold. (The Post's Philip Rucker and Jenna Johnson have the main story here.)

A wide swath of heads of state, top scientists and business leaders immediately condemned the decision. But in a Rose Garden speech, Trump said withdrawal was necessary for U.S. economic security.

"I am fighting every day for the great people of this country," he said. "Therefore, in order to fulfill my solemn duty to protect America and its citizens, the United States will withdraw from the Paris climate accord."

For roughly 25 minutes, Trump laid out his rationale for withdrawal. Some of this made sense -- some coal jobs, for example, will indeed be saved by eliminating the Clean Power Plan, one of President Obama's main efforts at meeting the Paris commitment.

But many of the other reasons Trump gave for withdrawing seemed at their best strained and at their worst unfounded.

CLAIM #1: For weeks, as the tug-of-war between the pro- and anti-Paris camps in the White House played out, Trump seemed to grope for a way to claim a middle ground on the Paris decision. The bone he chose to throw Paris supporters is the possibility that the United States can somehow "reenter" the agreement in the future.

In his speech, Trump promised to "begin negotiations to reenter either the Paris accord or really an entirely new transaction on terms that are fair to the United States."

"We will see if we can make a deal that's fair," he continued." And if we can, that's great. And if we can't, that's fine."

THE PROBLEM: From the start, the Paris agreement was designed to have the plasticity Trump seemed to be seeking by talking about some kind of renegotiation. The breakthrough Obama and others made in the lead-up to Paris was allowing nations to choose the amount of greenhouse-gas emissions they were willing to cut.

"Paris already gives countries tremendous flexibility, and no penalties," said Michael Gerrard, a professor of environmental law at Columbia and director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law. "Trump obviously didn't read the Paris agreement, and his statement was written by people who willfully misrepresented its contents -- his staff or their lobbyist friends."

Unlike its predecessor, the Kyoto Protocol, the Paris accord did not legally bind nations to emissions targets. The only thing keeping a nation in check was pressure from its international peers. Under the agreement, the United States could miss an emissions goal and face no penalty. It could reset that goal, too, with no formal consequence. It's unclear what other concessions the United States could gain from a renegotiation.

Right after Trump announced his decision, three large European nations indicated they have no interest in a do-over. Italy, Germany and France issued a statement barely an hour after Trump's speech, saying that the Paris accord "cannot be renegotiated since it is a vital instrument for our planet, societies and economies," according to Reuters.

Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt -- who lobbied heavily for leaving the deal -- argued on CNN after the Rose Garden announcement that Paris was a "failing agreement to begin with." He added that Trump has repeatedly said he is "committed to continuing" climate-change discussions, but with "America at the forefront of those discussions."

CLAIM #2: While Trump as president has taken a decidedly softer stance toward China than he did while running for office, he used the Paris announcement to take a swing at one of his favorite punching bags to illustrate the raw deal he believes the United States got under the agreement.

"China will be allowed to build hundreds of additional coal plants" Trump proclaimed. "So, we can't build the plants, but they can, according to this agreement."

And again, Trump said: "Under the agreement, China will be able to increase these emissions by a staggering number of years, 13. They can do whatever they want for 13 years. Not us."

THE PROBLEM: Not so. Again, the agreement does not bind any nation to any emissions target. What China did choose to do under the agreement is have its carbon emissions "peak" by 2030 before then declining. The world accepted that longer leash for China and other developing nations to let them use fossil-fuel energy to promote greater economic growth.

But to meet that goal, China cannot "do whatever they want" until then, as Trump said, at least if China wants to meet that voluntary 2030 target. It needs to begin acting now to control emissions -- and in fact, is signaling to the world it is already doing so by announcing in January the cancellation of plans to build more than 100 coal-fired power plants.

The Paris deal "is more fair to the U.S. than previous agreements because it includes all the major economies of the world, not just the rich countries, so both developed countries and developing countries have skin in the game," Jody Freeman, a Harvard Law School professor and director of the school's Environmental Law and Policy Program, said. Trump's "portrayal is at odds with reality," she added.

