2 June 2017

The experts on Trump's climate decision

John Mecklin

John Mecklin

John Mecklin is the editor-in-chief of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Previously, Mecklin was editor-in-chief of Miller-McCune (since renamed Pacific Standard),...


Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement on climate change has no basis in fact. The science is clear: Climate change is happening because human activity—mainly the burning of fossil fuels—puts carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas; it inhibits the radiation of heat received by Earth through the atmosphere and into space. There is now a decades-long history of interlocking, peer-reviewed scientific studies that document this reality, its human genesis, and the global threat it would pose, were it to go unaddressed.

All the same, the president’s decision—premised on economic assertions that major media outlets debunked almost immediately after they were spoken—is a reality. The United States will begin the years-long process of withdrawing from a global climate agreement, even though compliance with the pact is voluntary, and nothing in it would have compelled the Trump administration to take any environmental action it did not wish to take.

So how should people who (and organizations that) believe in facts and science respond? We asked science and policy experts for their thoughts on protecting the country and the planet's future, when a US president is not. There are ways forward—if enough people act.

Invited Expert Commentary

Richard C.J. Somerville
distinguished professor emeritus and research professor, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California San Diego
member, Bulletin Science and Security Board
6 June 2017

President Trump's announcement in the Rose Garden that the United States would leave the Paris Agreement was shocking, but on another level unsurprising. The decision had long been foreshadowed by many advance indicators. These include Trump's repeated disparagements of the threat of man-made climate change, encapsulated in statements such as: "The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive." Then, too, Trump has filled senior positions in his administration with people— Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt probably has the highest profile, but is hardly alone—who do not accept the basic findings of mainstream climate change science. A further advance indicator: Almost the entire elected leadership of the Republican Party also does not accept the basic findings of mainstream climate science. That leadership has been unanimous in endorsing Trump's decision to leave the Paris Agreement.

The findings of mainstream climate science are based on well-supported research results and express our fundamental understanding of the climate change observed in recent decades. In brief, we climate scientists have shown convincingly that climate change is unequivocally happening here and now, that its consequences are real and serious, that it is overwhelmingly caused by human activities, and that it poses significant risk for a large range of human and natural systems. For many years, there has been a strong and well-documented scientific consensus endorsing these findings, expressed in statements by leading scientific societies and national academies of science worldwide. Do a few qualified scientists disagree with the consensus? Yes, of course, just as a few scientists still deny that HIV causes AIDS, and a few still claim that vaccines cause autism. Science never produces unanimity or certainty, but it does ultimately converge on truth.

The rejection of climate science for purely political reasons—as evidenced by Trump and the rest of the Republican national leadership—is, actually, very much a recent development. When John McCain ran against Barack Obama in 2008, both candidates were deeply concerned about man-made climate change. Since then, the American political environment has undergone fundamental change, including, notably, the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, which found that prohibition of independent political expenditures by corporations and unions violated the First Amendment protection of free speech. Also, in recent years, aspiring Republican politicians have been subjected to a litmus test that requires them to reject mainstream climate science as a requirement for obtaining funding from fossil fuel-related sources, including the oil billionaires Charles D. and David H. Koch.

The impact of this litmus test and a flood of corporate money into the political arena has been dramatic. While there are no prominent examples of Republican candidates condemned by their party for rejecting climate science, several Republican candidates have paid a heavy price for suggesting that we climate scientists might be right. One of the most dramatic cases involves Bob Inglis, a six-term conservative Republican congressman in a very conservative South Carolina district. In 2010, after endorsing mainstream climate science, Inglis suffered a landslide defeat in the Republican primary. His opponent, with Tea Party support, condemned Inglis for endorsing climate science. Other Republican politicians quickly took notice; soon, we no longer heard them agreeing with us climate scientists.

When I suggested that Trump's announcement was shocking but not surprising, the shock was this: In proclaiming emphatically that he would lead the United States out of history's most important agreement on climate change, Trump never mentioned climate change or climate science. You can search the text of Trump's June 1 announcement, and you won't find a single mention of the terms "climate change" or "global warming." None. Zero.

