There Was No Valid Argument for the Paris Exit

The scientific and economic case for climate action grows only more compelling. Over the past decade, scientists have developed an increasingly firm understanding of the links between climate change and public health, agriculture, transportation and infrastructure, and extreme weather. 

As one example, exceptionally heavy rains and flash floods in Louisiana last year tragically killed 13 people, displaced thousands from their homes, and cost approximately $10 billion to Louisiana homes and businesses. Scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are now able to estimate that these once in a century storms were made at least 40 percent more likely because of climate change.

But, shockingly, President Trump made his reckless decision to exit the Paris Agreement without sitting for even a single briefing on climate science, and on the economic costs of unleashing the worst impacts of climate change.

Instead of relying on the best available climate science and economics, the Trump Administration and its allies fabricated their own, creating misinformation and falsehoods to support the Paris exit. In his official announcement, President Trump touted a deliberately misleading, industry-funded study in its statements regarding the costs of the Paris Agreement—a study that we had already thoroughly debunked here.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt then claimed credit on three network Sunday news shows for the Trump administration’s creation of 50,000 coal mining jobs. This earned him the dreaded four Pinocchios reserved by Washington Post fact-checkers for political figures’ most egregiously false statements. (The real number of coal jobs added since January is 1,000—just slightly off the mark.) 

The National Review, a conservative publication, also misleadingly cited a nearly decade-old NRDC study to back Trump’s Paris exit. 

In that 2008 study, we found that if we don’t curb the pollution driving climate change, then by 2100 the annual costs to the U.S. economy from just four types of climate change damages—hurricane damage, real estate losses, energy costs, and water costs—would be about $1.9 trillion (in 2008 dollars), or 1.8 percent of GDP. Using economy-wide modeling, the report also found that total costs could be as high as 3.6 percent of GDP.

The National Review cites only our lower number—1.8 percent of GDP—as (somehow) cause for comfort with unabated climate change. 

As a rough frame of reference, most economists cite 2-3 percent growth as a sign of a healthy U.S. economy. Why would the National Review be comfortable with losing even 1.8 percent of GDP per year to climate change impacts, which could completely stifle U.S. economic growth?

Since our 2008 study, the known costs of climate change have only increased over the past decade. Rather than being something for conservatives to ignore, the costs of unabated climate change strike us—and many others—as enormous and unacceptable. That's why after President Trump's decision to abandon climate leadership, more than 1000 U.S. based companies and investors, representing over $1.4 trillion in annual revenues, along with 17 Governors and 211 Mayors, have committed to pick up the slack and continue to aggressively cut their greenhouse gas emissions. 

Scientists have estimated that the extreme rain events in Louisiana last year were made at least 40 percent more likely by human-caused climate change.

NRDC

And we still don’t have a firm understanding of disastrous climate impacts such as the potential collapse of the Antarctic ice sheets.

A recent groundbreaking New York Times profile on climate research in Antarctica warns that the collapse of the Antarctic ice sheets might become unstoppable if warming trends continue unabated. Such a collapse would lead to sea level rise that could put most of the world’s largest coastal cities at risk, a now-plausible scenario that climate researchers once thought was “fit only for Hollywood disaster scripts.” The authors sum up the dire stakes of stopping this collapse—and the associated sea level rise—in chilling terms: “If the rise turns out to be as rapid as the worst-case projections, it could lead to a catastrophe without parallel in the history of civilization.”

These tipping points are increasingly looking way too close for comfort, and only reaffirm the case for aggressive action to avoid these risks.

Fortunately, the costs of achieving carbon reductions have fallen sharply over the past decade. Renewable energy has expanded far more rapidly than even the most optimistic projections a decade ago. The clean energy economy now provides over 3 million jobs across the country, and the role of wind turbine technician is estimated to be the fastest-growing job in the U.S over the next decade. 

The Trump administration’s argument for inaction only looks more irrational when measured against the far more limited costs of taking ambitious action. In contrast to the industry-funded nonsense cited by the White House, study after study after study has shown that the transformation to a low-carbon economy is achievable and that the economic benefits far outweigh the costs. A report from the research group at Citi, the 3rd largest bank in the U.S., concludes:

The incremental costs of following a low carbon path are in context limited and seem affordable, the ‘return’ on that investment is acceptable, and moreover the likely avoided liabilities are enormous…a very strong “Why would you not” argument begins to develop.

The costs of achieving deep emissions reductions are low, rapidly falling, and in no way incompatible with economic growth; in contrast, the costs of inaction are severe, quickly growing, and could imperil our entire economy. There is simply no valid, evidence-based argument for President Trump’s disastrous decision to exit the Paris Agreement. 

About the Authors

Kevin Steinberger

Policy Analyst, Climate & Clean Air program

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