President Trump on Thursday pulled the United States out of the Paris Climate Accord, an international climate change agreement signed by 196 countries in 2015 with the goal of “limit[ing] average global warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial temperatures,” according to a contemporaneous CNN article.
The outrage from the national press and the striking disconnect between the rhetoric arising from that outrage and objective reality provided another startling example of why the American people have lost faith in the national press’s ability to tell the unadulterated truth.
The first sign that facts do not matter in a particular policy discussion is when the name-calling starts. MSNBC’s Donny Deutsch proclaimed, “I have such rage and sadness. We just watched a dangerous little man give a very, very scary speech. . . . He is such a backward man. He’s such an uneducated man.” CNN’s Fareed Zakaria asserted that the decision to withdraw from the Paris Accord meant the United States “resigned as the leader of the free world.” The New York Times editorial board proclaimed, “In huge neon letters, [withdrawing from the Paris Accord] sends a clear message that this president knows nothing or cares little about the science underlying the stark warnings of environmental disruption.”
The second sign that facts do not matter is apocalyptic rhetoric. An editorial in The Wall Street Journal accurately predicted that “the fury will be apocalyptic—start building arks for the catastrophic flood.” Multiple domestic press outlets portrayed that President Trump’s decision was the equivalent of the United States telling the rest of the world to “drop dead.” The world was over and it was all President Trump’s fault, as far as these individuals were concerned.
Rhetorically, those predicting doomsday were, likely unbeknownst to them, making use of the “enthymeme,” a rhetorical device in which one or more premises in a logical argument is left unstated. So, for example, the unstated premises in the claim that “the United States pulling out of the Paris Accord will lead to runaway warming and risk extinction” are three-fold: (1) the Paris Accord solves climate change; (2) that the Paris Accord is uniquely key to the United States reducing its own carbon emissions; and (3) the United States and the two other non-signatory nations (Nicaragua and Syria) can totally derail any progress made by the 195 other nations.
It makes sense why proponents of the Paris Accord operate upon these premises, because doing so allows them to ignore policy specifics and make the discussion about whether climate change is real or not.
Broken down this way, the reactions to pulling out of the Paris Accord become easier to understand. Because the factual validity of the three above-mentioned premises were assumed, proponents likely actually believed the Paris Accord stood between them and the apocalypse. But as will be demonstrated, that notion is incorrect.
Both opponents and proponents stipulate that the Paris Accord is non-binding. The disagreement between these two groups, however, arises from what each side perceives as the implications of the agreement’s non-binding framework.
An editorial from The New York Times published after President Trump exited the Paris Accord provides an excellent case study of the awkward conundrum in which those expressing outrage find themselves.
The opening paragraph of the editorial begins with the predictable doomsday prediction:
Only future generations will be able to calculate the full consequences of President Trump’s incredibly shortsighted approach to climate change, since it is they who will suffer the rising seas and crippling droughts that scientists say are inevitable unless the world brings fossil fuel emissions to heel.
But four paragraphs later, The Times editorial board contradicts itself, and suggests, contrary to the implication of the opening paragraph, that the Paris Accord required nothing of the United States or any other country:
In truth, the agreement does not require any country to do anything; after the failure of the 1997 Kyoto Accord, the United Nations, which oversees climate change negotiations, decided that it simply did not have the authority to force a legally binding agreement. Instead, negotiators in Paris aimed for, and miraculously achieved, a voluntary agreement, under which more than 190 countries offered aspirational emissions targets, pledged their best efforts to meet them and agreed to give periodic updates on how they were doing.
The natural question that arises from these two excerpts is, if it is true that “rising seas and crippling droughts . . . are inevitable unless the world brings fossil fuel emissions to heel,” then what good is an agreement that, “[i]n truth, . . . does not require any country to do anything” about climate change? Indeed, the way The Times describes it, the only thing President Trump avoided by pulling out of the Paris Accord was filing periodic paperwork with the United Nations.
At the time (i.e., pre-Trump), The Times reported as much. “[W]hile every country is required to put forward a plan, there is no legal requirement dictating how, or how much, countries should cut emissions,” The Times contemporaneously reported. The deal did, according to The Times, legally require signatories to meet every half-decade and submit updated emissions reduction plans, give progress reports on compliance with submitted plans, and provide information regarding emissions levels and reductions. So rather than creating a legal framework with an enforcement mechanism, the Paris Accord “create[s] a ‘name-and-shame’ system of global peer pressure, in hopes that countries will not want to be seen as international laggards.”
Clearly, The Times did not foresee a President seemingly unaffected by peer pressure and unwilling to conform to political norms. Most likely also did not predict a future President that, by the time of his inauguration, had already been called every name in the book and shamed for every sin under the sun.
Moreover, The Times editorial board seems to argue that withdrawing from this concededly non-binding, legally unenforceable agreement will immediately grind renewable energy production to a halt. “[A] chief executive who touts himself as a shrewd businessman, and who ran on a promise of jobs for the middle class and making America great again, seems blind to the damage this will do to America’s own economic interests. The world’s gradual transition from fossil fuels has opened up a huge global market, . . . for renewable fuels like wind and solar, for electric cars, for advanced batteries and other technologies,” the editorial board said.
But a few paragraphs later, The Times touts “[m]arket forces” that “all seem to be headed in the right direction.” It is probably necessary to point out here that the Paris Accord itself provided no incentives to the United States, financial or otherwise, for developing renewable energy. So the idea that the Paris Accord, in and of itself, is uniquely key to the development of alternative energy sources is factually incorrect.
As President Trump said in the Rose Garden, “we need all forms of available American energy, or our country will be at grave risk of brownouts and blackouts, our businesses will come to a halt in many cases, and the American family will suffer the consequences in the form of lost jobs and a very diminished quality of life.” Indeed, the President’s argument was not, and has never been, that renewable energy should not be pursued. Instead the President supports any and all economically and environmentally viable forms of energy.
Contextually, President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Accord should be read in tandem with his simultaneous pledge to “work to ensure that America remains the world’s leader on environmental issues, but under a framework that is fair and where the burdens and responsibilities are equally shared among the many nations all around the world.”
In the end, then, there is no disagreement regarding the importance of protecting the environment. The only point of tension is one of degree—i.e., the extent to which regulations should guide the free market.
President Trump is of the belief that fossil fuels need a longer phase-out period, and therefore should not be regulated to ensure their premature demise. At the same time, though, he remains unopposed to the development of other forms of energy, renewable or otherwise (e.g., nuclear).
Contrary to the commentariat’s assertions, pulling out of the Paris Accord changes practically nothing, and functionally maintains the status quo. Pretending the world is over is easy. Deciphering the nuance of the world around us takes a little more effort, which is probably why it is all but lacking in our current national press corps.