Climate change agreement in Paris this weekend. I am seeing a lot of celebratory remarks, but that’s mostly politicians trying to put lipstick on a pig. The text was released only recently, so details are still emerging, but two things seem clear. First, the agreement talks about pledges of “nationally determined contributions”, not legally binding emissions commitments. Second, this weakness is deliberately to accommodate the United States, since everyone recognizes that anything stronger would require an impossible Senate ratification.
This problem demands US leadership for practical and ethical reasons. Remember Kyoto? How confident can we be that US commitments will survive presidential election cycles and Senate filibusters? And what will the rest of the world do if and when they see us shirk again our responsibilities? The Paris agreement might be better than people expected a month ago, but those expectations were low indeed.
We cannot even really blame the Republican Party since a lot of moderate Republicans recognize the problem and would be willing to accept regulatory solutions. It is the Tea Party and Christian evangelical wing that bears the blame. Most estimates say that about 10-15% of Americans have Tea Party sympathies or strongly disbelieve that climate change is a real problem – about 30 million people or less than half a percent of the world’s population. On this issue, they have a stranglehold over the Republican Party, therefore US politics, therefore the world. Never was so much harm done to so many by so few.
This might seem harsh, but there is no getting around the colossal selfishness and myopia on display. Willingness to work on climate change requires two things. First, is a modest economic cost, but Americans are amongst the wealthiest people ever to live. It’s mind boggling for us to use economic hardship as an excuse when the damages done by our fossil fuel habits hit poorer nations the hardest. The second challenge is abandoning ideological purity and admitting that at least this one issue requires government regulation and international cooperation. Neither the free market nor individual action will get the job done.
You could give the Tea Party the benefit of the doubt by saying that they would act if they truly believed the problem were real. At this point, however, their ignorance of the science is willful – definitely on the part of their leadership. If they don’t want to simply accept the verdict of the National Academy of Sciences (or any other authoritative body), they should roll up their sleeves and do the science homework with an open mind. A good start would be to put aside everything published about climate change per se, pro or con, and just learn a few basic physical principles about how the natural climate system operates. Anyone who does this will quickly realize the cause and magnitude of the problem.
Our best hope is that the Tea Partiers and Christian evangelicals will think again and realize that their own ethics demand action. Personal responsibility – our consumption should not create a burden for future generations. Care for the poor – our carbon emissions harm the most vulnerable, developing countries. Care for creation – how much do we want to preserve the wondrous planet we live on? The species that may or may not be able to adapt to the rapid changes we are unleashing? Our best hope is that the far right will be touched by the better angels of their nature.