The Paris Agreement was designed to help solve a real problem: climate change. There is not the slightest hint in Trump's announcement that human-caused climate change is a serious threat, or that it will cause great economic damage unless vigorous action is taken. If we are not allowed to acknowledge that there is a problem, or to discuss what scientists have learned about it, then we cannot possibly solve it.

Meanwhile, efforts by the press to learn whether Trump himself "believes in" climate change have been largely unsuccessful. On this topic, as is often the case with Trump, conflicting statements from him are easy to find. Furthermore, to "believe in" climate change is to relegate what should be a scientific topic to the category of faith. Deciding what to think about the reality of climate change should be a matter of assessing facts and evidence, not a matter of belief. Science is a way of testing whether what we think about a phenomenon conforms to the laws of nature or not.

"I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” President Trump said. Of course, the Paris Agreement, or Accord de Paris in French, has nothing to do with the citizens of Paris or any other city. The label reflects the fact that this agreement was negotiated by nearly all the countries of the world, in a lengthy process culminating in a two-week series of meetings held in Paris in late 2015. For political effect, Trump confused the venue with the subject of the agreement. But that’s hardly the only error or misrepresentation in Trump's announcement.

It ignored the important facts that the Paris agreement imposes no penalties and no restrictions, is non-binding, and is based entirely on voluntary commitments by individual nations. Trump was simply wrong when he stated, "China will be allowed to build hundreds of additional coal plants. So, we can't build the plants, but they can, according to this agreement. India will be allowed to double its coal production by 2020. Think of it. India can double their coal production. We're supposed to get rid of ours." There is nothing in the Paris agreement that allows or encourages China or India to build coal-fired power plants or prohibits the US from doing so.

Many published analyses and detailed fact-checks of Trump's announcement have shown that it is rife with such falsehoods, half-truths, and misrepresentations. Leaving the Paris agreement will not bring coal jobs back to the United States. Trump's talk of renegotiating the Paris agreement is not grounded in reality—as many other countries have already made clear. Trump's estimates of economic damage the Paris agreement will inflict on the United States are error-ridden and unpersuasive. And then there is the truly shocking elephant in the room, the failure on the part of Trump to even acknowledge the existential threat that climate change poses.

The process of a country formally leaving the Paris agreement is lengthy. It will take until the 2020 Presidential election to complete. But the Trump administration can immediately stop participating actively in the Paris agreement. There is no penalty for doing that, other than subjecting the United States to widespread censure and condemnation, which has already begun.

The Trump administration may well intend to continue to remain silent about climate change. That would be consistent with Trump's announcement failing to mention the subject. It is also consistent with the practice of deleting climate change information from the websites of federal agencies and departments, which has already begun.

Given the administration’s silence, it seems clear what is most needed now. The rest of us should continue to talk forcefully about climate change, to work to address the challenge it poses, to build on the great progress already achieved, and to stay optimistic—all to keep the subject of climate change highly visible in the press and before the public, and thereby defeat President Trump's truly shocking attempt to have the United States of America simply ignore the existential threat of climate change.

Steve Ramsey
former head of environmental enforcement, Justice Department, former head of environment at General Electric
and member, Bulletin Governing Board
4 June 2017

Some thoughts on President Trump’s decision on the Paris Agreement, and how those who disagree with it should respond:

