Friday, June 9, 2017

Thoughts on Climate Change

I recently had a post that reflected on the U.S. leaving the Paris Climate Accords.  You can read it here but I am generally pleased with this outcome.  Since that action we've seen everything from general approval to concern to hysteria.  It's the hysteria that concerns me.  As I've said in previous posts, at some point the hysteria has to abate.  At some point the leftists and Socialists have to decide that they want to try and work to accomplish something, even if means compromise.  At least in my optimism I hope that happens.

A former Priest and good friend writes a weekly blog on a number of subjects.  He is a wise and thoughtful man.  He started life as a New York lawyer and that gives him a bit of a different perspective.  In retirement, he is back to practicing law and specializing in Immigration and God knows there's a lot of work in that area.  Copied below in it's entirety is his latest post on the Paris Accords.  I'm putting this up there because I think it's one the most balanced and pragmatic looks at this subject that I've ever seen.  I don't agree with everything he says, but I think he makes some great points.  If you're not of the religious persuasion, you'll probably not care or read the last section about a Christian response, but that's okay.  I'm a big fan of reasoned and logical thought.  That is what this piece is in spades.

Reflections on the Withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Climate Accord

There was shock around the world at President Trump’s action to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Accord. “World reacts to Trump’s move: ‘He’s declaring war on the planet’ said the Toronto Globe & Mail. Maureen Dowd of The New York Times put it none too subtly when she titled her article, “Trump Stomps Planet Earth.” Labeling President Trump “the existential threat to the planet,” she went on to say, “You know you’re in trouble when beclouded Beijing, where birds go to die, replaces you as the leader on climate change.”

Climate change is an emotional, contentious issue. Passions run high, whether you are an environmental activist in the Pacific Northwest or a coal miner in West Virginia.

There are, in my judgment, four possible responses to climate change. You can deny it, ignore it, manage it or try to prevent it.

To deny climate change defies the scientific evidence that temperatures are indeed rising with profound implications for our planet.

To ignore climate change is irresponsible, especially considering the massive population shifts that will result from droughts, famine, civil unrest and refugees fleeing their homelands.

To manage climate change makes sense if you believe that changing climate is part of the natural evolution of the planet and that human beings only have a limited ability to affect what inevitably will happen.

To prevent climate change by reducing carbon emissions is a worthy goal, even if that means significant changes to our present way of living.

The only two viable responses to climate change are to manage it proactively but also try to prevent or minimize its negative effects on the planet.

Thankfully, no one, not even President Trump, wants a sick planet, polluted air or massive numbers of people suffering from breathing disorders. Nor does anyone deny that earth’s temperatures are getting slightly warmer with rising ocean levels, glacial melts, intensified storms and more frequent droughts, which often affect the most vulnerable and poorest communities. Climate change is happening is – there is little doubt about it.

The Point of Contention

The issue that divides people is not whether the climate is changing, but how much of climate change is man-made due to carbon emissions in the atmosphere and how much is the result of the natural evolution of the planet. Since the beginning of life on earth, there has been climate change. There have been extremely cold periods – the Ice Age, for example – and there have been relatively hot periods such as during the age of the dinosaurs.

So climate change is not new, but since the industrial era human beings have affected the climate by carbon emissions in the atmosphere. As an example, in the first half of 2016 average temperatures were about 1.3 degrees Celsius (2.3 degree Fahrenheit) above the average in 1880, when global record-keeping began. The Paris Accord seeks to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. If countries begin to reduce their present levels of greenhouse emissions by lowering their reliance on fossil fuel, there is every reason to hope that the goal set by the Accord can be achieved.

And yet, those who are sceptical of the Paris Accord wonder if the carbon taxing, higher energy costs and perhaps a lower standard of living are worth the pain to achieve results that are unlikely to have much impact on the climate. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote that those who question the Paris Accord “accept that the earth is warming and that our civilization’s ample CO2 emissions are a major cause. They doubt, however, that climate change represents a crisis unique among the varied challenges we face, or that the global regulatory schemes advanced to deal with it will work as advertised. And they raise an eyebrow at the contrast between the apocalyptic, absolutist rhetoric with which these schemes are regularly defended and their actual details, which seemed mostly designed to enable the globe’s statesmen to greenwash the pursuit of economic and political self-interest.”

The question is whether, “If every country does what the Paris Accord requires them to do, will the planet really be better off – and by how much?” And could the world achieve equally positive results by other means than by requiring sweeping carbon taxes and a full-fledged war on carbon fuels? Instead might it not be more beneficial to focus on innovation and mitigation – innovating existing technologies, developing new technologies and mitigating the effects of climate change to insure quality of life for everyone?

