If you’re looking for American ingenuity and technological prowess to help resolve the climate issues that face the world, the Paris Climate Pact is not for you. The pact is a voluntary agreement among countries including the world’s worst polluters (this is axiomatic, since only Nicaragua and Syria are not signatories, and thus far, chemical agents dropped on civilians have not been classed as “pollutants”). Nearly 200 countries are encouraged (not required) to make plans based on their own priorities and commitments to their own people – except the United States, it appears.
The goals of the pact are strikingly modest – to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels – but the withdrawal of the United States by President Donald Trump was followed by denunciation and frenzied despair for the future of the planet. German chancellor Angela Merkel, along with the new president of France and the prime minister of Italy, announced, “We deem the momentum generated in Paris in December 2015 irreversible and we firmly believe the Paris Agreement cannot be renegotiated, since it is a vital instrument for our planet, societies, and economies.”
“Irreversible” and “vital” are heavy adjectives applied to voluntary choices.
Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president; Donald Tusk, the European Council president; and Mrs. Merkel decried the abdication of American leadership. Junker said the U.S. wanted to “untie itself from international connections” – more heavy words for a president withdrawing from an agreement not ratified or even discussed by the U.S. Senate.
What the rest of the world says is less germane here than what the United States does. A dozen American states and more than 200 cities have committed themselves (or their constituents) to maintaining the principles and goals of the Paris pact. More than 1,000 companies and institutions, including more than a dozen Fortune 500 businesses, signed a statement joining them.
Whether they planned it this way or not (probably not), they have exercised a fascinating burst of American federalism. Federalism, defined as “the distribution of power in an organization – such as a government – between a central authority and the constituent units,” is how states and municipalities exercise their authority separate from the federal government. For decades, liberals have sought more federal power over states (abortion, redefining marriage, mandatory health insurance), while conservatives have argued for less (school choice, Medicaid, abortion).
Not this time.
In fact, the determination of state, local, and business leadership to forge ahead on standards for conservation, energy, and pollution control is an outstanding development that does not require the federal government and appears not to run afoul of federal law (unlike, for example, sanctuary cities). The question is not whether it is better to have clean air and water or not. The question is not whether to find better ways of managing waste and generating electricity or not finding them. There are only two questions:
- Who will do the heavy lifting for what we all consider benefits? Certain states, cities and companies say they will, and more power to them, so to speak. American ingenuity and American capability will surely create better and smarter ways to live in the only atmosphere we have.
- What constitutes the best use of American money in pursuit of those aims?
Technology doesn’t create itself, and the role of government and private investment choices looms large. The federal government has a poor track record of choosing investments – Solyndra, anyone? The market, from startups to Fortune 500 companies, is the better mechanism for emerging and adaptive technologies – Wayze (Israeli) and Amazon and Uber (American) come to mind.
Absence of a market or investment mechanism, or money for the sort of innovation at which America excels, is a major shortcoming of the Paris pact. Consider the construct, and pay attention to the words of the founding document that the Europeans are adamantly opposed to changing.
There is a “Green Climate Fund” to which wealthy countries pledged $100 billion annually. During the Obama administration, the U.S. put $1 billion of a $3-billion pledge into the pot; the Europeans, in total, have put $40 million. It should be noted that the world’s chief polluters – China, Russia, and India – have offered nothing. The goal of the fund is “help[ing] developing countries move away from fossil fuels and use more renewable power supplies.” The text continues, “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.”
That is to say, the financial flows are from America and other developed countries to provide retail assistance in “new technology” to poor countries – solar panels, wind farms, etc. to move them away from fossil fuels – in line with “their national objectives,” not necessarily those of the donor countries. This provides a big boost to China – polluting, not paying, the world’s primary provider of solar panels and willing to undercut Western companies on price (Solyndra, anyone?). There appears to be no requirement that less developed countries spend any of their own money, which is generally a recipe for corruption.
There is no requirement that the U.S. fund anyone else’s program or Chinese industry. American states, cities, and entrepreneurs are likely better incubators of technologies that will advance clean and sustainable energy than multi-lateral institutions with lots of rules and no controls.
Author and critic John Podhoretz said of the pact, “The most important accord in the history of the planet has no enforcement mechanisms and is self-policing. In other words, it’s a diet.”
And one the U.S. is fully entitled to quit.