"Even if the Paris Agreement were implemented in full, with total compliance from all nations, it is estimated it would only produce a two-tenths of one degree – think of that, this much – Celsius reduction in global temperature by the year 2100," Trump said during the speech, holding up his hand with thumb and index finger only millimeters apart.

THE PROBLEM: While it's true that current commitments are not enough to meet the two-degree goal, Trump's figures are off. As my Post colleague Chris Mooney writes, reporting on an analysis from an MIT researcher: "The current country level pledges under the Paris agreement would reduce the planet’s warming by the year 2100 down from 4.2 degrees Celsius (7.6 degrees Fahrenheit) to 3.3 degrees Celsius (5.9 degrees Fahrenheit), or nearly a full degree Celsius."

CLAIM #4: Trump also singled out for criticism a United Nations initiative that actually predates the Paris deal called the Green Climate Fund. It's a pool of money that finances climate mitigation and adaptation efforts in poor nations, but Trump is concerned U.S. contributions are hurting the United States.

"Beyond the severe energy restrictions inflicted by the Paris accord," Trump said, "it includes yet another scheme to redistribute wealth out of the United States through the so-called Green Climate Fund -- nice name -- which calls for developed countries to send $100 billion to developing countries all on top of America's existing and massive foreign aid payments."

And that money the United States pays is "raided out of America's budget for the war against terrorism," he said. "That's where they came."

The Green Climate Fund contains $10.3 billion not $100 billion. And the U.S. share comes from the Treasury, not any pool or money set aside for anti-terrorism purposes.

"I’d never heard anything like this before," Karen Orenstein, deputy director of economic policy at Friends of the Earth, said of the terrorism claim. "It’s totally ridiculous."

CLAIM #5: During his Rose Garden speech, Trump attempted to rev his coal-country base by saying: "I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris."

THE PROBLEM: This line is confusing. It was delegates of the nearly 200 nations of the world, not the approximately two million people of Paris, who negotiated the climate accord. Paris was simply the city that hosted the talks after which, in the long tradition of diplomatic nomenclature, the agreement was named. Nonetheless, the line is likely to resonate with Trump voters who feel they have been left out of the economic recovery and who do not relate to international diplomats who they don't believe are working in their best interest.

An The Post's Philip Bump reminds readers what Pittsburgh used to look like: "Once upon a time, the city of Pittsburgh was a robustly blue-collar anchor to the American steel industry. Once upon a time, the air was thick with smog and soot from industry lining the city’s rivers. Once upon a time, decades ago, the collapse of the steel industry and American manufacturing put the city itself at risk."

"The fight pits Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon and White House Counsel Don McGahn — who all pushed for a total withdrawal — against Ivanka Trump, economic chief Gary Cohn and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson — who argued that the president would have more leverage by remaining an active participant in the climate deal. During meetings with the president, Bannon, Pruitt and their allies came armed with reams of documents filled with numbers and statistics showing what they said would be the negative effects on the U.S. economy if the United States remained in the climate deal... Some of those opposed to pulling out of the pact, however, said that much of the data the other side presented was either erroneous, scientifically dubious, misleading or out of date."

Ivanka Trump helped lead the pro-Paris effort. She "reached out to chief executives and urged them to call her father to make their pro-business case for staying in the accord. She even personally appealed to Andrew Liveris, the head of Dow Chemical, asking him to spearhead a letter with other CEOs — which ultimately ran as a full-page advertisement in the Wall Street Journal in May — directly appealing to Trump to stay in the agreement, according to a person familiar with the effort."

But some of the tactics from the pro-Paris side backfired, such as this argument that coal jobs are on an inevitable decline: "When Trump heard advocates arguing that the era of coal was coming to an end — something Cohn told reporters on last week’s foreign trip and also a frequent talking point by some cable news pundits — Trump only became more adamant that pulling out of the Paris pact could help rescue the U.S. coal industry, said a Republican operative in close contact with the White House."

