By William Reinsch
This week brought unhappy reports that the president has decided to pull the U.S. out of the climate change agreement. If the reports prove accurate — the timing, I suppose, is appropriate since we’re heading into what will likely be another blistering summer here in Washington, D.C. Staying in the agreement, of course, would not have made the summer any cooler, just as pulling out won’t bump up the thermometer this year, but the long term impact will be significant for all of us — not only the United States but in the world.
Climate is what economists and trade people call a collective, or common, good. It does not exist in a fixed location or “belong” to a particular country. Air moves around the world — our West Coast has been suffering from China’s pollution for years — and rivers cross many borders on their way to the sea, and countries, including the U.S., cannot build walls high enough or dams big enough to prevent that.
Instead, collective goods must be dealt with collectively. All countries are both causes of the problem and victims of it, so the only feasible solution is to work together to address it. That is what the Paris Accords, and the earlier Kyoto Agreement, were about, and together they represent the best of what humanity can do — working together in good faith to solve a common problem.
Is it a problem? Can a bazillion scientists all be wrong about something this big? We have reached the point where virtually everybody that has actually studied the issue thinks the answer is “yes.” There is more debate about the extent to which it is our fault or the inevitable consequence of another cyclical change playing out over thousands of years — cycles that have occurred before. But that question is less important. Whether it is our fault or not, we all have to live with the consequences, and it is incumbent on us to try to fix it if we can for the sake of future generations.
Likewise we can, and do, argue about who should take on the biggest burden. Developed countries point correctly to the surge of dirty air, often coal-fired, coming from rapidly industrializing poor countries. Developing countries in response point out that in trying to grow and create jobs for their people they are simply doing what the rich countries have been doing for the past 200 years. The latter argument is equivalent to saying, “You’ve been stupid for 200 years, and now it’s our turn to be stupid.”
Fortunately, there is a better way, and Kyoto and Paris pointed it out: set ambitious goals, encourage countries to make commitments about what they will do, keep track of the commitments and thereby encourage countries to live up to them, provide support to enable poor countries to do more than they would otherwise be able to do.
By pulling the United States out, the president joins the august company of Syria and Nicaragua, the two countries that did not join initially, and he once again has abdicated leadership, this time on a global scale. He surrendered our leadership in Asia by pulling out of TPP, and he has just finished surrendering it in Europe. That leaves Latin America and Africa (he irritated Australia his first week on the job), so stay tuned.
The real tragedy of this decision, however, is not what it does to America’s global leadership but what it does to our children and grandchildren. Climate change is not an abstraction. It has a real impact in the increasingly bizarre weather patterns we are seeing world wide — drought, flooding, tornados, extreme heat, rising ocean levels swamping coastal populations, and so on.
My generation, which is also the president’s, will be long gone when the full effects of climate change are felt, but just as the generation before us fought to protect us from Nazi and fascist authoritarianism, it is our duty to protect future generations from a more complicated challenge where the enemy, as Pogo famously said, is us.
As I have said many times in this column, the people look to their president to be the steward of the country’s future — to hand it over to his successor in better shape than he found it. So far, on many fronts, the president is failing in this most basic responsibility.
William Reinsch is a Distinguished Fellow with the Stimson Center, where he works principally with the Center’s Trade21 initiative.