President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement is not only bad for the country, it’s bad for the world.
The Paris Agreement is the fruit of more than 20 years of negotiations under the auspices of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The accord was struck almost exactly 50 years after researchers presented President Johnson with the first official expert report warning of the dangers from burning large amounts of fossil fuels.
“Man is unwittingly conducting a vast geophysical experiment,” the report warned. “Within a few generations he is burning the fossil fuels that slowly accumulated in the earth over the past 500 million years. ... The climatic changes that may be produced by the increased CO2 content could be deleterious from the point of view of human beings.”
The scientists writing the report understood the physics of the greenhouse effect — known since the 19th century — and they could do the math. Their warnings were well-founded and correct. Due to our burning of fossil fuels, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is now higher than at any time for the past three million years.
The incontrovertible physics of the greenhouse effect means that global temperatures are rising. They have risen exactly as was predicted in the 1970s, by 1 degree Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures until now. Incontrovertible physics also means that warming causes sea-levels to rise. They are rising faster now than they have for several millennia, and the rise has accelerated threefold during the 20th century. Global warming also brings us more extreme weather events, like crippling heat waves and droughts already affecting millions of people.
The world must work together to stop global warming. It is a threat to all of us, to our children and to our children’s children. It cannot be reversed, only stopped in time.
The Paris accord is not perfect, but it is the best we could hope for. The deal’s main fault is that, due to decades of dithering, it came so late. It aspires to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, but that is practically unachievable by now. Some critical tipping points may have already been triggered.
The West Antarctic Ice Sheet looks doomed, a fatal instability that will lead to its irreversible decay and raise global sea levels by three meters. Coral reefs are already dying on a massive scale due to heat stress. Even holding global temperatures well below 2 degrees Celsius, which should help to prevent even worse tipping points from happening, will require global emissions to fall to zero by 2040 or 2050 at the latest.
That is why fighting climate change is a race against the clock now. That is why with any delay, even by a few years, the last chance to halt global warming within manageable bounds is slipping through our fingers.
President Trump appears unaware of basic scientific knowledge, preferring to believe a false propaganda narrative from a group of fossil-fuel fans among his advisers. He even reportedly fell for a well-known fake Time magazine cover — supposedly from the 1970s but in reality a modern Photoshop job — warning of an Ice Age. It’s a favorite myth promoted by climate deniers that most climate scientists predicted an Ice Age in the 1970s.
And Trump has clearly fallen for the false “Climategate” narrative, referring to “those horrible emails that were sent between the scientists” in a New York Times interview. This kind of doubt over climate science is a “product with an industry behind it.” Someone with a lot of money is trying to fool you with this — and, by the way, with bizarre economic studies that paint a grim picture of the economic consequences of the Paris accord. The organizations that make up the U.S. climate change counter-movement have an annual income of over $900 million.
In the scientific community, there has long been an overwhelming consensus about the basic facts of human-caused global warming. Apart from the studies that demonstrate this, I can vouch for this fact from my personal experience of working in climate science for the past thirty years.
The United States is currently the second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases after China; in terms of the accumulated historical emissions it is the largest. And, of course, U.S. emissions per person are about twice as large as those of China or of Europe. That means that the U.S. has a large responsibility for the worldwide consequences of these emissions that it cannot just walk away from.
Leaving the Paris Agreement and withdrawing from its emissions reduction commitment is a reckless and irresponsible act. The Trump administration will not be able to derail the global effort to halt global warming, since almost every country on the planet by now understands — at least partly — how serious the threat of further global warming is.
But the U.S. can delay progress enough to push the Paris goals out of reach. If the U.S. does not reduce its emissions in the coming years along with the rest of the world, we will altogether fail in keeping global warming below a highly dangerous level.
Our children will pay a high price for this.
Stefan Rahmstorf (@rahmstorf) is a physical oceanographer and climate scientist. He is an ocean physics professor at Potsdam University in Germany and head of Earth System Analysis at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.
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