How to Talk to a Paris Accord Skeptic

We know that you know that Trump’s assessment of the Paris Agreement is way off base. Here’s how to convince those who don’t.

Credit: Richard Mia

Fact: Not all information is created equal. On June 1, 2017, President Trump stood in the White House Rose Garden and gave a speech rife with dubious claims, faulty statistics, and flat-out lies to announce his withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. Instead of seizing the opportunity to reaffirm the United States’ role as a global climate leader boldly facing down one of the earth’s greatest threats, Trump chose to deceptively portray the country as a victim of the agreement, forced to bear its “draconian financial and economic burdens” in the form of “lost jobs, lower wages, shuttered factories, and vastly diminished economic production.” It was “American carnage” all over again.

Of course you know that Trump’s assessment of the Paris Agreement is “a bunch of bunk.” But you also may know someone who shares the president’s perspective that climate change isn’t America’s problem to fix or who argues that it isn’t even a problem at all. Before you write them off as a lost cause, take note: Research shows that despite ideological barriers, people can be “inoculated” against misinformation and learn to accept the facts. So the next time you discuss climate with a Paris skeptic, you might introduce some seeds of doubt—of the data-driven, science-based kind. Here are your talking points, in brief and at length, depending on how much time (or patience) you have.

MYTH 1: The Paris Agreement hamstrings the U.S. economy and job growth.

In his Rose Garden address, Trump declared that the agreement could cost the United States $3 trillion in lost gross domestic product (GDP) by 2040 and 2.7 million jobs by 2025. The source of those figures? A discredited March 2017 study that relied on cherry-picked data, commissioned by two lobbying groups against climate regulation. Not only do the stats exaggerate the future costs of emissions reductions and underestimate advances in energy efficiency and clean energy technologies, but they also ignore the health and economic costs of climate change and climate disasters themselves.

Your Short Retort

Withdrawing our investment in renewables is bad for business. Note these stats: The clean energy industry is worth twice as much as the global airline industry and matches the value of the worldwide apparel business. Overall, for every person employed in the building construction industry, there are two people employed in the clean energy sector. And solar alone employs twice as many people as does coal.

The Long Story

There’s a good reason why anyone with a pro-polluter agenda would fudge the numbers: Clean energy—a global market worth $1.4 trillion in 2016 alone—is a threat to oil and gas. “It’s one of the biggest economic opportunities the world has ever seen,” says Brendan Guy, NRDC’s manager of international policy. So giving up on the U.S. commitment to further develop our share of the clean energy market—a share that currently totals about $200 billion—is the opposite of an economically savvy decision. “Withdrawing from our seat at the Paris Agreement table only cedes market share to countries like China and Germany that are doubling down on clean energy research and investment,” says Guy.

Indeed, looking forward, studies show that delivering on the promise of the Paris accord could pay bigly, unlocking at least $19 trillion in global economic activity between now and 2050. (That’s almost the total value of all the companies traded on the New York Stock Exchange.) By 2020 alone, given the right incentives, U.S. leadership on climate change could fuel an additional $26.3 billion in GDP growth.

As for job growth, a commitment to the Paris Agreement would light a fire under the clean energy sector, which already employs more than three million Americans and has a much brighter outlook than, for example, coal. “These are high-paying jobs that can’t be easily outsourced to other countries,” says Guy. And we could easily create more if the Trump administration made good on its push for infrastructure development. “If Trump is serious about creating jobs in the construction and manufacturing sectors, he could help boost America’s employment base by nearly 300,000 workers by 2020 with a shift to a clean energy economy spurred by the Paris climate agreement.”

MYTH 2: The agreement forces the United States to reduce emissions while China and India continue to pollute.

On that fateful day at the Rose Garden, Trump claimed the Paris pact imposed “no meaningful obligations on the world’s largest polluters.” He went on to say that China “can do whatever it wants for 13 years” and that India “makes its participation contingent on receiving billions and billions and billions of dollars in foreign aid.”

Your Short Retort

There wasn’t anyone at the Paris conference back in December 2015 forcing 195 countries to sign on to the agreement. Each country—including China, India, and the United States—set its own “nationally determined contribution” for emissions reductions, choosing to do what was in its best interest, nudged along by peer pressure. Meanwhile, China and India are poised to lead the world in renewable energy—and leave us in their dust.

The Long Story

One way the Paris Agreement was historic? It was the first time China and India put concrete and ambitious climate commitments on the table. Even more impressive? Both are on track to surpass their climate pledges. “[India and China] are already doing more than their fair share to reduce emissions and emerge as global leaders,” says Guy. “And they will only continue to be more assertive leaders over time.”