The Paris Accord

One of the fundamental problems with the Paris Accord is that there is no mandatory mechanism to insure the agreement is enforced by each country. Each country determines its own contribution it should make to mitigate global warming. There is no mechanism to force a country to set a specific target by a specific date. Nothing is binding in international law, since there is no obligatory language in the agreement. Nor is there any mechanism to force a country to set a realistic target and achieve it. One might say, as James Hansen, a former NASA scientist categorized it, that the Accord is filled with “promises” but “no firm commitments.”

The only mechanism in the Accord is the requirement that all countries report their progress every five years, with the first evaluation in 2023. What if a country has not met expectations? There is no penalty, just a “name and shame” system. As the agreement provides no consequences if countries fail to meet their commitments, that makes it increasingly difficult for the Accord to meet its laudable goals.

Given the non-mandatory nature of the Paris Accord, we may ask: “Why did President Trump make the decision to withdraw?” I think three reasons led to his decision.

First, politics played a role since Trump promised on the campaign trail to withdraw from the Accord. Trump can now say to his supporters that he fulfilled yet another campaign promise.

Second, Trump did not like that the Accord asks developed countries to commit $100 billion a year to a Green Climate Fund until 2025. This money would go to developing countries for actions on climate change, adaptation and mitigation. It was Trump’s view that the United States was already giving a substantial amount of money in foreign aid to developing countries.  Moreover, the President was concerned that the United States would end up funding a major portion of the $100 billion, a large amount of that money directed to China and India. In the President’s judgment, the money spent abroad could better be spent at home.

President Trump may be right. At this point, the United States has given $1 billion to the Green Climate Fund. No other nation has contributed anything. Given that the vast majority of NATO members do not pay their 2% fair share, is it reasonable to expect the world’s developed nations to pay their fair share into the Green Climate Fund? President Trump was fearful that the United States would end up carrying most of the burden, and in this he may be right.

Third, the Paris Accord has always been about the controlled distribution of economic wealth. The Green Climate Fund was just part of what was designed as a plan to transfer wealth from the developed to the developing countries. The “carbon-trading tax” was to be the fundamental financial instrument to reshape the economies of developed countries – a global tax on all people to control behavior and lifestyles through a market-based trade vehicle under U.N. exclusive control. To President Trump and his advisers, this carbon-trading tax would have disastrous consequences for the United States economy and subvert the national economic interests of the country.

In summary, President Trump could have left the Accord in place and ignored it – that would have been the politically expedient thing to do. However, in the scheme of things, the withdrawal of the United States from the Accord will not matter. The countries of the world, including the United States, will continue to move towards a greener, cleaner environment, but without the excessive regulations and carbon taxing envisioned by the Accord.

Let me share 6 reasons for being optimistic about the planet’s future. I also want to share 3 concerns in the transition to a greener, cleaner world.

Reasons for Optimism

First, despite President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Accord, the federal system in the United States guarantees that the nation will continue to promote environmental stewardship.  Most of the major cities in the United States have made the decision to abide by the goals of the Paris Accord. So have a number of states and major corporations in the country. Governor Jerry Brown of California, Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York and Governor Jay Inslee of Washington have joined together to form the United States Climate Alliance. Major corporations have announced their intention to continue working for a greener planet, including General Electric, Mars, Disney; Tesla, Apple, and many others. Moreover, the United States is already more than halfway to the 2025 emissions reduction set by the Paris Accord, and even without carbon taxing there is a strong likelihood the nation will meet its goal.

Second, although some corporate executives have resigned from the President’s Council of Business Advisers over the withdrawal from the Paris Accord, most have chosen to remain on the Council as a voice for environmental stewardship. Most members of the President’s Council of Business Advisers have agreed to remain on the Council, not because they agree with the President’s action but as a voice for economic policies that are consistent with a cleaner, greener environment. Among the advisers remaining on the Council include Mary Barra of General Motors, Michael Dell of Dell Technologies, Alex Gursky of Johnson and Johnson, Andrew Liveris of Dow, Brian Krzanich of Intel, Denise Morrison of Campbell Soup, Doug McMillon of Walmart, Ginni Rometty of IBM, Indra Nooyi of PepsiCo, Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan Chase, Wendell Weeks of Corning, and Richard Trumka and Thea Lee of the A.F.L. – C.I.O. These advisers will help insure that business development and economic growth are consistent with environmental stewardship.

