Opinion

Opinion | Ernest J. Moniz

Trump abdicates US leadership on climate change

A man (R) and a woman wear masks as they walk in Tiananmen Square during heavy pollution in Beijing on December 1, 2015. Beijing ordered hundreds of factories to shut and allowed children to skip school as choking smog reached over 25 times safe levels on December 1, casting a cloud over China's participation in Paris climate talks. AFP PHOTO / WANG ZHAOWANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images

WANG ZHAOWANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images

A woman and a man wear masks as they walk in Tiananmen Square during heavy pollution in Beijing on Dec. 1, 2015.

The Trump administration’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate agreement has just made the question “What do the US, Nicaragua and Syria have in common?” a staple of late night comedy.

But this is serious business. The statement from President Trump that the United States will exit the agreement, combined with his first budget proposal, effectively denies science, diminishes US competitiveness in the developing multi-trillion-dollar clean energy global marketplace, abdicates US leadership on an urgent issue of global concern, and once again shakes the confidence of allies and friends about American commitment to collective obligations. History will judge the president harshly.

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To be clear, anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are warming the climate — the underlying science was known in the 19th century. Even if we were to give long odds to the fence-sitters and equivocators, the level of risk demands a prudent response.

Let’s put this gamble in the context that a businessperson would understand: If the chief risk officer told the corporate CEO that, with the current business model, there was over a 90 percent chance of a bad outcome, that CEO would present a new business plan to the board to ensure the long-term health and prosperity of the enterprise. The administration is in effect “betting the business” on hitting a double zero in a game of roulette. Those are long odds. Sixteen of the warmest years on record have been in this century. Sea level is rising, glaciers are melting, coral reefs are dying, coastal storm surges are more intense — 194 nations know this and have joined together to address these and other impacts.

Climate change has also been recognized widely by our military as a significant national security concern. Cabinet members with security responsibilities have recommended that the United States stay in the Paris Agreement. In the least-developed countries, climate-induced environmental impacts such as drought can produce failed states — breeding grounds for regional instability and terrorism that add to the heavy burdens our uniformed men and women already bear.

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The principal solution to climate-change challenges lies with a transformation to an all-of-the-above low-carbon energy future. There is no going back. Clean energy technologies have become remarkably competitive in just the last few years. The United States is already on a trajectory for meeting our Paris target, with rapid growth in natural gas and renewable power generation as well as energy efficiency leading the way. Other major economies with comparable or even stronger Paris targets don’t have the same advantages: low-cost natural gas, sustained investments in technology, a highly skilled workforce, a robust national laboratory system, and research universities that are second to none.

A good example of a Department of Energy program that helps to sustain these advantages is called ARPA-E. Since its establishment, in 2009, to support pre-commercial R&D aimed at the clean energy marketplace, 58 companies have formed and more than $1.8 billion of private follow-on investment has been generated. Despite these successes, the administration proposed to shut down the program. Congress thought differently and increased ARPA-E’s budget in its recent omnibus legislation. We need continued bipartisan innovation leadership from Congress.

Trump incorrectly stated that the Paris agreement was a job killer. The real job killer is the failure to invest adequately in innovation. The advantages the United States gets from such investments differentiate us from our competition in a highly competitive marketplace. To succeed in meeting the long-term challenges of decarbonization, we need a robust innovation agenda, for which there is bipartisan support in Congress.

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The United States led in gaining the commitments of more than 20 countries to double government clean energy R&D over five years as part of the Mission Innovation agreement. Unfortunately, the administration’s budget would cut investments in half rather than doubling them. The administration’s budget proposal would propel China and European countries into a clear lead over the United States in clean-energy innovation investment. Congress should reject the administration’s energy innovation proposal, and Americans should oppose its withdrawal from the Paris agreement. Many American jobs will depend on it.

Finally, pulling out of Paris continues the pattern of undermining the United States as a reliable partner and leader of the free world. Energy security provides another example. Following Russia’s incursions into Ukraine in 2014, the G7 and the European Union adopted a modern set of energy security principles. An important feature was explicit recognition that energy security is not simply a national responsibility but rather a collective one of allies and friends. Many of these principles are completely aligned with the Paris climate agreement: relying much more on energy efficiency, non-carbon sources of energy, and energy innovation.

Withdrawing from the Paris agreement is bad for science-based decision making, national and energy security, and innovation. Thursday’s announcement will just make it harder and more expensive for America to adapt to climate change and mitigate its risks. There is one note of optimism however: Cities and states and the business community are primed to keep us on course to the low-carbon future that we need. Doing so with an administration that is not pulling in the same direction will inevitably slow progress and make this course more demanding.

Ernest J. Moniz served as the 13th US secretary of energy.
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