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Can the World Beat Climate Change Without the U.S.?

With Donald Trump creating a leadership void, other countries must build on the momentum of the Paris agreement.

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

For anyone with an interest in ensuring our planet remains livable, the news of late could not be more dire. Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, questions the right of the EPA to regulate greenhouse gas emissions! CPAC conservatives hold a panel on “fake climate news!” President Donald Trump’s proposed budget will axe “tens of billions of dollars” from the EPA’s budget! And in a pending executive order that will nix most Obama-era carbon regulations, the only thing that kept the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement off the list was reportedly the whim of Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump. 

Meanwhile, in the Antarctic, a record-size crack is growing in the continent’s fourth-largest ice sheet. In California, people are enduring record floods, and in New York City, we’re wearing shorts in February. Fresh off of 2016, yet another hottest year on record, Americans are worrying about climate change in record numbers.

To tackle the problem, we need an immediate, massive globalized mobilization on the order of World War II. Instead, we’ve got Trump, who has called climate change a “hoax,” begun dismantling environmental protections against dirty coal, and installed cabinet heads whose “meh” stance on climate science is a new form of denial. The timing of Trump’s election, just days after the Paris Climate Agreement entered into force, is both tragic and absurd. Trump, after all, campaigned on a promise to “cancel” the accord. It has prompted an urgent question: Over the next four to eight years, can the world meet its greenhouse gas–cutting goals without—or despite—the U.S. federal government? 

This is a complex and speculative question. But it is one worth exploring, if only to avert apocalyptic levels of despair. Because even a brief exploration suggests that all is not lost—at least, not yet.

First, the bad news: If all countries walk backwards down the Trumpian path, we’re in for big trouble. Today, atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations are higher than they have been in 800,000 years, and well above what is considered a safe threshold. The resulting global warming will cause more sea level rise, ocean acidification, drought, and mass extinction, and so much armed human conflict that the Pentagon has declared climate change “a significant risk to U.S. national and international security.” 

In 2015, the 196 countries that signed the Paris Climate Agreement promised to work to keep global temperature rise to under 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by century’s end, with a further aim of 1.5 degrees. To do so, each country made its own individual commitment to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Under President Barack Obama, the United States promised to cut its emissions by 26-28 percent by 2025, relative to 2005 levels. Together, these commitments comprise only half of what is needed to meet the 2 degree goal, so countries also agreed to “ratchet up” their commitments over time, with fresh goals to be adopted in 2020. Notably, the Paris Climate Agreement is self-monitoring and non-binding, which is why Trump’s election alarmed many climatologists. 

“A U.S. pullout from Paris could cause a ripple effect that effectively kills the Paris Agreement,” Michael Mann, a leading climatologist and Penn State professor, said in an email. 

Killing Paris would be catastrophic, because if left unchecked, global temperatures could rise by 5 degrees above pre-industrial levels by century’s end or even higher, according to Mann. Mann, like many climate scientists, is worried that if Trump backs out of the agreement or fails to live up to its terms, other countries will follow America’s lead.

Right after the election, climate modelers Ben Sanderson and Reto Knutti decided to look at this scenario, extrapolating what would happen if the rest of the world opted out of their greenhouse gas-cutting commitments over the next eight years. They found that the probability of staying below the 2 degree threshold dropped from about two-thirds to just about ten percent.

“Even if emissions were to decrease again after eight years, it could take an additional 15-25 years for emission to get back on track” with “strong” mitigation efforts, they wrote in Nature Climate Change. An eight-year delay may seem like no big deal in the grand scheme of things, but net carbon dioxide emissions are cumulative, with temperatures rising proportionally with the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Sanderson and Knutti concluded, “Only immediate, global concerted and effective action can achieve the temperature targets discussed in Paris,” a mainstream view among climatologists.

So—time to despair? 

Here is the good news: Other countries, not led by climate deniers, are not poised to abandon their greenhouse gas–cutting commitments. Last November, participants from all signatory nations for Paris gathered in Marrakech, Morocco, to work on next steps. When the results from our 2016 presidential election rolled in, they kept working.

“There were thousands of people trying to solve problems,” said Christoph Gebald, founder of a Swiss carbon-capture start-up, reminding The New Republic that Trump is just one person. “The world keeps on turning.”

In the U.S., states like California, which is now passing bills to lock in Obama-era federal and state environmental regulations, and city mayors from both red and blue states affirmed their commitment to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Business leaders were also on board. During the Marrakech convention, more than 360 companies and investors, including DuPont, eBay, Nike, Unilever, and Starbucks, wrote an open letter calling for the U.S. to remain in Paris (it now has almost 900 signatures). Why? Because investing in renewable energies is good economics, and not merely because rising sea levels are expected to literally swamp Wall Street.

