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Maybe the best reason, such as it is, to support American withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement has nothing to do with the climate. Under President Obama, the United States agreed to a de facto treaty without submitting it to the Senate for ratification. As the editors at National Review rightly note, “In a government of laws, process matters.” Government certainly doesn’t need more unilateralism by its chief executive.
Unfortunately, the actual reasons driving withdrawal had more to do with populist politics, nationalism, partisanship, and unreasonable disbelief in climate science than constitutional conservatism. Oh, and plenty of reflexive anti-Obamaism in there, too.
What I worry about are a) the risks from doing something new to the planet, and b) that these sorts of risks — “arising in complex systems, full of interdependencies, feedback loops, and nonlinear responses” and taking place over a long period of time — are ones policymakers and voters have a tough time grappling with.
The wrong response, I think, is an all-or-nothing bet that the science is wrong. I worry about a low-probability outcome that could be very, very bad for life on Earth. The challenge, as I have written, “is creating a high-growth, high-abundance, high-energy future for mankind that minimizes the risk of a dangerous climatic shock.”
So what should President Trump have announced yesterday in his Rose Garden address? Not withdrawal from the Paris Accord, which doesn’t even detail exactly how countries should meet their obligations under the voluntary agreement. (Let’s put aside, for a moment, the uncertainty and potential undermining of US leadership that withdrawal entails.) Better, for starters, that Trump had strongly affirmed the potential dangers from climate change and buried his “Chinese hoax” theory forever.
And then Trump should have been the best version of Trump, the one combining crazy, blue-sky optimism with equally over-the-top confidence than America’s can-do spirit and free enterprise system can accomplish pretty much anything. Trump should have said the new US goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emission even faster than what Obama promised. (That seems very Trumpian, like when he outbid Hillary Clinton on infrastructure spending.) And then he should have challenged the world to the same. If that requires a new agreement, so be it.
Next, Trump should have outlined a new action plan to accomplish that goal, one different from Obama’s top-down regulatory approach. Since Republicans are having trouble paying for tax reform, how about a carbon tax combined with sweeping energy deregulation and increased public investment in clean energy research? Imagine a Trump climate plan more like this one from the Breakthrough Institute:
The United States is unlikely to embark upon the kind of state-led, top-down nuclear build-out that allowed France and Sweden to virtually entirely decarbonize their power sectors with nuclear power, but it might be able to embark on an entrepreneur- and venture-led effort to radically disrupt the nuclear sector. Doing so might allow the United States to once again lead the world in developing nuclear power on a planet that will soon enough have nine billion energy-hungry consumers. Reforming the Department of Energy, the national laboratories, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission so that this sort of radical innovation would be possible might be just the sort of thing that congressional Republicans and the new administration would be able to get behind. And a climate mitigation effort that featured an innovative, entrepreneurial nuclear sector competing for growing global energy markets might persuade many U.S. conservatives to take the climate challenge a lot more seriously.
The Trump speech shouldn’t have been about Chinese coal mines or wealth redistribution or the world laughing at America — or even the Paris Accord, really. It should have been about reducing the risk of climatic catastrophe through advanced nuclear power. As venture capitalist Sam Altman has put it, “I believe the 22nd century is going to be the atomic power century.” (Though I have big hopes for solar, too.)