In an open letter to the international community, titled “We Are Still In,” more than 1,200 officials—including governors, mayors, college presidents, city governments, and members of the business community—have come out in support of voluntarily continuing the terms of the Paris climate accord.
Although the signatories were quick to pat themselves on the back, claiming that it was they who were primarily responsible for the dramatic decrease in greenhouse-gas emissions in the United States in recent years, in reality, the signatories had little to do with reducing carbon-dioxide emissions. In some cases, the actions they took actually had the opposite effect.
While it is true carbon-dioxide emissions in the United States in 2015 were 12 percent below 2005 levels, with total emissions falling more than in any other nation on Earth, the U.S. Energy Information Administration has concluded this is mostly due to American energy providers switching from burning coal to using natural gas for electricity generation. This shift was only made possible because hydraulic fracturing, commonly called “fracking,” has made natural gas abundant and affordable. The signatories had little to do with this development.
In fact, some of the so-called “leaders” pledging to uphold Paris, such as New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), have made it harder to achieve emissions reductions, because they have banned hydraulic fracturing in their jurisdictions despite the overwhelming evidence the technique can be used to safely extract natural gas.
Cuomo’s actions are perhaps the perfect embodiment of how efforts to curb carbon-dioxide emissions, such as the Paris agreement, are economically punitive and environmentally meaningless. New York State shares the Marcellus Shale, the most productive natural-gas field in the United States, with Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. Shale gas development in Pennsylvania has created thousands of high-paying jobs with minimal environmental impact.
Despite the success of shale gas production to the south, the economic benefits of natural-gas development have been declared by Cuomo off-limits to residents in economically depressed Upstate New York. Instead, the Empire State has grown increasingly reliant on natural gas imported from Pennsylvania to generate its electricity. Nonsensical policies such as these are simply virtue signaling, not solutions.
One of the least-discussed aspects of the Paris agreement is its opportunity costs. As states and municipalities decide to dedicate limited time and resources to upholding Paris, they will necessarily have fewer resources to address more-pressing social ills, and they’ll also increase the energy costs paid by families and businesses looking to keep the lights on.
Even if one believes climate change is the single-largest threat to the world, the fact of the matter is there is scant evidence implementing the Paris accord in the United States would have had any meaningful impact on the climate. Even if every country on Earth had met their Paris pledges by 2030—an unlikely situation, to say the least—it would have averted only 0.2 degrees Celsius by 2100.
History has shown that one of the greatest mistakes lawmakers and analysts can make is to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than their results. New technologies, such as hydraulic fracturing and coal-fired power plants are more likely to reduce emissions and increase access to affordable electricity than any policy enacted by attention-seeking politicians, including presidents, prime ministers, governors, and mayors.
President Donald Trump was correct to withdraw the United States from the Paris accord. Hopefully, civic leaders will eventually come to appreciate this decision, especially once the nations and communities that implement their pledges experience increasing energy costs and higher rates of unemployment compared to those that have chosen a different path.
Isaac Orr (IOrr@heartland.org) is a research fellow specializing in energy and environmental policy at The Heartland Institute. Follow him on Twitter @thefrackingguy.