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Know-nothing stance has not wrecked Paris Agreement

Eugene Robinson

Eugene Robinson

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Friday, December 7, 2018

All of the leaders assembled at the Group of 20 meeting in Buenos Aires committed their nations to the fight against climate change, except one — President Trump, of course. But pay him no mind. As the proverb says, "The dogs bark but the caravan moves on."

We don't have to wait for history to prove how utterly, stupidly wrong Trump is on this existential issue. Current events are making the point. We have baked ourselves into an era of superlatives — the rainiest storms, worst floods, deadliest fires, most punishing heat waves. The hottest years on record. The highest levels of atmospheric carbon in thousands of centuries.

"Leaders of the world, you must lead," the British naturalist David Attenborough said Monday. "If we don't take action, the collapse of our civilizations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon."

Attenborough was speaking at a key United Nations conference in Katowice, Poland, where diplomats and scientists from around the world will spend the next two weeks working on a concrete plan for meeting the goals of the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement. The aim is to sharply reduce carbon emissions, limiting human-induced global warming to non-catastrophic levels.

No one has time for Trump's foolishness. The U.N.'s annual Emissions Gap Report, released last week, showed that worldwide greenhouse gas emissions grew by 1.2 percent last year after remaining roughly stable for the preceding three years. Emissions need to begin falling, and rapidly, if we are to meet the original Paris target of keeping the increase in average temperature to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century.

And the target is moving. A report earlier this year from the U.N.-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, reflecting the latest scientific analysis and consensus, warned that current goal is not ambitious enough. To avoid doing serious harm to the planet and ourselves, we really should limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), which would require rapid and drastic action.

As we go about our daily lives — leaving our toasty homes every morning and driving our cars to climate-controlled office buildings, where we work in front of computers all day, before driving home at night, on brightly illuminated streets, to fire up our microwave ovens and watch our big-screen television sets — the idea of radical change in our energy use seems daunting.

But we don't have much of a choice. The consequences of a warming world are no longer theoretical. They are here, they are doing great harm to humans and the environment, and they are getting worse.

It would be much better if the government of the world's greatest economic and scientific power were leading the fight against this collective threat. One of Trump's first consequential acts as president, however, was announcing his intention to withdraw from the Paris accord. He is our century's King Canute, arrogantly trying to hold back the sea — which nonetheless has risen nearly 3 inches in the past 25 years.

But while the United States may not be participating in the Paris process now, it cannot formally leave the pact until November 2020 — when, one hopes, voters will be electing a saner, more responsible president.

Meanwhile, state and local governments, universities and the private sector are actively working toward the clean-energy future that is mandatory if we are to avert disaster. According to America's Pledge, an initiative founded by former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg and California Gov. Jerry Brown, current commitments and market forces are expected to reduce U.S. emissions to 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.

Former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger spoke Monday at the U.N. climate conference in Poland. "Every time you talk about America, you're right when you say that our leadership in Washington is a little bit backwards," he said. "But you're wrong when you say that America dropped out of the Paris Agreement. Because if you look a little bit beyond Washington ... you will see all the extraordinary work that is going on [at the] state and city level in America."

It is far from assured that the world will succeed in reaching the emissions targets that scientists say are advisable. But it is clear that Trump's know-nothing stance has not wrecked the Paris Agreement process — and perhaps has even strengthened commitment to it.

According to a Monmouth University poll released last week, about eight in 10 Americans now believe in climate change and a majority recognize it as a "very serious" problem. One ignoramus cannot stem this tide.

Eugene Robinson is a columnist and an associate editor of The Washington Post who won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2009.

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