Withdrawal from the Paris Agreement could lead to real action on climate change through nuclear power.
The hyperventilating was immediate and predictable.
On Wednesday morning, shortly after sources in the White House confirmed that President Trump was going to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, Todd Stern, who was President Obama’s special envoy on climate change, declared that the U.S.’s quitting the deal “would be indefensible.” Stern said the agreement established a “durable global climate regime for the first time” and that quitting would cause “serious diplomatic damage.”
On Twitter, climate activist Bill McKibben said “We’re not alone!!! If US pulls out of Paris, will join Syria, Nicaragua in the anti-physics caucus!” Meanwhile, the Sierra Club’s executive director, Michael Brune, said Trump has made a “historic mistake which our grandchildren will look back on with stunned dismay.”
Okay, folks. Calm down, grab a paper sack, stick your nose in it, and breathe. Slowly.
While climate activists and Big Green groups are dismayed by Trump’s decision, none of them should be surprised. Trump has done what he pledged to do as a candidate. As President Obama memorably said, “elections have consequences.”
The hard reality is that the Paris deal was always more about symbolism than about making deep cuts in greenhouse gases. Remember: Nothing in the agreement is legally binding on the signatories. Obama didn’t submit the deal to the Senate for ratification because he knew it wouldn’t pass. The Paris agreement doesn’t have the power of a treaty, and there are no consequences for countries that don’t meet their Intended National Determined Contributions — except for the silly concept of “name and shame.” In December 2015, as the deal was being negotiated, promoters claimed that the countries that weren’t meeting their targets could, as one Associated Press report put it, face a “potentially humiliating experience.”
Name and shame? Are McKibben, Brune, and their fellow travelers planning to visit Karachi and tell the Pakistanis that they should immediately stop building new coal plants? That would be an interesting conversation, given that the average Pakistani now consumes less than 500 kilowatt-hours of electricity per year. That’s roughly one-sixth the global average of 3,000 kilowatt-hours per capita. To help address its electricity shortages, Pakistan is building 5,000 megawatts of new coal-fired capacity.
“Name and shame” makes a nice rhyme, but even before anyone signed onto the agreement, it was obvious that the pledged cuts were not going to be enough to limit temperature increases to 2°C, the target that’s been agreed upon as the ideal. That point was made by U.N. General Secretary Ban Ki-Moon in November 2015, when he said there will have to be a “review session” before 2020 so that, in theory, all of the countries will agree to even lower targets. He said, “We have to do much more and faster to be able to contain the global temperature rise.”
That’s a remarkable admission given that ever since Kyoto, the countries of the world have agreed that they need to get together soon — real soon, and we mean it this time — to pledge deeper cuts.
An analysis of the Paris agreement done by climate scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology projected that even if the signatories to the deal met all their pledges, it would result in a reduction in global temperatures of just 0.2°C by 2100. That fact alone should give climate activists pause. They are promoting a climate agreement that will have virtually no impact on the climate.
If the countries of the world are to make significant reductions in carbon-dioxide emissions, two things must happen: Coal consumption will have to drop dramatically and nuclear energy will have to expand dramatically. Let’s look at coal first.
If the countries of the world are to make significant reductions in carbon dioxide emissions, coal consumption will have to drop dramatically and nuclear energy will have to expand dramatically.
In 2015, Coal Swarm, Sierra Club, and Greenpeace — all ardent coal opponents — released a report that estimated that the quantity of coal-fired capacity under construction globally was 276,000 megawatts. Last year, just a few months after the Paris agreement was signed, the same groups released a new report which estimated the amount of new coal-fired capacity under construction was 338,000 megawatts. This year, those same groups put the number of coal plants under construction — again, these plants are not on the drawing board, or being discussed, they are under construction — at 273,000 megawatts.
Thus, for all of the Sierra Club’s blather about going “beyond coal,” the hard reality is that countries all over the world are building coal plants because that fuel is low-cost, abundant, and reliable.
Coal’s importance in the energy mix was made clear in July 2009, just a few weeks before the start of the climate conference in Copenhagen. That’s when Rajendra Pachauri, the now-disgraced Indian academic who chaired the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, asked reporters to understand the situation in his home country: “Can you imagine 400 million people who do not have a light bulb in their homes?” He then made clear where India was headed: “You cannot, in a democracy, ignore some of these realities and as it happens with the resources of coal that India has, we really don’t have any choice but to use coal.”
What’s happening today in India? According to the latest report from Coal Swarm, Sierra Club, and Greenpeace, India now has 48,000 megawatts of new coal-fired capacity under construction.
If Trump wants to really shake up the discussion on climate change, he should come out in favor of nuclear energy. Trump can make the conservative case for nuclear, and he doesn’t have to talk about climate change while doing so. Instead, he can make that case by pointing out that America has been leading the global nuclear sector since the days of the Manhattan Project. Maintaining our technological lead in that field should be a priority at the Department of Energy, which can foster the development and licensing of a new generation of nuclear reactors that are safer and cheaper than the ones we are using now. The nuclear-focused national laboratories — Idaho, Sandia, and Oak Ridge — have the acreage, expertise, and inclination to incubate and test new reactor designs.
Trump can make the conservative case for nuclear by touting its small footprint. Density is green, and no other form of energy production can match nuclear when it comes to density. About two years ago, Will Boisvert wrote an excellent article for the Breakthrough Institute, an Oakland-based environmental-policy think tank, in which he determined that nuclear energy’s land footprint is 530 times smaller than that of wind and 145 times smaller than that of solar. In short, nuclear energy is green because it spares nature. It also helps cut carbon-dioxide emissions.
During the campaign, Trump said: “We can make nuclear power safer, and its outputs are extraordinary given the investment we should make.” Now that Trump has fulfilled his pledge to quit the Paris deal, he should make good on his pledge to support nuclear energy. Of course, promoting nuclear energy will cause even more hyperventilation among the anti-nuclear zealots at the Sierra Club, which provides yet another excellent reason for Trump to do just that.
This piece originally appeared on National Review Online