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Forget Paris

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius banging the gavel at the 2015 Paris Climate Conference
photo courtesy The IIP Photo Archive

As a legacy project for President Obama, the Paris Climate Agreement is a perfect bookend, along with Obamacare, to his time in office.

For all the hype and rhetoric surrounding both projects, neither will accomplish its stated goals. Obamacare will ultimately do little to improve either the quality or the accessibility of health care for most Americans, nor will it bring down the cost of that care. Similarly, the climate agreement among 195 nations will, on its own, do absolutely nothing to affect the world’s climate.

This is because none of the objectives to which the nations agreed are enforceable under the agreement. There are no binding rules or independent oversight to make sure that nations meet their voluntary targets. And most of its provisions are neither economically wise nor politically feasible anyway.

The most egregious example is the call for annual transfers of $100 billion to less-developed countries to help them adapt to the purported consequences of climate change. No legislature in any economically advanced democracy will vote to write big, blank checks to governments in places like Zimbabwe, Venezuela or Bangladesh. Nor should they. In nearly all cases, poverty is the consequence of bad government, whose hallmarks are misguided policies, excessive corruption or, frequently, both.

Nor is the priority given to carbon reduction a sensible response to the needs of humanity. Let us start by supposing the goal is to help the greatest number of people lead longer, healthier and more secure lives. We will set aside, for now, the question of whether the overriding need is for short-term, physical security for populations threatened by evil men with guns. Let us instead consider the simple fact that in India alone, hundreds of millions of people lack access to toilets. Clean water, safe food and timely vaccination would have a far greater impact on the lives of these people than anything we can do in this century about weather patterns. Similarly, in sub-Saharan Africa, finally conquering malaria and building functional health care systems would do much more, much faster, to improve the lot of a large swath of humankind.

Overcoming these quotidian problems has far less political appeal, especially on the American political left, than tackling the largely speculative future effects of man-made emissions on the climate. Countries in Europe that eagerly signed the Paris agreement also have little incentive to keep their own energy costs down if they can find a way to drive everybody else’s business expenses up to their own, elevated levels instead.

And the developing nations that are so eager for financial help to adapt to climate change would be less receptive if that help were delivered in kind, such as by sending teams of foreign engineers and construction workers to help them fortify their infrastructure, rather than in cash.

These nations claim that they are the victims of emissions from advanced economies, and that the cash stipends they demand are essentially nothing more than reparations. Fine. Then let’s subtract from these reparations the economic value of everything that has been developed by economically advanced nations in the industrial era, from antibiotics to microprocessors and the Internet. There will be nothing left owed to anyone, anywhere in the world.

None of this is to say that climate change is not real, even if its dimensions prove less dramatic and less predictable than the alarmists claim, or that addressing and adapting to changing climate will not have real costs. The question is one of priorities and trade-offs. Those priorities will ultimately be decided, as they should be, by the people who are being asked to bear the burdens that these choices will create.

On that front, all that came out of Paris is fodder for a future Obama memoir and a lot of hot air.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s recently updated book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us,” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business.” Larry was also among the authors of the firm’s book The High Achiever’s Guide To Wealth.

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