The Paris Climate Con

After last month’s massive terrorist attack brought the disastrous civil war in Syria and the renewed threat of radical Islam back to the forefront of everyone’s minds, world leaders met in Paris to forge an ambitious agreement—about global warming.

You didn’t think they were going to do something big and important about terrorism, did you?

No, they’re much more interested in what our own president clearly regards as the real issue of the day, “climate change.” And so the global warming conference ended with the Paris Agreement, which was hailed by both The Guardian and Slate as the “end of the fossil fuel era.” The formulation was used repeatedly elsewhere. It’s almost as if they got the same PR memo or something. Oh, silly me. They got it from Al Gore.

So clearly this deal imposes some kind of harsh new restrictions on all the nations of the world that will cause a “transformation of our global economy”—also Al Gore’s words.

Except that it won’t. The deal does say that the 195 nations which support it promise to dramatically reduce their carbon dioxide emissions. But the operative word here is “promise,” which in the world of politics—especially international politics—is worth considerably less than the paper it is written on. Let’s put it this way. If you believe this agreement really commits the world to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions to “net zero” by the second half of this century, then you probably also believe that the latest budget deal with Congress will actually impose big spending cuts and balance the federal budget sometime after 2020.

The same Guardian report that proclaims the end of the fossil fuel era also admits that “The overall agreement is legally binding, but some elements—including the pledges to curb emissions by individual countries and the climate finance elements [a multi-billion-dollar giveaway to poor countries]—are not.” So everything is legally binding, except the actual heart of the agreement. Moreover, several big industries are exempted, including air travel, shipping, and the biggest one, agriculture. Together these industries account for somewhere around a quarter of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions.

As with most big international confabs, this is more like an agreement to have an agreement. “[T]he agreement reached on Saturday depends on political will, with countries setting their own climate action plans.” In other words, it’s a legally binding commitment by individual countries to go back and think about doing something that might actually be legally binding.

In the case of the United States, the evasiveness on this issue is almost comical: “The deal was carefully constructed to carry legal force but without requiring approval by the US Congress—which would have almost certainly rejected it.” You can tell this is a report in a British newspaper, because they seem to have no idea that it is impossible for an international agreement to “carry legal force” in America without being ratified by the Senate. The Paris Agreement, in short, is just Barack Obama’s fantasy. It is not the law of the land.

Ah, but the agreement “set a high aspirational goal.” The key word is “aspirational,” which Slate’s Eric Holthaus, one of the boosters of the deal, takes up with gusto.

The negotiations seem to be taking a “build it and they will come” approach, hoping to signal urgency to the global private sector that the era of fossil fuels must end very soon, rather than command national-level emission reductions via international law, as previous climate talks have tried, and failed, to accomplish.

Get that? In place of actually commanding reductions by law, they are going to “signal urgency to the global private sector,” which will somehow solve the problem for them. This is what the article reporting Gore’s comment about the “end of the fossil fuel era” is all about: the expectation that the Paris Agreement will somehow pressure big corporations into “divesting” from fossil fuel assets and pouring huge amounts of money into wind and solar energy, which will then suddenly become practical.

Meanwhile, Russia is planning on oil at $40 a barrel, cheap and plentiful, for the foreseeable future.

Even Holthaus’s chirpy boosterism gives way to a note of realism at the end.

In order to achieve the newly bold temperature target that the Paris talks have rallied around, global carbon emissions must peak within the next five years—before the draft Paris agreement would even enter into force–and then rapidly decline thereafter. Wealthier countries with greater historical emissions—like the United States—would need to decline to near-zero emissions over the next 15 years, with the rest of the world following by midcentury.

Good luck with that.

As a global warming skeptic who thinks it is absurd that the entire world is supposed to get together to prevent relentlessly rising temperatures that aren’t happening and who considers the idea of an international political target for global temperatures at the end of the century to be a monument to the hubris of central planning, I’m not bothered that the Paris Agreement is empty symbolism.

But it makes me wonder: if all of these facts are acknowledged right there in their own articles, why are the agreement’s supporters just bursting with triumphalism?

To begin with, it serves an immediate practical purpose. Consider President Obama’s pronouncement that the agreement is “a testament to American leadership.” “We came together around a strong agreement the world needed. We met the moment.” For a president whose administration is known for the absence of American leadership and who is palpably not “meeting the moment,” you can see the incentive to pretend that he is by signing some phony-baloney agreement to solve a phony-baloney problem.

After all, the politicians have got to protect their phony-baloney jobs, which leads us to the other notable thing about the Paris Agreement. It contains an awful lot of provisions about further meetings and ceremonies and reports and the creation of a new Ad Hoc Working Group that will require a lot of staff. All of which will, under this agreement, meet to do this all over again every five years through the end of the century. So the really binding and effectual part of the agreement is the solidification of a vast permanent global warming bureaucracy that will still be eating expensive dinners in desirable foreign locales long after you and I are all dead.

But there’s more to it than that, because the feverish excitement, the boosterism, the triumphalism is real and extends beyond those with an immediate financial incentive to jump on the bandwagon. They actually seem to feel they are doing something big, historic, important, and transformative. Yes, to some extent it’s all a con, but they’re also conning themselves.

I suspect the reason for the excitement is that these people really take their favorite idea of “consensus” seriously. It’s not just a talking point, it’s something with personal psychological meaning to them. So it matters less to them whether they actually got a practical result in the latest talks. What matters, and what has them so giddy, is that they got a lot of people to sit down and agree with one another—including, most notably, that they got big developing nations like China and India to get on board this agreement, even if they committed to nothing specific.

They have forged a consensus, and they just spent a week among a whole bunch of fellow bureaucrats and activists who all think the same thing. They are high on the intoxicating sense of validation they get from immersion in total unanimity. Which seem to be at least as much the point of the exercise as any actual result.

I suppose we should be grateful that they are all so busy validating one another that they were too busy to actually do anything. Except that the people who are more concerned with reinforcing each other’s sense of righteousness than with getting results are the same people who are more concerned with their consensus than with facts and evidence and the actual well-being of humanity.

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