Within days President Donald Trump is expected to announce once and for all whether he will be drawing the US from the Paris Climate Agreement, an international treaty in which 195 countries pledged to reduce their carbon emissions. If he does, it would align with his campaign promise, fighting against environmental regulations, and America-first ideology.
We've talked to several experts over the last few months about how withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement could impact the US role in international diplomacy and climate change progress, and most of them (not all) have told us it's a dangerous move from the US and the climate. But to further understand why Trump would withdraw, I spoke to Oren Cass, the domestic policy director for Mitt Romney's past presidential campaign and a conservative climate change policy fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a US think tank.
Motherboard: I'll start with a basic question: should we withdraw from the climate agreement?
Oren Cass: I think the commitment Obama made should be withdrawn. But whether that means the US should do as little as every other country committed to do, or withdraw completely, is a question of politics and diplomacy. The Paris Agreement as a structure doesn't impose any substantive legal obligations on anybody. What most countries did was submit a worthless commitment, or a commitment to proceed with business as usual. The major developing countries—China, India, Indonesia, Brazil—you'll find their commitments don't commit them to anything.
What makes the Paris Agreement useless is it doesn't require countries to change their behavior—it's just another UN-sponsored debating society. The idea that it's somehow solving climate change is ridiculous. Whether the US is better off showing up at the meetings or not is a less important question. The US is reducing its emissions already, by more than any other country, thanks to natural gas in particular.
"What most countries did was submit a worthless commitment."
The other interesting angle to this is the legal question—how the US should go about making international commitments. We have the treaty power in the Senate, in part because you want the US to speak with a consistent voice. Obama made this commitment [to join the Paris Agreement]. He didn't submit it to the Senate because he knew it would fail. Now people are upset that the US is reversing course, but that's President Obama's fault, not President Trump's fault.
Will withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement have an impact on our international diplomacy?
I think it will have an effect on how we deal with climate change. But I think the idea that it will abdicate US power going forward is a little silly. All these leaders know what Paris does or does not accomplish. There's no rational connection from it to the other issues where US. leadership remains critical. Unfortunately, a lot of other things the Trump administration is doing are calling that leadership into question.
What do you think is the most prudent way for the Trump administration to proceed here?
The Trump administration should submit the treaty [on the Paris Agreement] to the Senate. If they vote it down, frankly that's fine too because that will reflect the policy of the country: The US will leave because it wanted to leave. It would also establish an important legal principle that the Senate must approve such commitments; it's a two for one.
What do you think the US should be focusing on when it comes to climate change?
From a mitigation perspective, our only plausible path forward is less carbon intensive energy sources, and the only sustained success we've seen with that to date is fracking, because natural gas is now cheaper and and it emits lower amounts of carbon. Wind and solar or nuclear can all play a role, too, but the key is they must be economically competitive—if other technologies are attractive people will adopt them.
We should also recognize [that] some climate change is going to happen, and prepare for it. It's more cost effective to anticipate and cope with the effects of climate change than to transform our energy systems in hopes of avoiding it altogether.
We've talked about how the Paris agreement is toothless, but do you think an international agreement like this should exist?
If you want to significantly reduce emissions, yes—you would need a global agreement with teeth. But you won't get one because rational countries have no interest in doing that . The difference in Paris is not that we suddenly got the world together, it's that we threw up our hands and gave up on any real commitment to action. It's important to keep in mind that other countries are not complying with their commitments anyway. Other European countries are not adhering to their commitments. India is not adhering to its commitment. China went the other way, showing that their commitment is a joke because they will easily meet it no matter what they do.
Do you want an agreement that forces developing countries to sacrifice the growth that's in their best interest? The question is whether they should make decisions about their energy systems based on economics or based on the threat of climate change? The developing world has quite sensibly said it will not increase its costs or slow its growth for the sake of climate policy.
Even if it's unsustainable?
Unsustainable is an interesting word. The best we can do is to cope with those costs. The best estimate for from the Obama administration's social cost of carbon analysis is that global GDP will be 1 to 4 percent lower in 2100 if we do not curb emissions. At the high end, we'll be reduced from 6.7 times wealthier than today to 6.5 times wealthier. Unfortunately, embedded in that difference is a wide range of tragedies and disappointments. But if you look at it through that lens you say, actually letting these desperately poor countries develop and realizing that that's going to create some costs is sensible.
The rhetoric on climate change suggests that somehow if we don't come together with this global commitment that life on Earth will be threatened. But that's not what the consensus says.
You don't think the scientific community thinks climate change will impact life on Earth? We've talked to a lot of experts who say it will threaten health, communities, neighborhoods…
There's no question that climate change has an impact on all of those things. But when Bernie Sanders says there's a question of whether our Earth will be habitable…that's not the question.
You could look at any prior century, there's no question that we here in the year 2017 are not as well off as if we had gotten all the policies right and our development had no downsides. But we're not suffering from catastrophe right now. And in 2100, you will be able to point to things that would be better without climate change, but we will also make progress.
Is there any credible evidence we will be worse off than than we are now? Certainly there's no support from the mainstream science or economics. Whether it's temperatures, sea level rise, disease—climate change may affect all of those thing, but progress and growth will make things better much faster than climate change can make them worse.
Maybe in 2100 we'll be worse off that than if we had no climate change, but that's different than a threat to civilization or life or progress. Is someone saying it's going to be worse than today? I haven't heard that case made.
Editor's Note: In past Motherboard reporting we've spoken to experts and scientists who believe climate change is an imminent threat. We've also found that fracking, and its impacts, can be highly dangerous to communities and the environment. Furthermore, developing countries can benefit from renewable and clean energy, and avoid some fossil fuel frameworks due to technological progress and government priorities. In addition, the private sector is split on the the economic case for the Paris Climate Agreement, with some business owners and innovators like Elon Musk calling for the US to remain.