China is the world’s largest producer of solar and wind energy. In 2016, the nation installed twice as many solar panels and nearly three times as much wind power as the United States did. It recently nixed plans for more than 100 coal-fired power plants and is now starting to decrease its national coal consumption. The country’s overall greenhouse gas emissions may have already topped out as well. Meanwhile, India is working at breakneck speed to generate at least 40 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2030. This includes the deployment of 175 gigawatts of renewable energy by 2022, of which 100 gigawatts will be solar.

MYTH 3: The Paris Agreement will have a negligible impact on the environment.

Trump’s assertion that the Paris accord would mitigate global warming by only two-tenths of a degree Celsius—a “tiny, tiny amount”—was based on a study whose authors say the Trump administration “got it wrong” by taking the study’s findings out of context.

Your Short Retort

Nobody expects the Paris Agreement to solve climate change in one fell swoop. But following rigorous analysis, experts have estimated that the effects of the agreement would cut global warming by nearly 2 degrees Celsius compared with business as usual.

The Long Story

That reduction is nothing to sneeze at—it lowers the predicted global temperature rise, relative to business as usual, by about 40 percent. In other words, if countries deliver on their commitments to the Paris Agreement, we’d see an upper range of temperature rise of about 2.8 degrees Celsius, instead of an upper range of 4.8 degrees, by the end of the century. (Ultimately, the backbone of Paris was to keep the global temperature rise under 2 degrees Celsius.)

“The Paris Agreement set the stage for more ambitious action over time,” says Guy. Built into the agreement is an ongoing process for revising and strengthening national climate commitments. Each country that signed on will need to track its progress, revisit its carbon reduction commitment every five years, and issue strengthened targets.

MYTH 4: We face more pressing issues than the earth’s warming by a few degrees.

Although global warming is a worry for most Americans, it seems of little concern to the Trump administration. Indeed, Trump has claimed it’s “madness” to call climate change the planet’s “number one problem.” For his part, Vice President Pence seems baffled by the public’s concerns about climate change, which he has reduced to an “issue for the left.”

Your Short Retort

The hottest decade in at least the last 1,300 years was 2000–2009, and 2016 was the earth’s warmest year on record. We’ve all witnessed the real and consequential effects, including Hurricanes Katrina in 2005 and Sandy in 2012, the long drought in California from 2011 to 2017, and the heat wave broiling the Southwest this summer.

The Long Story

In the coming decade, the failure to mitigate and adapt to climate change will be “the most impactful risk” communities face, according to the World Economic Forum’s 2016 Global Risks Report. Specifically, that risk includes rising seas, more severe weather, dirtier air, and food and water crises. Our military and national security agencies have long recognized climate change as a threat to the stability of countries. And “instability breeds conflict,” notes retired Army brigadier general Gerald Galloway, as when terrorists in Somalia exploit crop failure and famine, preventing food aid from reaching communities, or when melting Arctic sea ice opens up new shipping lanes and, with that, new opportunities for nations to compete for natural resources.

“Climate change may seem like a distant, far-off issue, but it is truly a challenge for the present day,” says Guy. “If we don’t act swiftly to peak global emissions in the next five years, the world will be on a path to runaway climate change that will undermine the future for our children.”

MYTH 5: America isn’t the main driver of climate change.

According to Trump, the United States “will continue to be the cleanest and most environmentally friendly country on earth”― even as it withdraws from the Paris accord and rolls back clean air and water, clean energy, and climate safeguards.

Your Short Retort

The United States is the biggest historical contributor to the greenhouse gas emissions driving climate change and the second-largest annual emitter today, after China. We’ve spewed out more than one-quarter of global carbon emissions and have one of the world’s highest per person emissions rates (not to mention its largest economy). It is only fair that we help clean up our mess.

The Long Story

Remember that you’re sharing the consensus of NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (which includes about 2,000 scientists from around the globe), and—until recently—the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Indeed, according to the EPA’s own website—before the Trump administration purged much of its climate content—human-generated “carbon dioxide is the primary greenhouse gas that is contributing to recent climate change.” Given the proportion of those emissions that has come directly from this part of the globe, it’s hard to deny the United States holds the largest share of responsibility for today’s warming world.

And much as our country’s state and local governments and businesses are rising to meet the nation’s commitment to the Paris Agreement, there’s no doubt that our withdrawal will have an impact on other national leaders. “The U.S. has a special responsibility to lead and act on climate change,” says Guy. “Without strong American leadership, other countries will be less likely to actually meet their commitments, threatening global efforts to address climate change and thus our collective security and well-being.”

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