Biden Is Wrong About the Virtues of the Paris Climate Agreement
By Sterling Burnett –Senior Fellow and Managing Editor, Environment & Climate News, The Heartland Institute
As one of his first official acts after being sworn in as President of the United States, Joe Biden submitted the paperwork necessary to bring the United States back into the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. This was a mistake, as was the initial agreement itself.
The Paris Climate agreement was toothless from the beginning. President Biden’s climate envoy, John Kerry; the U.S. Secretary of State when the agreement was signed; admitted as much at the time, stating on Fox News Sunday, “It doesn’t have mandatory targets for reduction and it doesn’t have an enforcement, compliance mechanism.” Even James Hansen, often referred to as the “father of climate change,” was more scathing in his assessment of the agreement. He told the Guardian, “It’s a fraud really, a fake. … There’s no action, just promises.”
The fundamental Achilles heel of the Paris climate agreement is the physics of it all. To stop temperatures from rising by the targeted amount—as close to 1.5℃ as possible, but certainly no more than 2℃—and for countries to become fully carbon neutral by 2100 requires reducing global greenhouse gas emissions by more than 80 percent by 2050. However, the plans submitted by the 190 nations to ratify the agreement thus far will result in only a fraction of the greenhouse gas cuts required to halt temperatures at the upper limit of 2℃. Since then, the news has gotten worse.
Climate Change Commitments Unfulfilled
A recent United Nations report on progress toward meeting the Paris Climate Agreement commitments says countries are failing to hit their targets. As of February 26, the U.N. says only 75 of the more than 190 countries that have ratified the Paris climate agreement have tendered firm commitments and detailed plans to cut emissions, despite promising to deliver those plans by 2020. “The level of ambition … indicates that changes in these countries’ total emissions would be small, less than -1%, in 2030 compared to 2010,” the U.N. says in response to these plans. “… [the] IPCC, by contrast, has indicated that emission reduction ranges to meet the 1.5°C temperature goal should be around -45% in 2030 compared to 2010.”
All of the statistics above, combined with the fact that the United States had already reduced its emissions by a greater amount than any other developed economy before Biden put the U.S. back into the Paris Agreement, shows his decision to do so was pure virtue signaling. While it may signal solidarity to the other parties to the Agreement, it is superfluous to its success because the goals themselves are far short of what the U.N. says is necessary to keep temperatures from rising more than 2℃.
Biden’s Climate Change Initiatives
Biden has promised that climate change will be a central focus of his administration. His early initiatives and his cabinet appointments bear that commitment out. Indeed, it seems every executive agency will focus on, devote resources to, and coordinate efforts to the common goal of fighting climate change. The final details of all the laws, policies, initiatives, and regulations the Biden administration will propose to curb greenhouse gas emissions have yet to be revealed and will likely grow and evolve over time.
However, based on his various public pronouncements and preliminary policy initiatives, Biden’s climate agenda seems clear with the following:
- The incorporation of the social cost of carbon calculations into regulatory efforts, infrastructure development, and federal land management;
- The cessation of new oil and gas development on public lands, and, to the extent possible under law, the regulation of new and existing oil and gas production on federal, private, and state lands;
- New energy efficiency requirements on appliances; stricter fuel economy and/or emission standards for public and private transportation; new emissions restrictions on electric power production; and
- Possible federal land use planning codes, additional subsidies, support for, and expedited approvals of technologies the administration considers green, and taxes levied on carbon dioxide emissions (with Congress’ help).
All of these initiatives will harm the poor because they will result in higher energy costs—if the policies don’t increase the price of energy they will be ineffective in reducing energy use, the main source or carbon dioxide emissions. Yet the poor and middle class spend a relatively greater amount of their income on energy and energy intensive products like food and transportation than the relatively wealthy. Because of this, Biden’s climate policies may conflict with his stated goal of making “environmental justice” a priority. All of these efforts are misguided and ultimately futile.
Even so, confronting each of these existing climate related harms directly, including by making fossil fuels more widely available to the developing countries, is likely to be far more efficacious in ameliorating any ills from a modestly warmer world, rather than trying to reduce them indirectly through the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. For a fraction of the costs of ending fossil fuel use to meet the inadequate goals of the Paris Climate Agreement, the world could cut the incidences of insect borne diseases by half or more, dramatically reduce the number of people impacted by flooding and hurricanes, and increase crop yields and reduce threats to the worlds wildlands and biodiversity through focused adaptation.
