U.S. President Donald Trump’s Rose Garden declaration yesterday that he will pull the country out of the Paris Agreement on climate change painted the United States as an economic victim, swindled into an “unfair” deal by the global community. He is right that the world is united: Nearly 200 countries back the 2015 Paris deal, with only Syria, Nicaragua and now the U.S. opting out. But fact checkers had a field day with Trump's justification: his claim (against all evidence to the contrary) that the treaty imposes “onerous energy restrictions” on the U.S. that would beget “lost jobs, lowered wages, shuttered factories, and vastly diminished economic production.”
Nicaragua opted to stay out because it viewed the treaty's reliance on voluntary national pledges rather than binding greenhouse gas reduction targets as “a path to failure” that would allow human-caused global warming in this century to surpass the agreed limit of 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius. Trump said yesterday he would keep the U.S. in the Paris deal only if he can renegotiate it to be weaker still, though his language belied a lack of conviction. “If we can, that’s great. If we can’t, that's fine,” equivocated Trump.
The President's retreat from one the great technological challenges of the 21st Century marked a sad day for America’s innovation leaders, and a breaking point for Elon Musk. The tech titan behind such fast-growing engineering powerhouses as Tesla Motors and SpaceX insisted on Tuesday that he had worked mightily, both directly with the President and through his membership on three Presidential economic councils, to convince Trump to stick with Paris. Within minutes of Trump’s speech yesterday, Musk tweeted that he was pulling himself from Team Trump:
Here are three reasons why such resistance to the U.S. retreat from climate action makes sense: (1) Climate change science is solid and scary, (2) U.S. emissions are huge, and (3) ducking a global technological challenge is not in the interest of a technological powerhouse. Reasons (1) and (2) were left unacknowledged yesterday by both Trump and his EPA Administrator, Scott Pruitt, who spoke briefly after the President.
Scientists continue to struggle to specify precisely how much warming and disruption will result from a given atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane. However, there is a very strong consensus that human activity is the primary force shifting Earth's climate. And those shifts come with myriad risks, including coastal flooding, aggravated international disputes, and acidified oceans.
There is similarly little debate left about America’s responsibility for the climate change threat facing the world community. The U.S. pumps out greenhouse gases at a rate second only to China, and remains the world’s biggest climate polluter historically thanks to CO2’s roughly 100-year atmospheric lifespan. U.S.-generated greenhouse gases caused one-fifth of the 1.1 degree C rise in global temperature since the Industrial Revolution, and the U.S. alone will likely warm the entire planet by an extra 0.5 C by 2100 if its emissions do not drop as pledged at Paris, according to modeling commissioned by the Associated Press.
The third reason for forging on with Paris-level climate action, despite Trump's treaty rejection, centers around U.S. industries, which Donald Trump is counting on to create jobs. Globally-successful U.S.-based businesses—be they Silicon Valley startups or mainstays such as General Electric and Westinghouse — have science and engineering in their corporate DNA. Their leaders recoil at the notion that U.S. business can not compete in a global technology challenge such as the move towards low-carbon energy systems.
Hundreds of major corporations spoke out in recent months urging Trump to stay in Paris. ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods made a last ditch effort this week at the firm’s annual meeting, saying an orderly process for addressing climate change is in Exxon's best interest. Woods is facing pressure from global investors, who passed a resolution (over the board's objection) calling on Exxon to provide more disclosure on climate-related economic risks.
Many CEOs spoke up again yesterday in addition to Musk, including Apple's Tim Cook, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Sundar Pichai as well as Jeff Immelt, GE's chairman. Immelt tweeted: “Disappointed with today’s decision on the Paris Agreement. Climate change is real. Industry must now lead and not depend on government.”
Intel issued a statement saying, “Climate change is a real issue, and we firmly believe that the US should continue to participate in the Paris Climate Accord.” The statement said Trump's withdrawal would not change their investments in renewable energy, which are ramping up across corporate America.
Intel is the top consumer of renewable energy in the U.S., securing 3.4 million megawatt-hours during a recent 12 month period—enough to meet 100 percent of its power needs according to EPA. Microsoft secured 3.3 million MWh, also meeting 100 percent of its power demand. Other companies including Apple, General Motors, and Wal-Mart are committed to reaching 100 percent renewable power through an alliance called the RE100. The median target date to hit 100 percent is 2024.
Outspoken attitudes and carbon-cutting action from companies such as GM and Wal-Mart show climate consciousness to be well ahead of what President Trump assumed in his discourse yesterday. Take Pittsburgh, which the President called out, declaring: “I was elected to serve the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.” But today's Pittsburgh is not the dirty-energy poster child in need of protection from global greenies that Trump evoked.
Pittsburgh's age of coal mines and spurting oilfields has given way to a hub of energy innovation (thanks to Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh). It is also a hotbed for natural gas production via the hydraulic fracturing technology, helping to supply the cheap and comparatively clean-burning fuel that is shuttering U.S. coal-fired power plants and trimming U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
The city is working towards a 20 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2023 (compared with 2003 levels). Mayor Bill Peduto made it clear yesterday that he did not welcome Trump’s shout out to his city, tweeting: “As the Mayor of Pittsburgh, I can assure you that we will follow the guidelines of the Paris Agreement for our people, our economy & future.”
Peter Fairley has been tracking energy technologies and their environmental implications globally for over two decades, charting engineering and policy innovations that could slash dependence on fossil fuels and the political forces fighting them. He has been a Contributing Editor with IEEE Spectrum since 2003.