“The idea that sustainability may be a necessary condition of future economic growth appears never to have crossed their minds.
28 December 18
Endangered species, climate change — the administration is taking the country, and the world, backward.
t’s hard to believe but it was only three years ago this month — just after 7 p.m., Paris time, Dec. 12, to be precise — that delegates from more than 190 nations, clapping and cheering, whooping and weeping, rose to celebrate the Paris Agreement — the first genuinely collective response to the mounting threat of global warming. It was a largely aspirational document, without strong legal teeth and achieved only after contentious and exhausting negotiations. But for the first time in climate talks stretching back to 1992, it set forth specific, numerical pledges from each country to reduce emissions so that together they could keep atmospheric temperatures from barreling past a point of no return.
Two weeks ago, delegates met at a follow-up conference in Katowice, Poland, to address procedural questions left unsettled in Paris, including common accounting mechanisms and greater transparency in how countries report their emissions. In this the delegates largely succeeded, giving rise to the hope, as Brad Plumer put it in The Times, that “new rules would help build a virtuous cycle of trust and cooperation among countries, at a time when global politics seems increasingly fractured.”
But otherwise it was a hugely dispiriting event and a fitting coda to one of the most discouraging years in recent memory for anyone who cares about the health of the planet — a year marked by President Trump’s destructive, retrograde policies, by backsliding among big nations, by fresh data showing that carbon dioxide emissions are still going up, by ever more ominous signs (devastating wildfires and floods, frightening scientific reports) of what a future of unchecked greenhouse gas emissions is likely to bring.
Wells Griffith, Mr. Trump’s international energy and climate adviser, managed in one quote to summarize the dismissiveness of the American delegation and its fealty to the president’s apparently unshakable conviction that anything that helps the environment must inevitably hurt the economy. “The United States has an abundance of natural resources and is not going to keep them in the ground,” he said. “We strongly believe that no country should have to sacrifice their economic prosperity or energy security in pursuit of environmental sustainability.” The administration is full of zero-sum philosophers like Mr. Griffith. The idea that sustainability may be a necessary condition of future economic growth appears never to have crossed their minds.
Further depressing the proceedings were recent defections and political troubles in countries that, along with the United States, had been expected to lead the way to a low-carbon energy future. Germany, which long ago walked away from carbon-free nuclear power, is having a hard time cutting back on coal because of political opposition. In Australia, a prime minister was kicked out of office because he wanted to reduce the use of coal, which Australia produces in abundance. China, despite admirably aggressive investments in wind and solar power, has yet to get a firm grip on its emissions from coal-fired plants. The new president-elect of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, not only named an outspoken climate-change denier as his foreign minister but also, reversing his predecessors’ policy, pledged to open up the Amazon to mining and farming. This will threaten biodiversity in one of the world’s great rain forests while crippling its ability to act as a sink for carbon emissions.
No country’s backsliding, of course, compares with Mr. Trump’s. Determined to demolish President Barack Obama’s entire climate strategy, Mr. Trump has in the past year replaced Mr. Obama’s clean-power plan, which was aimed at reducing carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, with an essentially useless substitute that would emit 12 times the pollution envisaged by the Obama plan. He has proposed weakening a major Obama regulation requiring automakers to nearly double the fuel economy of passenger vehicles by 2025. (This rollback, The Times reported this month, came after a lot of whining by oil interests, not, as one might suspect, from the auto companies, which had accepted the challenge.) And the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department have taken multiple steps to roll back Obama-era efforts to control emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas many times more powerful than carbon dioxide. These three programs formed the basis of Mr. Obama’s pledge at the 2015 Paris meeting to reduce America’s greenhouse gas emissions by 26 percent to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.
The health and environmental effects of the Trump rollbacks, as documented by a Times investigation published this week, are far-reaching and potentially devastating.
This holiday season has brought more gifts to fossil fuel interests; every day is Christmas Day for the likes of Murray Energy and Exxon Mobil. This month, the E.P.A. proposed killing an Obama rule that would effectively block the construction of new coal-fired power plants. The Interior Department relaxed restrictions on oil and gas drilling in areas inhabited by the sage grouse, a threatened bird. Also in December, the department released an environmental-impact statement that would open all or part of the 1.5 million-acre coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to leasing and exploration. The area had been off limits to drilling for decades until Congress, late last year, approved an amendment sponsored by Senator Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, to open it up.
All this is fundamentally Mr. Trump’s doing. A series of early executive orders established the pro-fossil fuel policy framework; Scott Pruitt, the E.P.A. administrator, and Ryan Zinke, the interior secretary, filled in the details. Mr. Pruitt has left Washington and Mr. Zinke is in his final days, both finishing under ethical clouds. They will deserve, along with Mr. Trump, history’s censure for doing virtually nothing to move to a more responsible energy future — and for not doing so at just the moment when the world needed the kind of leadership that Mr. Obama and his secretary of state, John Kerry (and Bill Clinton and Al Gore before them), tried to provide.
The numbers are not great. The goal in Paris was to keep warming from exceeding 2 degrees Celsius over preindustrial levels, and if possible to hold the line at 1.5 degrees, thresholds that scientists deemed unacceptably risky. Delegates knew that even if every country managed to fulfill its individual pledges, the world would be on pace for 3 degrees of warming in this century. So they agreed to tighten the targets as time went on, but instead they’ve slid backward. Many large emitters are not on track to meet their self-imposed goals. That includes America, despite the retirement of many coal-fired plants in favor of cleaner natural gas, the increasing cost competitiveness of renewable fuels like wind and solar power, and the valiant efforts of states like California to sharply reduce their own emissions and lead where Mr. Trump will not.
The bottom line, according to the Global Carbon Project, is that after three years in which emissions remained largely flat, global levels of carbon dioxide increased by 1.6 percent in 2017 and are on pace to jump by 2.7 percent this year. Some scientists have likened the increase in emissions to a “speeding freight train.” That has a lot to do with economic growth. It also has a lot to do with not moving much faster to less carbon-intensive ways of powering that growth. Or in Mr. Trump’s case, moving in the opposite direction.
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