Third, American cities are moving aggressively

Fourth, innovation and technology development are making green energy affordable and more widely used by private homeowners. Almost all households in America today have LED lighting, and almost all appliances now selling on the market meet strict energy standards. New homes have an energy rating that allows buyers to know the typical amount of energy that will be used in the home. In addition, solar power is becoming more affordable with an increasing number of homeowners having solar panels installed on their roofs.  Innovation, research and development, technology deployment and renewables are making America cleaner and greener.

Fifth, President Trump is a savvy negotiator and it may well be that he is using the withdrawal from the Paris Accord as a pretext to negotiate a new and better deal. The United States withdrawal from the Accord doesn’t officially take place until 2020. That gives President Trump and his team three years to negotiate a better deal. If the Europeans are open to re-negotiating the Accord, there is every reason to believe that a more realistic framework on climate change can be achieved. There are those in the Republican Party that want to see that happen. As conservative scholar Oren Cass of the Manhattan Institute put it in a tweet after the President his announcement, “Hopefully someday, we’ll get a reality-based climate agreement that helps prepare for and adapt to whatever climate change brings.”

Sixth, there is a legal argument to be made that the United States was never a member of the Paris Accord since the agreement never received the “advice and consent” of the Senate. Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution grants the president power “with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur.” The Obama Administration did not submit the Paris Accord to the Senate as a conventional treaty. The Administration knew that ratification would have failed to achieve a two-thirds majority in the Republican controlled Senate. That led President Obama to craft a non-binding global warming deal without Senate approval. There is, therefore, a serious question whether the United States was ever formally “in” the Paris Accord. It also made it much easier for President Trump to withdraw from the Accord, since no Senate action is required. However, a revised Paris agreement negotiated by President Trump may well get the approval of the Senate, binding the country to a new set of standards.

Some Concerns

Seventh, there is a divide between major corporations and small businesses on the reaction to President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Accord. Many major corporations have been working hard to promote a cleaner, greener planet. They have invested billions of dollars in new technologies that are driving costs down in expanding solar and wind energy. But the green revolution has not been as widely embraced by small businesses, in part because of government regulations and increased costs to do business. Small businesses cheered the President’s action. If the green revolution is to take hold in the country, then small businesses must benefit as much as large corporations.

Eighth, while much of urban America has embraced the green revolution, rural America has expressed anxiety and fear on how “going green” will affect their lives, lifestyles and jobs. In the educated, sophisticated centers of the nation, cities like Boston, New York, Denver, Seattle and San Francisco, the green revolution is already a reality – solar and wind power abound, while carbon emissions from oil and coal have been significantly reduced. However, in Appalachia and other parts of the heartland, oil, coal and fracking for gas are the foundations for local economies. Rural Pennsylvania, for example is fracking and enjoying increased prosperity while rural New York is prevented from fracking by state law and remains poor. In fact, cities like Buffalo and Rochester there is negative job growth – a decline rather than an increase in the job market – even as the national economy is approaching a level of full employment.

When Hilary Clinton said that she couldn’t wait to close the coal mines, she lost every coal mining county in the country. When Donald Trump pledged to helped build a “clean coal” industry, he won those counties. Two different economies, two different worlds, and two different ways of life – this is the divide between red and blue states. The environment is important, but so are people, families, and jobs. We need a green revolution that embraces people and insures jobs for their future.

Ninth, the cost of transitioning to a cleaner, greener planet has exasperated the divide between the rich on the one hand, and the middle class and poor on the other. Reducing carbon emission has a price to it. In many cases, at least in the short term, it may mean higher electric and gas bills. In Europe gas at the pump is between six and ten dollars a gallon. In some parts of Canada gas is close to $5.00 a gallon. Here in the metro Phoenix area, gas ranges between $2.23 and 2.39 a gallon. Most poor and middle class Americans would resist paying European prices for gas. For one thing, distances, especially in the west, are much greater than in Europe. And for another, people need their cars to drive to work, especially if they cannot afford to live where they are employed. Similarly, in southwest states like Arizona, air conditioning is not an option; just as in northeast states like Maine or Minnesota heating fuel is not an option in the winter. Wealthy people, like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos can afford to pay higher electric and gas prices in support of clean energy, but many others cannot. At some point the economic disparity has to be addressed, perhaps by an added tax on the wealthy to subsidize the poor and middle class’ utility costs. I like the proposals of Glenn Harlan Reynolds, a University of Tennessee law professor who has suggested these taxes on the wealthy:

Tax the “blue zones.” Impose steep taxes on property in coastal areas that will be flooded by the sea-level increases that global warming brings. Taxes should also discourage people from building near oceans, rivers and lakes.
Ban private jet travel, or at least tax it heavily. The wealthy will have to fly commercial like the rest of us.
Impose a luxury tax on mansions. Any home more than twice the size of the average American home should be taxed at 25% of its value per year.
Tax yachts and luxury cars an additional 25% of purchase price to reduce their carbon footprints and have an annual tax of 10% of their value each year.

