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Eleven Questions and Answers About the Paris Accord

Well, now he's gone and done it. Trump has announced the U.S. is withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement, or accord, or treaty (more on that later), and the mass extinctions are coming, the icecaps are going to melt, New York and Washington will be under water, winters in New York will be like summers in Miami, and the Earth will become a parched place of dry cracked mud and dead trees.

Or, at least, that's what the press will have you think.

It's largely bull... nonsense. Here are some useful things to know about the actual Paris whatever-it-is, for use when someone with hair on fire asks why you hate children, and furry animals, and fish, and trees, and flowers and chirping birds.

What is the Paris Whatchumacallem?

Here's what their website says:

The Paris Agreement builds upon the Convention and – for the first time – brings all nations into a common cause to undertake ambitious efforts to combat climate change and adapt to its effects, with enhanced support to assist developing countries to do so. As such, it charts a new course in the global climate effort.

The Paris Agreement’s central aim is to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change by keeping a global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Additionally, the agreement aims to strengthen the ability of countries to deal with the impacts of climate change. To reach these ambitious goals, appropriate financial flows, a new technology framework and an enhanced capacity building framework will be put in place, thus supporting action by developing countries and the most vulnerable countries, in line with their own national objectives. The Agreement also provides for enhanced transparency of action and support through a more robust transparency framework. Further information on key aspects of the Agreement can be found here.

I've taken the liberty of emphasizing some important points.

So here's the deal: it's an agreement -- not a treaty and not international law -- to try really really hard to prevent the global average surface temperature from increasing 2°C above what it was in pre-industrial times, and to try hard and keep it to below 1.5°C increase since pre-industrial times. To do this, they anticipate:

  1. Efforts to reduce CO2 output in developed countries.
  2. Developed countries sending lots of money ("appropriate financial flows") to under-developed countries.

Wait, HOW MUCH Money?

Lots. Hundreds of billions. Trump said "$100 billion," but Politifact's "fact check" delicately makes the point that $100 billion is really just the minimum.

And yes, that's per year. So that's $1 trillion in 10 years, $10 trillion in 100 years.

At least one source claims it could be $4 trillion.  Yes, $4 trillion per year.

But it's not a treaty?

No, just an agreement. If it were a treaty, then it would have to have been ratified by Congress. That wasn't happening (remember that the Kyoto agreement was turned down effectively unanimously), so President Obama whipped out his famous pen and signed the agreement for us.

You may recall Article II Section 2 of the Constitution, which says:

He shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur ....

People seem to be forgetting that part. (I do rather like the notion several people have suggested of submitting it as a treaty and letting it be voted down, though.)

Can we really leave the agreement?

Well, not if you believe Jean-Claude Juncker:

He seems quite put out that Trump didn't understand when they explained it in "clear German sentences" why "the law is the law."

It would appear a few things were unclear to Jean-Claude:

  1. As far as I know, Trump doesn't actually speak German.
  2. Since it wasn't ever agreed to -- or even presented to the Congress, it isn't binding on the U.S.
  3. Since the NATO Treaty was agreed to and ratified by the U.S. and its NATO allies, this might not be a good time to bring up "the law is the law" until the Europeans clean up the defense funding thing.
  4. It might, however, be a good time to re-read the story about the mice who agreed the cat should wear a bell.

But speaking of "not binding" ....

I heard that the Paris agreement isn't binding anyway.

Which, in fact, is correct: it's a voluntary agreement for the U.S. and other developed countries to transfer trillions of dollars to less-developed countries while impeding their own economies. The voluntary agreement allows countries to set their own goals for carbon reduction every five years, but provides for no penalties for failing to achieve those goals.

One of the arguments against the U.S. leaving the Paris accord is that it was unnecessary, since it's not binding anyway.

So, yes, this means that we're being told that the Europeans are not going to let us leave an agreement which the U.S. has never ratified, and which is not binding.

So, seriously, aren't we all going to die since we left the Paris accord?

Well, yes, we are all going to die. Eventually. But there are a number of reasons it isn't going to be the fault of leaving the Paris accord. Here are some of the suggested reasons we're all going to die.

Won't air pollution kill us all?

Air pollution is a real problem in a number of places. Beijing, for example, has a real air pollution problem. Coincidentally, Beijing is also a place where the Paris agreement has relatively little effect until (at least) 2030.

The Paris accord targets exactly one thing: the release of carbon dioxide. The "pre-industrial" level of CO2 in the atmosphere was around 300 parts per million (ppm). Currently, it's around 400 ppm. And yes, that may have been due to humans, and it may have indeed lead to at least some of the warming in the last 100 years (although how much is still more controversial than people would like you to believe). On the other hand, there is something that an additional 100 ppm of CO2 definitely does not do: Cause asthma or other illnesses. Yes, air pollution can exacerbate asthma, but not CO2. When you exhale, your breath has 40,000 ppm of CO2.

Won't all the coastal cities be flooded?

Maybe. Eventually. I've written about this before. NASA sends out these PR tweets about how much the sea level will rise, estimating if the Greenland ice cap melts, sea level will rise around 23 feet.

What they don't mention is how long it will take. In my article, I estimated 6900 years. Let's be liberal and say "between 5000 and 10,000" years. And then remember:

This tweet is, more than anything else, a tribute to the art of public relations. It's not exactly false -- but by taking about the cities to be drowned, it sure gives the average reader the impression that this drowning is imminent. Instead, well -- 6900 years ago would be roughly 5000 BC. That's before Rome; before ancient Greece; before Minos; before Egypt, before Ur, before Mohenjo-Daro; before domesticated chickens. Before every recorded human civilization. Maybe, in 7000 years, New York will be under water; and maybe, in 7000 years, New York will still be remembered as a place more real than Atlantis. Maybe.

Won't we all be killed by hurricanes and tornados and stuff?

This one is a favorite: we regularly hear in the press that global warming will cause there to be more drastic weather, more hurricanes, and more tornadoes.

That's certainly what some models predict. The data are somewhat different. Roger Pielke, Jr, a professor here at the University of Colorado at Boulder, worked with others to investigate how global warming was affecting damages from severe weather. After normalizing for inflation and the larger proportion of population near the coats, that answer was:

  • hurricane frequency hasn't changed
  • hurricane intensity hasn't changed
  • flooding hasn't changed
  • heat-related deaths haven't changed
  • and in fact, losses from severe weather are actually decreasing.

For this, Pielke was the subject of a Congressional investigation, as he discussed in "My unhappy life as a climate heretic." (The original article was in the Way Street Journal; that link is to Watts Up With That? because it's not behind the paywall.)

So what is the Paris accord supposed to do for us, anyway?

The idea of the Paris accord is to set a goal to limit the increase in the global average surface temperature. That limit is less than a 2°C (3.6°F) increase, and hopefully less that a 1.5°C increase. Reducing the amount of carbon dioxide released is supposed to help achieve this.

The thing being that for all the Sturm und Drang, the actual effect of the Paris accord is tiny -- something like 0.15° to 0.2° by 2100.

This chart (from Bjørn Lomborg's paper) illustrates the effect.


So, what the Paris accord promised was "saving the Earth." The actual effect is to transfer hundreds of billions of dollars from the developed countries to less-developed countries while actually having almost no effect on actual global warming.

Where is the money supposed to come from?

Well you might ask. Here's the current score, as reported by David Asman (via Watts Up again):

So, right now at least, the money comes from the U.S. and goes to various underdeveloped countries. Call me cynical, but I have to wonder if that isn't why so many of those other countries are upset.