WASHINGTON – Climate policy is the new culture war, driven by nearly theological passions. Or actually theological passions – with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi claiming that Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord was a “dishonor to God.”
While God certainly values his creation, he is probably less concerned with the details of implementing the Paris agreement. Both detractors and supporters share a similar temptation of exaggeration. Trump claims that a relatively modest, entirely voluntary agreement that essentially maintains the current momentum of reductions in carbon emissions would somehow destroy the American economy. It wouldn’t. Some advocates seem to imply that a relatively modest, entirely voluntary agreement that essentially maintains America’s current momentum of reductions in carbon emissions would somehow save the world. It can’t.
Here is the climate bottom line, as far as science can currently describe it: In order to keep the rise in average global temperature below 2 degrees Celsius and thus avoid the worst climate disruption, it will be necessary to keep more than 80 percent of existing coal reserves in the ground, unexploited. The same will be necessary for more than 50 percent of natural gas reserves.
Those who believe this will happen through some global regulatory regime enforced by the United Nations are inhaling not CO2 but nitrous oxide. Developing nations will not accept the argument that developed nations – having built their own hydrocarbon-based prosperity – can now pull up the carbon ladder.
The best hope for keeping hydrocarbons in the ground is for non-carbon based alternatives – ones that don’t disappear at night or when the wind doesn’t blow – to cost less. Putting a price (such as a tax) on carbon emissions would help. But the only sufficient, realistic path is technological innovation, producing non-intermittent, non-carbon-based sources of energy that cost less than coal and natural gas.
This technology will eventually develop in the normal course of innovation. But the timelines of innovation and climate degradation are not the same. Every ton of carbon released into the air can have climate effects for hundreds of years. To avoid the worst climate disruption, we need to speed up the technological timeline. And this will take massive, urgent, strategic, public and private investment in energy research and development.
Why didn’t Trump propose this rather obvious, market-oriented alternative to the Paris agreement? A normal president – Republican or Democrat – might have said: “The difficulty with this particular agreement – support it or oppose it – is that it is caught in 20th-century thinking, seeking answers to technical challenges through bureaucracy. The problem is too big for that approach, and our ambitions are too small. We incur an enormous risk in using current energy technologies, yet we can’t expect hundreds of millions of people in the developing world who want middle-class lives to forgo the most cost effective sources of energy. So today I’m announcing an unprecedented project of research into advanced energy sources, matched by investment pledges from the private sector. This is the way America will lead – through the development of climate-saving technologies that can eventually be employed by the entire world.”
But we do not have a normal president, as Trump’s Paris agreement unsigning statement made clear. Trump is applying the worst kind of populism to foreign affairs. The problem he seeks to solve is a global conspiracy against American workers. A conspiracy utilizing climate science as a type of subversion or sabotage. A conspiracy including our closest allies, friends and trading partners, who “went wild, they were so happy” at the prospect of greater American poverty and suffering.
This is far, far away from the post-World War II American foreign policy tradition – which located American success in an expanding order of economic, political and social freedom. Trump is critiquing not “globalism” but the Atlantic Alliance that prevailed in the Cold War and a Pacific strategy that has deterred aggression and increased mutual prosperity through trade for more than half a century.
“No people can live to itself alone,” said that pernicious globalist Dwight Eisenhower in his second inaugural address. “The economic need of all nations – in mutual dependence – makes isolation an impossibility; not even America’s prosperity could long survive if other nations did not also prosper. No nation can longer be a fortress, lone and strong and safe. And any people, seeking such shelter for themselves, can now build only their own prison.”
That prison is Trump’s most ambitious building project.
Michael Gerson’s email address is email@example.com.