Indur Goklany; Assistant Director of Programs, Science, and Technology Policy in the U.S. Department of the Interior; has found research that indicates halting climate change would reduce cumulative mortality from hunger, malaria, and coastal flooding by 4 to 10 percent in 2085. Every party at the Paris Climate Agreement keeping their commitments would reduce such harms by a fraction of that amount. By contrast, adaptive measures and policies “focused specifically on reducing vulnerability to climate sensitive threats would reduce cumulative mortality by 50 to 75 percent at a fraction,” of the Paris Agreement’s cost.
The Biggest Threats to our Nation Does Not Include Climate Change
Poverty is the biggest killer. People in wealthier societies are generally healthier; live longer; have fewer children die at birth or in their infancy; and, with few exceptions, suffer less from economic and gender inequality. Their populations also tend to be better educated and are better able to anticipate, adapt to, and respond to natural disasters than people in poorer societies. The cornerstone of growing prosperity and decreasing penury around the globe during the 20th and early 21st centuries has been the development and use of fossil fuels.
Biden’s climate policies, like the United Nation’s climate concerns, are built on the same errors: misunderstanding the true threats to human flourishing and the most effective responses to climate risks. As Alex Epstein writes in his generally excellent book, The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels. Climate is no longer a major cause of deaths, thanks in large part to fossil fuels.
Not only are we ignoring the big picture by making the fight against climate danger the fixation of our culture, we are “fighting” climate change by opposing the weapon that has made it dozens of times less dangerous. The popular climate discussion has the issue backward. It looks at man as a destructive force for climate livability, one who makes the climate dangerous because we use fossil fuels. In fact, the truth is the exact opposite; we don’t take a safe climate and make it dangerous; we take a dangerous climate and make it safe. High-energy civilization, not climate, is the driver of climate livability.
That’s the message the 190 countries at the Paris Climate Agreement, including the Biden administration, need to grasp to formulate a positive, coordinated response to climate change.
Sterling Burnett joined the Heartland Institute in 2014 and spearheaded the creation of the Environment & Climate News section on the Heartland Institute’s home page, and the Environment & Climate News podcast. Prior to joining Heartland, Burnett ended his tenure at the National Center for Policy Analysis after 18 years of work. He has also held various positions in professional and public policy organizations.
Burnett has an associates degree in the arts and sciences from Eastfield Community College, a B.B.A. and B.A. in cultural anthropology from Southern Methodist University, and an M.A. and Ph.D. in applied philosophy from Bowling Green State University with a specialization in environmental ethics. To read more about Sterling Burnett, click here.
What fossil fuel opponents fail to take account of is that people will do what is necessary to cook their food and stay warm, regardless of environmental consequences. Those who claim that 3rd world residents contribute little to global warming ignore the consequences of those populations cutting and burning rainforests for fuel and cropland. The “lungs of the world” are rapidly disappearing, both for firewood and land on which to grow sugar cane for ethanol. In this country, we waste land and precious groundwater to grow corn for ethanol, which returns somewhat fewer BTUs as a fuel than the diesel used to produce it. (If this were not true, why wouldn’t farmers be powering their own tractors with their own ethanol?) The result: Higher prices for both grain and meat, here and worldwide, a consequence that falls most heavily on the poor.
If I have correctly understood Dr. Burnett’s comments, he is asserting that: (i) there is little chance that 2015 Paris Climate Agreement will reduce greenhouse gas emissions sufficiently to keep global average temperature increases below 2 degrees Centigrade; (ii) policies aimed at reducing US CO2 emissions will disproportionately burden the poor, and (iii) continuing on our present path will result in a “modestly warmer world” and we’ll be able to ameliorate any “important” adverse impacts of that warming by spending more money (and burning more fossil fuels!). He may well be correct about (i), but simply abandoning the agreement will eliminate any hope at all of making it better and acting in concert with other nations to achieve significant emission reductions. With respect to (ii), there are ways to address equity concerns while also reducing the climate impacts of our economy (e.g., tax CO2 emissions and give those tax revenues to low income individuals and families to offset their higher costs). Regarding (iii), I certainly hope that Dr. Burnett is correct but I see little reason to think so. The natural environment that supports human civilization is extremely complex and highly non-linear, and there is mounting evidence that our modeling efforts actually have underestimated both the magnitude and the pace of the impacts resulting from a rapid increase in global average temperature. People will disagree on whether and to what degree we should attempt to reduce CO2 emissions. But we should all recognize that we’re rolling the dice on this, and that a bad outcome could be very bad indeed for much of humanity (not to mention the rest of the biosphere!).