The politics of global warming has always been more heat than light, more about cheap ideology than sensible solutions. Today's news—that President Trump will withdraw the United States from its commitment under the Paris climate change agreement as much of the world fumes—is just the latest in this sorry saga. President Trump is wrong to call climate change “a hoax;” it isn't. And he's wrong to claim that following through with the Paris accord would hobble the U.S. economy; it needn’t. But climate activists are wrong to suggest that a U.S. pullout from the Paris agreement will kill efforts to protect the planet; it won't.
Environmental concerns about Trump’s announcement are overblown for three reasons.
1. The Paris accord was only a small step
The 2015 Paris agreement was more symbolic than substantive in the fight against climate change. It convinced developing countries—China, India, and the other fast-growing economies that will account for the overwhelming majority of the growth in greenhouse gas emissions in coming years—to agree to constrain their emissions. Before Paris, only developed nations had pledged (under a 1997 accord called the Kyoto Protocol) to curb their carbon outputs. The country that at the time was the world’s biggest carbon emitter, the U.S., decided not to ratify the Kyoto treaty in a decision that sparked international outrage similar to the sort emanating today from many global capitals.
But the Paris agreement itself never was going to make a big difference in climate change. The pledges that countries made under the accord are voluntary and essentially unenforceable; the agreement’s main cudgel is geopolitical peer pressure. Even assuming that countries fulfilled their Paris pledges—which, given emissions trends in several countries, is a big assumption—virtually every analysis has projected that emissions still would rise so high as to push average global temperatures more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. That’s the threshold scientists have identified as likely to usher in particularly dangerous consequences from climate change.
2. The U.S. is no longer the world's top emitter
The United States is decreasingly important in the global climate calculus. To be sure, it remains the world's second-largest carbon emitter behind China, and its actions have the potential to influence those of other nations. Yet the vast majority of increased emissions in coming years will come not from the U.S. but from developing countries—particularly China and India.
3. It's the economy, stupid
Which brings us to the third and most important reason that the U.S. decision to abrogate its Paris pledge is not likely on its own to fry the world. In what is emerging as the most significant shift in climate geopolitics, key developing countries show every indication that they’ll continue—regardless of what President Trump does—to take steps that will have the effect of curbing their carbon emissions. That’s true not just of China, the world’s top emitter, and not just of India, by most accounts the fourth-largest emitter, but also of fast-growing nations in Latin America and Africa. These countries’ main environmental motives never have been, and probably never will be, to fight climate change. Their motives are far more tangible but no less important—cleaning up dirty air and adding domestic jobs in burgeoning low-carbon industries. Achieving those ends would indirectly help constrain carbon emissions. A U.S. pullout from Paris doesn’t minimize those motives.
Without doubt, the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate accord will impugn America’s global credibility and prompt the rest of the world to question the legitimacy of U.S. promises on any number of international issues. But the move does not mean game over for global warming. The slog to muster the geopolitical will, the technological know-how, and the economic discipline to combat the toughest environmental problem the world has ever faced was going to be monumentally hard even with Washington playing along. It is going to benefit from increasingly serious action by key economies even with the White House booing from the sidelines.