Why the Paris Climate Agreement is Futile

Why the Paris Climate Agreement is Futile

Biden Is Wrong About the Virtues of the Paris Climate Agreement

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:

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
Sterling Burnett
Heartland senior fellow on environmental policy; managing editor of Environment & Climate News at | Website | + posts

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.

2 comments

Georgie Porgie June 14, 2021 at 11:32 am

Voter rights are important. But another issue that is at least as critical is the spread of misinformation. On the issue of climate change, Americans diverge from much of the rest of the globe in thinking that climate change is either a non-issue or a low-priority one. This is the result of decades of misinformation and blatant propaganda, like this article from the Heartland Institute, insisting that the science isn’t settled and that this means it is a non-issue or a low priority issue, very effectively, which can be seen in polls of mainstream Left and Right priorities, with climate change mitigation consistently toward the bottom of the list. Protecting voter rights won’t instantly fix decades of well-funded efforts to muddy the waters on this issue.

For a long time, the trope that there are two scientifically valid sides to this issue was very effective at keeping a safe majority confused and uncertain. Now that has evolved into the adaptation-not-mitigation-with-more-fossil-fuels argument presented by Mr. Burnett (burn it). The central problem with this argument is that it is a fantasy. You cannot adapt to runaway climate change after one or more critical tipping points have been breached; adaptation becomes less relevant the more quickly existential threats cluster, and runaway climate change is an existential threat fustercluck. You can see that happening right now in the Western US, but it is no longer bounded to the summer months, instead expanding in scope to include all four seasons as times for violent dislocations of infrastructure, especially the infrastructure of our food production.

The idea that you can adapt to runaway climate change with more of what provoked runaway climate change must look pretty good to someone who won’t be alive in 20-30 years. To anyone younger than that who hasn’t fallen for the propaganda, it looks like a snake eating its own tail and working its way up higher. The decision to do more of the same is simply making it more likely we breach one or more critical tipping points sooner. One thing to understand about this issue: we ain’t seen nuthin yet! Everything we have experienced so far is likely pre-tipping point, pre-runaway, adaptation still very possible… alongside mitigation, with the clear-sighted understanding that what we have done the last 30 years or more represents a long-running game of climate Russian Roulette – the bullet in the chamber is the tipping point we haven’t yet breached. Once the runaway part starts, you no longer have the option to mitigate, and now you are sprinting to adapt in front of the onrushing extinction event hits its stride.

One thing you see a lot right now in the news is hopeful chatter (on the Left) and critical chatter (like this piece) about Biden his his admin’s plans to get to net-zero by 2050. But if you search for scientific opinions about what scale of investment that would realistically take, from the US and the rest of the globe assuming equal participation as a % of GDP, what the Biden admin is proposing to do (now in the process of being whittled down further in negotiations) is not nearly enough. And you need to add to that view the likelihood that Biden’s Dems won’t stay in power until 2050, which means a waffling and inconsistent US approach to this issue. If you are trying to realistically accomplish that goal of net-zero by 2050, you need to factor the waffling in and over-shoot your target, not under-shoot it like we are now and did for 8 mostly lost years under Obama and 4 completely lost years under Trump.

Finally, climate change is really only a piece of the puzzle. The full picture includes environmental deterioration and resource depletion across the board. It’s everything from plasticization of the oceans, to declining fish stocks, to loss of topsoil, to an ongoing extinction event that has mostly not yet included humans… but is getting there. You have sea snot, corexit-oil plumes, poorly addressed leaking radioactive waste, deforestation and loss of rainforests, pandemic-spawning conditions, frack waste drinking water, 3 sheets to the wind methane emissions, megadroughts and wildfires, near-coastal ocean floor toxic waste fields, pest population explosions, and a partridge with two beaks in a pear tree with mutant fruit.

The most foundational issue is to stop kidding ourselves with happy clappy swill about our prospects for adaptation if we stay the course from here.

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J.P. McJefferson April 21, 2021 at 11:47 am

The challenge to address climate change is particularly difficult because of its global nature over which we have only limited and indirect control. It’s doubtful the challenge will ever be met.

However, if we focus on issues within the United States and under our government control, addressing climate change is no different than the dozens of other critical issues that must be addressed and solved.  

The most foundational issue, common to all, is voting rights. If we suppress the right to vote we suppress the will of the public; and if we suppress the will of the public, we suppress the will to address these issues. Currently, there is no overarching public or political will to address climate change and therefore it will not be adequately addressed. Until voter suppression is stopped and the public is allowed to express its will through its political leadership and direction little if any, progress will be made on climate change or any other major issues facing the country.

There is no more important issue than expanding voter rights and stopping blatant voter suppression.

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