But the coup de grâce may have come from the new French president, Emmanuel Macron: "Macron was quoted in a French journal talking about his white-knuckled handshake with Trump at their first meeting in Brussels, where the newly elected French president gripped Trump’s hand tightly and would not let go for six long seconds in a show of alpha-male fortitude... He likened Trump to a pair of authoritarian strongmen — Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — and said that he was purposefully forceful because he believed his encounter with Trump was 'a moment of truth.' Hearing smack-talk from the Frenchman 31 years his junior irritated and bewildered Trump, aides said."

Ivanka Trump is reportedly moving on, despite the priority she placed on the climate issue. Politico's Annie Karni reports: "Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, have taken the defeat in stride, according to two people familiar with their thinking on the issue. Their view of their roles in the White House is that they're playing the long game, helping the president to be successful. And they don't tally their own influence day-by-day or bill-by-bill."

2) Trump's decision makes the Paris climate deal's tough temperature target even tougher to hit. Chris Mooney reports: "President Trump’s decision Thursday to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement could make it difficult, if not impossible, for the world to stay on track to reach an internationally agreed-upon goal for limiting dangerous global warming, scientists said. That goal, which sought to limit warming to “well below” a 2-degree Celsius (3.6-degree Fahrenheit) rise above preindustrial temperatures, was already a stretch before Trump announced the U.S. exit in a speech in the White House Rose Garden. With the United States, the world’s second-largest emitter of greenhouse-gas emissions after China, walking away from the accord, other countries will presumably have to ramp up their ambitions still further if they want to avoid the prospect of dangerous warming."

3) A New York state of mind. California and its governor, Jerry Brown, have gotten significant media attention for taking a stand against the Trump administration on the climate issue. Now New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) attempts to step into the spotlight. The Post's Steven Mufson reports: "In a pointed rebuttal to Trump’s announcement in the rose garden of the White House, New York’s governor Andrew M. Cuomo unveiled a plan to invest $1.65 billion in renewable energy and energy efficiency on Thursday, the largest ever procurement of renewable energy by an American state."

And to boot, Politico reports that Washington, California and New York have banded together to form a climate alliance.

4) Expect China and India to capitalize on Trump's decision -- though there's a limit to how much these developing nations can lead. The Post's Annie Gowen and Simon Denyer report: "As the United States pulls back from its commitment to fight climate change, the world’s two other biggest polluters — India and China — are sounding the alarm. But neither country is in a position to fill the void left by American leadership, or to foot the bill. Their vast populations stand to lose dramatically from global warming, and the two countries’ leaders are already taking a stronger public stance against the threat posed by carbon emissions in the form of rising sea levels and catastrophic weather patterns. Both say they will honor their commitments to the Paris accord, and they are encouraging other countries to do the same. That sort of rhetorical leadership is very welcome, experts say, but neither country is in a position to replace the financial incentives the United States had offered poorer nations."

5) China's emergence as a leader on the climate issue is just one of the many foreign-policy consequences of Trump's short tenure in office. The Post's Carol Morello and John Wagner report: "Trump’s approach underscores how in barely four months he has succeeded in reshaping America’s role in the world. 'Having pulled out of the Paris accord, after sowing doubt at NATO and killing the TPP, President Trump is on the way to ending the U.S.-led international order,' said Cliff Kupchan, chairman of the Eurasia Group, a firm that assesses political risks. 'I think we’re heading toward a Hobbesian, each-on-his-own world.' Many in the foreign policy establishment believe the pullbacks have undermined U.S. influence and credibility."

