California's Gov. Jerry Brown. Photo by Benjamin Géminem, courtesy COP Paris on Flickr.
Back in the days of Robin MacNeil and Jim Lehrer, I often leaned on the PBS NewsHour to glimpse the deeper truths behind the day’s headlines. Old habits die hard, and sometimes they can still reward.
Take last week’s not-so-sudden bombshell that President Trump would disavow American participation in the Paris climate agreement to which his predecessor had subscribed on the assumption that about 320 million fellow citizens were content to defer to his judgment.
The Paris “accord,” as it is frequently called (although there is no such thing as an “accord” in American law, which recognizes statutes, regulations, executive orders and foreign treaties, all subject to constitutional checks and balances), incorporates nearly every member of the United Nations, with the exceptions of Nicaragua, Syria, and now the United States.
The Paris deal amounts to a collection of pledges, or unfunded promises, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or take other steps intended to hold the warming of the planet to no more than 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, or ideally within 1.5 degrees of that threshold. It also contains a commitment, similarly unfunded, on the part of rich nations to provide generous monetary support to poorer countries to help them meet such commitments or otherwise adapt to climate change. Such funding would start at $100 billion a year and would most likely increase. Many of the emission-reduction pledges would not come due for decades, and there is no enforcement mechanism. Even the accord’s advocates acknowledge that it would fall well short of meeting its temperature-moderation goals in the unlikely event that each and every pledge by all nations, including those made for the United States by former President Obama, were honored in full.
The main achievement of the Paris deal was that it existed in the first place – no small feat when nearly every nation on the planet is involved. Of course, the promise to transfer vast sums of cash to small, poor countries, which in many cases are rife with inefficiency and corruption, played a significant role in getting those countries to sign on. That pledge alone might justify Trump’s decision to walk away from the deal in favor of a more ad hoc approach to aiding less-developed countries, with contributions limited to our fair share of however much can be spent with reasonable efficacy and transparency.
Regardless, if every nation or any individual nation wants to reduce its emissions for the purported benefit of all, nothing stops them, with or without Paris. Right here in America, carbon dioxide emissions from the energy sector declined by 12 percent from 2005 to 2015, mainly as a result of substituting cleaner-burning gas for coal. The Paris deal played no role in that reduction.
So the withdrawal from Paris hardly looks like the end of the world, unless people react hysterically. Here is where the NewsHour provided genuine insight, in the form of an interview between host Judy Woodruff and California Gov. Jerry Brown. Their opening exchange was illuminating:
Woodruff: Governor Jerry Brown, thank you for joining us. Your office put out a statement a short time ago saying this is an “insane course of action.” Do you mean that?
Brown: I certainly do mean that. If anything, it’s understated. Climate change is an existential threat to all of humanity, to the natural systems on which all life depends. Not tomorrow, but starting very quickly, we’re seeing changes. California has lost a hundred million trees from the drought. Sea level is rising. The Antarctica is seeing ice melting at an ever rapid rate, some say in an irreversible way. This is a profoundly serious problem. The Paris agreement was an agreement of nations, saying what they could do voluntarily. Here’s the commitment. President Obama made something I thought was doable, was reasonable. In fact, California is doing that very thing now, and our economy has grown in terms of GDP 40 percent faster than the nation as a whole. We have created over 2 million jobs. So climate action and jobs go together. So that’s why I say this move by Trump makes no sense, and it’s going to hurt America, and it’s going to cost jobs, not the reverse.
Woodruff: Well, as you know he makes a different argument. He says this – he said, I’m in favor of doing something to help the environment, but he said this accord is going to cost millions of jobs and cost the American people trillions in lost economic output.
Brown: That’s just – that’s a lie. That’s completely unwarranted. Yes, jobs are always declining, all the time, the creative destruction of capitalism. But jobs are being created. California has lost jobs, but, net, we have added 2.4 million jobs in the last eight years, since the recession. That is a remarkable outcome, and it’s consistent, in fact, I would say driven by the clean tech investments and the climate action strategies that we have embarked upon. So President Trump is completely wrong. He’s doing this for his own base, highly ideological. He’s wrong on the science. He’s wrong on the facts. That’s it.
Brown literally called climate change a threat to the existence of life on earth, including all of humanity. Withdrawing from the Paris deal was not merely a mistake in his account, it was “insane.” Similarly, Trump’s contention that the net effect of the deal would be to cost American jobs (not unreasonable, considering both the timing of American commitments and the expected burden of cash transfers to other countries) is not merely a disagreement over economic projections, it was “a lie.”
Yet Woodruff accepted these fantastic claims with the nonchalance of a kindergartner at story hour, moving on to discuss Brown’s view of the political and economic ramifications without even momentarily questioning his logic. If all life depends on achieving the Paris temperature targets, and if the Paris commitments are not expected to accomplish that, what comes after Paris? If Paris had never been negotiated, would humanity’s near-term demise have been assured? If anyone is going to send vast sums to help the population of undeveloped nations, is that money more effectively spent on climate matters or on improving basic sanitation, health care and education services?
Brown’s interview was prerecorded because, by the time the program aired, he was already en route to China to negotiate additional climate measures on behalf of his own state with the Chinese government. Trump’s withdrawal did not create any bar to California or any other state taking whatever steps are within their power to reduce emissions, if that is where they believe their resources are best spent. Like Obama, Brown is subject to constitutional checks and balances; unlike Obama, he chooses to operate within those constraints in order to bind his state to policy choices extending beyond his own tenure in office.
Hysteria was hardly limited to politicians, journalists and the usual propagandists on social media. Some of it also came from business leaders who ought to know better.
As soon as Trump renounced the Paris deal, Elon Musk and Robert Iger resigned from the president’s Strategic and Policy Forum, an unpaid advisory panel that aims to provide a business and economic perspective on policy decisions. Musk is CEO of Tesla Inc., which is a public company, and SpaceX, which is not (at least not yet). Iger is CEO of the Walt Disney Co. Both men also chair their companies’ boards.
It seems highly unlikely that when they first agreed to serve on Trump’s panel that either man told him their participation was contingent on his ultimate decision about the Paris climate deal. I am sure Trump would have declined their services under such circumstances, and with good reason: An adviser’s job is to advise the decision maker, not to make the decision. If anyone should know this, it is a CEO. Iger and Musk are smart men, and they surely do know this. More likely they resigned to spare themselves the headache of explaining to Trump’s die-hard opponents that offering their views to the president does not imply that they endorse his. Why else would they deprive their shareholders of a seat at the White House table when other important policies are being discussed? Do they expect they will have somewhere more useful to be at such times?
Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein found his way onto Twitter to blast the president’s decision as “a setback for the environment and for the U.S.’s leadership position in the world.” This came on the same day Goldman Sachs was drawing widespread opprobrium for tossing a financial lifeline to the oppressive government of Venezuela, whose fast-falling revenues are tied to the production of some of the dirtiest crude oil on the planet.
Other CEOs, to their credit, behaved like rational adults. These included Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase, Stephen Schwarzman of Blackstone, Mary Barra of General Motors and Rich Lesser of Boston Consulting Group. “We believe that it is very important that the administration receives a range of views and robustly developed perspectives,” Lesser’s company said in a statement reported on Quartz.
If life on earth depends on the success of the Paris accord, then we’re probably all doomed – because no treaty on earth is going to receive anything close to 100 percent compliance, even with enforcement mechanisms that don’t exist in the Obama-era deal. But now that the NewsHour has cast a bright, if unintended, light on exactly how distorted the climate discussion has become, perhaps we can begin the process of making more rational decisions about what really can and ought to be done.