  1. Politicians and public officials—including Democrats—have treated environment as a lower-tier issue, since forever. The Dems need to embrace this issue, create understandable messages about it, and then relate those messages to jobs, growth, and health—and contrast those positives with the shrinking opportunities and threats of dirty energy. The false dichotomy of jobs or environment should be destroyed with real data. The message? Positive. Focused on jobs, growth, and acting on behalf of people everywhere. New energy is better than old energy; growth of our economy and environmental stewardship are compatible; it is in the national interest of the United States to remain a leader on climate change. For example, in 2016 there were more than twice as many jobs in solar energy than coal jobs and more than 100,000 jobs in wind energy, according to the Department of energy.
  2. The nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) need to quit talking to each other, broaden their outreach, and mobilize people. Just one NGO, the Natural Resources Defense Council, had more than $125 million in revenues last year. It and other well-heeled environmental NGOS need to seize the moment created by the Paris decision and reach out to other groups, identifying and mobilizing labor unions, churches, universities, teachers, corporations, and others. And the environmental NGOs need to harmonize their efforts, rather than competing for the same dollar donations from the same people.
  3. There needs to be a Women's March equivalent that champions climate resistance and fills the streets with climate change believers. Again, that march should be tied to simple messages about how addressing climate change will improve the lives and support the interests of most citizens.
  4. Bipartisan leaders with moral authority should sponsor a Climate Convention to organize, create, and sustain political action, locally and nationally. This is important. There needs to be a trusted face of climate resistance. This would be a great role for Joe Biden and, ideally, a conservative who is prepared to assume a leadership role in the climate change fight. It needs to be an everyday, full time job, and NGOs should coalesce around and coordinate their actions with this initiative.
  5. The media need to get off their collective ass. Like the politicians they cover, the news media treat climate change as a third-tier issue. It is anything but. Coverage by the networks on this issue before the election was virtually nonexistent. Media need to report the truth, knock down the false claims about the Paris Agreement, and educate the public that sustainable economic growth and sensible regulation of carbon dioxide can go hand in hand.
  6. State attorneys general and NGOs should file suit to block the rollback of Environmental Protection Agency regulations that the Trump administration has proposed. States will need to take leadership on climate issues and coordinate their efforts to fill the gap left by federal regulation. State regional compacts have shown how this can work effectively.
  7. Business needs to ramp up funding partnerships with environmental NGOs that are working to combat Trump’s climate policies. Business should continue to publicize its green success stories. Pension funds and other large investors should increase pressure on companies to make sustainable and climate-friendly investment choices. American business has little to lose domestically but, being global, lots to lose if other countries impose sanctions or carbon taxes on US companies or products. Ceding leadership in this critical area to China and others would be a huge loss for American business.
  8. Great universities with money and environmental programs need to be more visible and more active. If this really is a fight for the future of the planet—and it is—it’s time for more than letters from college presidents on these issues.

Climate is a national security issue. Just ask the Pentagon. The US needs to be at the table, engaged, and leading, not hiding in some fairy-tale world based on fantasy not science.

Enough with business as usual. Climate needs to get truly front-burner treatment. The movement to address climate change needs more focus and organization and well-known faces to lead it, and it needs coordinated, sustained media coverage and "in the streets" initiatives to drive the message home to average Americans.

Robert Socolow
professor emeritus and senior research scholar
Princeton University
4 June 2017

The Paris Climate Agreement is a potluck dinner. Every nation brings its own dish, which is called a Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC). Countries are now preparing their offerings for the “Facilitative Dialog” in 2018, which will be the first dinner. Follow-on dinners (“Stocktaking” meetings) are to be held every five years, beginning in 2023. The signatories are optimistic that the agreement will create positive pressures on all participants, as happens with most potluck dinners.

National governments would have lower expectations for the agreement, were it not for the implicit presence of global civil society at the table. National and international non-governmental institutions, subnational governments, pension funds, large and small companies, as well as individuals on their own, are being counted on to monitor progress—to evaluate each NDC for transparency, self-consistency, credibility, and ambition. Each nation’s desire for praise and fear of embarrassment constitute the agreement’s compliance mechanism.

The agreement was designed to be robust, and it is now getting its first test. President Trump, fulfilling his campaign promise and the expressed wishes of nearly every Republican Party candidate in the 2016 election, has now begun the process of withdrawing the US government from the agreement. But he cannot extract US civil society from the agreement. Indeed, the administration’s drawn-out, theatrical withdrawal has engaged many non-governmental actors more deeply than a fast decision to withdraw would have. For example, some industry leaders, who otherwise might have chosen to stay silent, are now on the record, forcefully affirming the need for a successful agreement.