The global economy is “set” toward de-carbonization with or without the Trump administration. That’s what Christiana Figueres, the Costa Rican diplomat who led the Paris Climate Agreement, told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour earlier this month. “It’s not set by ideology. It is set by economics, and it is set by the advance of technology,” Figueres said. She pointed out that, in the U.S., one out of every 50 jobs is in solar energy, and argued that if the United States doesn’t meet demands for cheap renewable energy, China and India will.

The data bears her out. In April, Bloomberg reported that investments in wind and solar were beating fossil fuels two to one and that solar power in December was for the first time the cheapest source of electricity on the market, selling for half the price of coal in energy auctions in India and Chile. Reassuringly, the U.S. Congress recently extended the federal tax credits that incentivize wind and solar to 2019 and 2021, respectively. As these credits are popular in red states in the Great Plains, Congress may be loath to repeal them. 

China will likely take the United States’s place as global climate leader. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in February, Chinese President Xi Jinping stood up for the Paris Climate Agreement, urging all signees to uphold it. Also in January, the Chinese government’s energy industry announced it will devote $361 billion to renewable fuel by 2020, creating 1,000 major solar plants and 13 million jobs in the sector.

China isn’t investing in green energy out of sheer altruism. It is heavily dependent on foreign oil for energy, making it a national security issue. There is also serious money to be made in a low-carbon economy. “Those who fail to get on board now risk losing out on what I believe will be the greatest growth opportunity the world has ever known,” wrote Unilever CEO Paul Polman in response to the Paris agreement. He pointed to estimates that put the low-carbon market at more than $5.5 trillion, with 3 percent annual growth, and investment opportunities in emerging markets at a staggering $23 trillion. For these reasons, many business leaders recently told the Los Angeles Times they were skeptical that the Trump administration will really leave Paris.

Perhaps the more useful question to ask is not whether other countries will cut greenhouse gas emissions without the United States, but how far they will leave us behind when they do so.

Despite free-market rhetoric to the contrary, the Trump administration is propping up a faltering fossil fuels industry—a handful of billionaire-owned oil companies in debt and coal mines sunk by cheap natural gas—at the cost of future American prosperity. It’s as if Teddy Roosevelt had undercut Henry Ford’s automobiles to mollify aggrieved blacksmiths. In economic terms, this behavior is not rational and therefore, one hopes, not long for this world.

Still, market forces cannot solve climate change alone. The global transition to clean energy will not happen fast enough without government regulation, along with research investment and incentives to develop low-carbon and renewable fuels. Even regulations will not be enough curb emissions, evident in the now-shelved U.S. decarbonization strategy, which rested heavily on Obama’s Clean Power Plan. The plan, which required states to limit power plants’ carbon pollution, is stuck in court, and is deeply loathed by Republicans. It will surely be canceled.

And no matter his faults, Trump did not cause climate change. The prospect for staying beneath the 2 degree threshold was always uncertain, and climatologists, for their part, always framed the Paris Climate Agreement as a late start to tackling the problem. Jim Hansen, a leading climatologist who testified about climate change before Congress back in 1988, has called the non-binding agreement “worthless words,” a balm to Obama’s conscience, and a poor substitute for a direct fee on fossil fuels at mine or port of entry—which is, in his view, the only way to wean people from cheap fossil fuels quickly enough.

Both Hansen and Mann argue that we have already warmed the planet by 1.3 degrees Celsius, and so our “carbon budget,” or the amount of carbon we can safely burn, is even more limited than imagined. To even limit temperature rise to 2 degrees, we will need to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere via massive reforesting schemes to serve as carbon sinks, and even that won’t be enough. According to modeling collected by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), we will almost certainly need to start sucking billions of tons of carbon out of the atmosphere by 2050, using “negative carbon emissions” technologies that will cost hundreds of trillions of dollars and, more dauntingly still, do not exist yet.

Currently, just a handful of small start-ups around the world are experimenting with “direct carbon capture,” including Dr. Klaus Lackner, who invented the concept and directs a research program at Arizona State University. Lackner has invented free-standing synthetic “trees” (they look like tiny boxes) that can pull carbon from the air. It’s an exciting premise, but one that Lackner says is not scalable without the government’s help.  

“The problem with private funding is that this is a problem with no immediate solution,” Lackner said. “There is no economic incentive unless there is some regulatory framework.” Namely, a price on carbon, which is what a fee or tax would accomplish.

All hope is not lost, but it does lie in acting swiftly, funding inspired technological leaps, and legislating for a lower carbon lifestyle (Americans are among the highest per capita greenhouse gas-emitters in the world). Of course, we are unlikely to get any of that from Trump and a Republican Congress. So what can we do?

Jennifer Morgan, executive director of Greenpeace, suggests that citizens march to build power, advocate with their public officials, choose clean energy plans, support sustainable companies, and use public transportation. She said, “Individual actions definitely matter.”

But individuals can only do so much on their own. That is why our first, most pressing task in the United States is impeding the Trump administration where we can and preventing four more wasted years—for ourselves, our children, and future generations.