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Saturday, June 3, 2017

The world learned this week that the US is exiting the Paris Climate Accord. With many of his other promises floundering, Obamacare replacement, the Muslim travel ban and the Great Wall of Mexico, this was an easy win for Trump. It’s resonating well among his base, particularly in hard hat USA where thousands of coal mining jobs have been lost.

What isn’t clear is that a repudiation of this “unfair deal,” will allow the struggling coal industry to breathe again. A fair amount of research suggests coal was already under sustained pressure from cheaper natural gas, which in part forced the shuttering of several coal-fired power plants across the US. Additionally, while the world has not seen the last of coal, falling costs of renewables like wind and solar coupled with technological advances means a return to the halcyon, sooty days of anthracite is far less likely. So for the Trump voters with their blackened coveralls on standby, those coal jobs are probably not coming back.

Some Trump supporters interviewed on CNN were happy with this pyrrhic victory, even if they don’t understand what it truly portends. “I am glad he kept his word because we should put America first.” There are a fair number of climate change deniers in the Donald Trump cohort, people who believe it’s an invention of “others” who don’t want to see America great again. Then there’s the appendage of the word “theory” to climate change. This reduces incontrovertible science buttressed by mountains of data to a clash of opinions rather than facts.

In a US television interview, one scientist was pitted against another in a forced debate on the subject. What the journalist missed was the insistence of the skeptic on set that the Paris Climate Accord won’t produce any meaningful reduction of harmful greenhouse gas emissions. Well he was quickly bundled away as a ridiculous climate change denier and that was the end of that. It is a point, though, that demands a closer look.

The Trump White House has been extensively quoting an MIT study titled, How much of a difference will the Paris agreement make. The hard-won Paris accord was designed to restrain global warming to two degrees Celsius or less by the year 2100. This is meant to be achieved through a commitment by signatory countries to reduce destructive emissions from the burning of fossil fuels. What the MIT study suggests is if all countries abide by their pledges, global warming would slow by between 0.6 degrees and 1.1 degrees by 2100, or as Donald Trump eloquently put it, a tiny, tiny amount. What the authors of the MIT study point out as they condemn this US administration’s cherry picking of the report, is that to do nothing would be catastrophic.

Still, the concerns are valid, and should not be interpreted as climate change doubt, but questions on the very tough choices we have to make as a species. A scientist and author whom I’ve quoted before echoes these concerns. Stephen Emmott, in his book, 10 billion, doesn’t believe we can meet the two degree Celsius cap and that a more realistic target is a four degree average temperature rise.

The title of his book gives a clue as to the source of his scepticism. It’s one thing to commit to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but how can this be achieved with an ever-expanding global population and billowing consumption? When it comes to climate change most people think about weather, but climate is actually the atmosphere, our seas, the ice caps and biodiversity.

All these elements are under severe threat from pollution and over exploitation. We focus on the pollution issuing from smoke stacks and ignore the staggering pollution generated by mass cattle rearing and the continued clearing of vast tracts of forests, all to feed a growing number of mouths and appetites.

So we cut down forests, which help absorb some of the greenhouse gases we produce and generate more harmful emissions. Food has become cheaper (for some) so we eat more. Furthermore, as Stephen Emmott suggests in his book, because food became cheaper, we have more money to spend on things like televisions, iPhones, jeans pants and other consumer items, further driving the consumption machine.

As modern economics is predicated on untrammelled growth, expansion into more markets and getting people to spend more on stuff they don’t necessarily need, optimism about the effectiveness of the Paris Climate Accord is a tough sell. The problem isn’t just emissions, it’s us.

So should we throw our hands up and collapse into a drunken orgy of consumption until it all finally ends? Of course not. It is, however, important to understand the severity of our circumstances and the varied and complex ways in which we contribute to the decline of the planet. The US pullout of the Paris Climate Accord doesn’t change the doomsday trajectory of the Earth, nor can the accord do this on its own. This climate pact is however, certainly a step in the right direction, a step that is infinitely better than none at all.


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