For the US science community, there is an immediate assignment, which is to protect Earth system science. Scientists, primarily in other fields (to preempt the criticism that the advocates are self-serving), must make the case persuasively that here is an arena for US leadership that transcends politics. Any US politician inclined to promote legislation that tells NASA that its mission must no longer include looking at the Earth, for example, must be dissuaded from such a course. Broad bipartisan agreement must surely be within reach in favor of the US doing not only its share, but more than its share, to accelerate the pace of learning about the emergent disruptions of the Earth system, some of which may arrive quickly and others slowly. Only with such knowledge can national responses be cost-effective and wise.

Raymond T. Pierrehumbert
Halley Professor of Physics at the University of Oxford
Bulletin Science and Security Board member
2 June 2017

Given the tragic fact that Donald Trump is president of the United States, I think his announcement of withdrawal from the Paris climate accords is on the whole the better of the outcomes that could have realistically been hoped for. It would be one thing if Trump made use of his famous fickleness to announce a u-turn in his announced climate policies, recognizing that the accords are backed by business and are a benefit both to US world leadership and the US economy. That fantasy announcement might have included a statement that the United States stands by the stated emission reduction targets, but will seek to achieve them by more conservative, market-based means. Given Trump's manifest attempts to dismantle decarbonization efforts (attempts that will ultimately prove to be futile in the face of overwhelming economic forces to the contrary), however, it would be a travesty for the United States to remain part of the accords. That is because the Paris agreement, like the best of all international agreements, represents a statement of shared goals, to which the signatories have willingly subscribed. That arrangement works, as long as the parties are well-meaning. But having the United States, under Trump, in the accords demeans the whole enterprise and just opens it up to obstructionism and mischief-making by US negotiators. US withdrawal would harm the accords if it prompted an exit by other major emitters who’ve signed the agreement, but so far that does not seem to have happened. If anything, the US withdrawal has strengthened the resolve of China, India, and Europe to hold to actions to fulfill or even exceed their committed emission reduction targets.

Now, a few words on the utter (if unsurprising) stupidity of Trump's stated arguments for withdrawing from Paris. Some background is provided by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's statement emphasizing "the difficulty of balancing addressing climate change ... and ensuring that you still have a thriving economy and you can still offer people jobs so they can feed their families... " Coming from an administration that has proposed to slash funding for food stamps, the sudden tender concern for the ability to put food on the table is jarring to say the least—even leaving aside the glaring neglect of the devastating effect of global warming on food production itself. The president's own statement is riddled with what we have sadly come to know as alternative facts. He states that the actions in the accord would reduce temperature by only two tenths of a degree Celsius, but this estimate is just the reduction relative to the Copenhagen accords and moreover is what happens if the United States does nothing further than the Paris commitments out to the year 2100. The accords of course anticipate a further round of emissions reductions beyond 2030.

It is true that the Paris accords by themselves are not good enough to keep us under 2 degrees Celsius warming without more stringent reductions after 2030, but compared to "business as usual" exponential growth of emissions, adhering to the Paris accords would still reduce temperatures by maybe as much as 4 degrees C in 2100, depending on what you assume for a "business as usual" growth rate. And that's just the global average; impacts on polar warming, warming over land, and maximum heat waves would be much greater. Trump's stated estimates of economic impact of the accords are even worse, based as they are on a report that could be charitably called a case of "alternative-fact economics," and that fails to account adequately for the damages done by climate change, that assumes no change in business practices in response to policy, that neglects the role of technological innovation, and that fails to adequately reflect economic growth in the energy efficiency and renewable energy sector—a sector that already provides more jobs than coal mining. Trump’s statement also shows a gross (if unsurprising) ignorance of what is actually in the Paris document, e.g. stating that it allows China to build coal plants but not the United States.