I would add one more – an increase in the income tax for multi-millionaires and billionaires to at least 50 percent of income. That is not too much to pay when you have so much to give, especially when the money goes to alleviate the hardship of those with far less.

A Christian Response

The week before the announcement of the United States withdrawal from the Paris Accord, President Trump had met with Pope Francis and said that he would read Laudato Si, the Pope’s encyclical on the environment and climate change. Given the President’s action, either he has yet to read it, or he simply disagrees with it.

And yet, the Pope’s encyclical is worth reading.  Laudato Si – On Care for Our Common Home – is a comprehensive overview of environmental stewardship from a distinctly Christian perspective. It is one of the finest treatments of the stewardship of the earth ever written and it deserves to be read by every Christian, Catholic, Protestant, Anglican and Orthodox.

I don’t agree with everything the Pope writes. The Argentinian Pope clearly does not understand capitalism or how a free market economy works. Still, his knowledge of liberation theology makes him a forceful advocate for the poor who are disproportionately affected by climate change. You cannot care for creation if your heart lacks compassion for your fellow human beings, the Pope insists. The stewardship of the earth and the dignity of every human being are integrally connected.

The most difficult part of the Pope’s encyclical – and I suspect the main reason President Trump rejected it (if he read it) is the condemnation of “extreme consumerism” in which the Pope wants wealthy Western nations, including the United States, to accept “decreased growth…in order to provide recourse for other places to experience healthy growth.” In contrast with the consumerist mindset, Christian spirituality offers a growth marked by “moderation and the capacity to be happy with little.” It is a matter of nothing less than a redefinition of our notion of progress.

This, I think, is a red flag for most Americans – the notion of decreasing GDP, lowering living standards and having to accept that “less is more.” The Pope seems to articulate a mentality of scarcity rather than abundance – as if there is only so much of the pie to be divided rather than expanding the pie to feed more people. To put it another way, the Pope seems more interested in the distribution of wealth than the production of wealth. For Americans, in contrast, an expanded and growing economy, and not a declining and contracting one, is the way to insure a healthy and prosperous planet. Innovation, technology, and free markets in a democratic society result in greater human progress and a higher standard of living for all. In other words, the answer is not socialism or a state-run economy of excessive regulations and bureaucracy but free market democratic capitalism.

If I could give one piece of advice to the Pope, it would be to read these two books: Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom and F.A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. In my judgment, Friedman and Hayek are two greatest economists of the 20th century and what they have to say rings true today.

Principles and Policy

One of the great Anglican theologians of the 20th century was Archbishop William Temple. In his book Christianity and the Social Order, Temple made the useful distinction between principles and policy. Christians, he said, should be united on the core principles of the Christian ethic. Love of neighbor, human dignity, the equality of all persons, sharing generously with the poor, and caring for the sick, the weak and the vulnerable would be some of the key principles on which all Christians should agree.

However, on matters of policy Christians will disagree. Policy involves the implementation of Christian principles to specific problems.  If, for example, Christians have an obligation to care for the sick, what does that mean in instituting an effective health care system? If Christians believe in the equality of all human beings, how do we put that into practice when one group in society has been systemically discriminated against for generations? You get the idea: principles are general while policies are specific.

As we seek to be good stewards of the earth, we should keep in mind the first and most basic principle in the Bible: Creation is a gift from God.  In Genesis we read, “In the beginning when God created heaven and earth…” God created the world and it was “very good.” Then God created men and women, and put them in a garden. Over the years humans have threatened to turn that garden into a garbage dump – or worse, to destroy it completely. We have not always been good stewards of the planet, and we need to admit it.

That is why Christians need to study Scripture and Church teaching on the meaning of environmental stewardship. Then we need to develop and implement the policies that will make our planet the clean, green place that God created it to be.

In the end what is required is a change of heart. We need nothing less than an “ecological conversion” in which we see the intimate connection between God and all beings, and more readily respond, as Pope Francis put it, “to the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”
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