6) One more thing: Let's stop picking on Nicaragua. Many commentators have noted that only two other countries, Syria and Nicaragua, have not signed onto the Paris agreement. But The Post's Peter Holley writes: "The problem with the comparison, and the implicit developed-world condescension it contains, is the glaring absence of context... Meanwhile, Nicaraguan leaders said they declined to enter the Paris agreement not because they didn’t want to abide by new emissions standards but because those standards weren’t strict enough and didn’t require enough sacrifice from wealthier countries with larger economies..."

The Daily News dusted off and repurposed one of its iconic headlines for Trump's Paris decision.

Various state media organs in China called the decision a “huge setback" and a retreat from the “common aspiration of mankind for a low-carbon future," and called Trump “reckless and foolish" and that his administration "doesn’t care about putting the U.S.’s reputation at risk."

-- An explosive debate about Arctic methane: The bottom of Earth's oceans is dotted with thousands of naturally occurring methane seeps as organic matter that has fallen to the seafloor decomposes. Scientists think that much of that methane dissolves into the ocean before it reaches the surface, where in the atmosphere it would act as a potent greenhouse gas.

But what if instead of seeping, it explodes? Chelsea Harvey reports on a new article in Science for The Post: "The new paper describes one such event that occurred about 12,000 years ago in what is now the Barents Sea, a region of the Arctic Ocean stretching between Norway and Russia. There, at the bottom of the ocean floor, stands a collection of more than 100 giant craters, some up to 3,000 feet wide and nearly 100 feet deep. The researchers believe they were formed by sudden rushes of methane from the seafloor."

Such an event, which happened around the end of the last ice age when glaciers were in retreat, could put methane into the air, scientists think. One hotly debated and very unsettled question: Could modern warming trigger an underwater methane explosion today?

-- A timely analysis: Just before Trump made his Paris announcement, weather historian Christopher Burt analyzed temperature data from 60 U.S. cities and found that record-warm weather occurred five times as frequently as record-cold weather since 2010.

The cause? The Post's Jason Samenow reports: "If the climate was not changing, we would expect to see roughly even numbers of record highs and lows in all locations, and that has not even been close to the case in recent decades."

Using National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data, the website Climate Signals tracks this ratio too. As of the first of the month, the platform says there were 4.38 high-temperature records for every low-temperature record in the United States over the past year.

-- Marine ecologists to world: Don't give up on coral reefs yet. Chelsea Harvey reports: "In a paper out Wednesday in the journal Nature, more than a dozen experts from around the world say that coral reefs are likely to undergo major changes as a result of continued climate change and other human activities, like fishing. But while future coral ecosystems might look a lot different than they do today, from the species they contain to the places they live, they aren’t necessarily doomed. In fact, accepting this transition and helping them through it might be the best — and even only way — to save them. 'What that paper does, it says yes, coral reefs are in enormous trouble, they’re gravely threatened by climate change and more local forms of human disturbance — but hey folks wake up, it’s not quite as bad as we’ve been yelling and screaming about,' said Jeremy Jackson, an emeritus professor at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography and one of the new paper’s authors."

-- The environmental movement is looking to cities and left-leaning states to be bulkheads against the regulatory rollback at the federal level. But often local action still takes the cooperation of Washington. The Boston Globe reports that the Massachusetts capital -- one of the bluest of the blue cities in the United States -- is putting on hold plans to host an international climate summit due to lack of support from Trump's State Department.

The paper's David Abel reports: "The State Department-sponsored summit in Boston, revealed last June by then-secretary of state John F. Kerry, would have brought thousands of urban and business leaders to Boston from cities across the United States and China. It would have been the third such conference. Environmental advocates and scientists had hoped the summit would provide a stage for Boston to showcase its efforts to curb carbon emissions and defend its coastal areas from rising seas, as well as learn about climate change initiatives from China and from other cities."

A video reminder: We've been here before. Since the 1990s, the United States has refused to sign onto three other international agreements.

Also read: As Modi prepares for Trump meeting, US expected to OK India drone purchase

Source: washingtonpost.com

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