Given the long capital life of investments in energy infrastructure, major corporations are not going to change course on strategy based on a presidency that is unlikely to last more than four years, if that, especially when such decisions are against their own economic interests. Coal is not coming back, no matter what. The main short-term threat to the US emissions targets lies in the transport sector, where the shameless pandering of the US automotive industry in resisting stringent fuel economy targets will probably lead to a reversal of progress in this area, especially given the low current cost of gasoline. Even there, the demands of the international market and of forward-looking states like California will keep progress towards lower transport emissions ticking along. Together with market forces (like cheap natural gas and lower-cost renewables), efforts by coalitions of states and by major corporations can still bring the US within sight of its Paris targets. There may also be some chance to do a deal with Republicans to develop and deploy better nuclear power technology—the one form of energy that Republicans seem to love nearly as much as fossil fuels. In my view, the United States is not leaving the Paris accords; Trump is.

Lawrence M. Krauss
director, the Origins Project at Arizona State University
chair, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Board of Sponsors
2 June 2017

The unfortunate decision by the Trump administration to withdraw from the Paris Agreement—along with several other recent actions, including submission of a budget to Congress with drastic reductions in all non-defense scientific research and development in the United States, in particular related to energy and the environment, and withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement—sent a strong political message to the world: The US federal government no longer intends to assume a leadership role in advanced technology associated with the environment, in spite of the long-term economic consequences of that decision.

But politics and reality are not always closely correlated, particularly in the current world, and particularly with this administration. The actual ecological consequences for the world of the Trump administration decision may be less severe than the political consequences, in the United States and elsewhere. After all, the Paris Agreement has no real teeth, and the Trump administration could have sabotaged the intent of the climate change accord while remaining within it.

I expect local and state authorities to do what common sense dictates, which is to promote new technologies, move toward renewable energy sources, and rely less on fossil fuels. Coal is dying in this country regardless of Trump’s rhetoric, and US businesses need to focus on reality if they are to succeed. Pretty well all the major players in the energy sector and the high technology sector—with the exception of some particularly entrenched fossil fuel interests like the Koch brothers’ businesses—already have seen where the future lies and will work hard to keep up with their competitors around the world. That Elon Musk saw fit to finally withdraw from the presidential advisory committees on technology—which all along seemed to me like window dressing intended to provide the president an appearance of gravitas—immediately after Trump’s announcement means the cognitive dissonance between the White House and the high-technology leadership has risen above the political noise.

Now, local governments and large corporations need to speak out openly and make plans to work together to counter the reactionary federal administration. This is already happening. Today, 30 US cities, three states, 80 university presidents, and more than 100 companies announced that they will submit plans to the UN, committing to the Paris accord. There is little doubt that reduced federal support will hurt this effort somewhat, but if the Trump administration’s decision induces a new public-private partnership to work around the federal government, it could actually spur new activity among these and other groups.

What concerns me more generally is the issue I mentioned at the beginning of this piece: The withdrawal from the Paris Agreement appears to be part of a concerted effort on the part of the Trump administration to move the United States out of a leadership role in technological and economic activity. By arguing that the federal government will not promote the new energy technologies that will be a huge economic engine in this century, Trump is essentially accelerating what seemed an inevitable trend, in which China and Europe would become the world’s economic and technological leaders, with the United States moving toward the back of the pack. This trend may leave the United States with one major export: arms. 

The withdrawal from the Paris Agreement may also have an indirect effect on research in other areas at the forefront of science, from information technology to biological science and beyond. The United States has been a leader in these areas in part because the best students from around the world come to study here; some go on to pursue research at the forefront in these fields. If technological leadership in general moves abroad, the United States will attract fewer and fewer of the best students, negatively affecting the country in the long term.

To limit the economic fallout created by an administration that appears to look backward rather than forward, US universities, local governments, and corporations need to work together to ensure that the environment for both fundamental and applied research and development in energy, environmental science, and other high-tech areas remains robust. To counter a concerted effort by the Trump administration to make America not-so-great, the best recourse by the rest of us seems to be: Damn the federal torpedoes, full speed ahead.