On Thursday President Trump announced that the United States will withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord. (CNN)
President Trump and his advisers are debating whether to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate accord, and if he does the fury will be apocalyptic—start building arks for the catastrophic flood. The reality is that withdrawing is in America’s economic interest and won’t matter much to the climate.
President Obama signed the agreement last September, albeit by ducking the two-thirds majority vote in the Senate required under the Constitution for such national commitments. The pact includes a three-year process for withdrawal, which Mr. Trump could short-circuit by also pulling out of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Paris was supposed to address the failures of the 1997 Kyoto protocol, which Bill Clinton signed but George W. Bush refused to implement amid similar outrage. The Kyoto episode is instructive because the U.S. has since reduced emissions faster than much of Europe thanks to business innovation—namely, hydraulic fracturing that is replacing coal with natural gas.
While legally binding, Kyoto’s CO 2 emissions targets weren’t strictly enforced. European countries that pursued aggressive reductions were engaging in economic masochism. According to a 2014 Manhattan Institute study, the average cost of residential electricity in 2012 was 12 cents per kilowatt hour in the U.S. but an average 26 cents in the European Union and 35 cents in Germany. The average price of electricity in the EU soared 55% from 2005 to 2013.
Yet Germany’s emissions have increased in the last two years as more coal is burned to compensate for reduced nuclear energy and unreliable solar and wind power. Last year coal made up 40% of Germany’s power generation compared to 30% for renewables, while state subsidies to stabilize the electric grid have grown five-fold since 2012.
But the climate believers tried again in Paris, this time with goals that are supposedly voluntary. China and India offered benchmarks pegged to GDP growth, which means they can continue their current energy plans. China won’t even begin reducing emissions until 2030 and in the next five years it will use more coal.
President Obama, meanwhile, committed the U.S. to reducing emissions by between 26% and 28% below 2005 levels by 2025. This would require extreme changes in energy use. Even Mr. Obama’s bevy of anti-carbon regulations would get the U.S. to a mere 45% of its target.
Meeting the goals would require the Environmental Protection Agency to impose stringent emissions controls on vast stretches of the economy including steel production, farm soil management and enteric fermentation (i.e., cow flatulence). Don’t laugh—California’s Air Resources Board is issuing regulations to curb bovine burping to meet its climate goals.
Advocates in the White House for remaining in Paris claim the U.S. has the right to unilaterally reduce Mr. Obama’s emissions commitments. They say stay in and avoid the political meltdown while rewriting the U.S. targets.
But Article 4, paragraph 11 of the accord says “a party may at any time adjust its existing nationally determined contribution with a view to enhancing its level of ambition.” There is no comparable language permitting a reduction in national targets.
Rest assured that the Sierra Club and other greens will sue under the Section 115 “international air pollution” provision of the Clean Air Act to force the Trump Administration to enforce the Paris standards. The “voluntary” talk will vanish amid the hunt for judges to rule that Section 115 commands the U.S. to reduce emissions that “endanger” foreign countries if those countries reciprocate under Paris. After his experience with the travel ban, Mr. Trump should understand that legal danger.
The Big Con at the heart of Paris is that even its supporters concede that meeting all of its commitments won’t prevent more than a 0.17 degree Celsius increase in global temperatures by 2100, far less than the two degrees that is supposedly needed to avert climate doom.
It’s also rich for Europeans to complain about the U.S. abdicating climate leadership after their regulators looked the other way as auto makers, notably Volkswagen, cheated on emissions tests. This allowed Europeans to claim they were meeting their green goals without harming the competitiveness of their auto makers. The EPA had to shame the EU into investigating the subterfuge.
The U.S. legal culture will insist on carbon compliance even if Europe and China cheat. Even if Mr. Trump would succeed in rewriting U.S. emissions targets, his successor could ratchet them back up. That possibility might deter some companies from investing in long-term fossil-fuel production.
The simplest decision is to make a clean break from Paris. But if Mr. Trump doesn’t want to take the political heat for withdrawing on his own, here’s a compromise: Atone for Mr. Obama’s dereliction and submit Paris to the Senate for approval as a treaty. Then we can see whether anticarbon virtue-signaling beats real-world economic costs for Democrats from energy states like Heidi Heitkamp (North Dakota), Joe Manchin (West Virginia) and Joe Donnelly (Indiana).