Foreign Relations & International Law

Climate Change and National Security, Part III: The Problem of Political Will

Michelle Melton
Thursday, January 24, 2019, 3:56 PM

Scientific and public understanding of climate change has evolved considerably since the late 1980s, when evidence of a changing climate first rose to public prominence. Since then, scientists have observed strong evidence of warming itself and have been able to attribute it with confidence to human activities.

Wreckage from Hurricane Sandy (Source: Flickr/Wavian)

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Scientific and public understanding of climate change has evolved considerably since the late 1980s, when evidence of a changing climate first rose to public prominence. Since then, scientists have observed strong evidence of warming itself and have been able to attribute it with confidence to human activities. Nearly every day there is a new report detailing the latest scientific advance in understanding, for example, the impact of warming on oceans, glaciers, insect populations or the Greenland ice sheet, as well as the cost of climate change to the U.S. economy. Prominent studies, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s October report on the impact of 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming and the U.S. government’s November release of the Fourth National Climate Assessment, also seem to have increased broader public awareness of climate change. In 2018, record numbers of Americans reported that they believed global climate change was happening and that the issue mattered to them.

It is against this background of growing scientific and public understanding that the failure of politics to stop (much less reverse) the growth of global greenhouse gas emissions looks especially grim. For the last 30 years, international negotiators have been seeking a lasting solution to climate change. Yet as the science gets clearer—and the science is already frighteningly clear—an effective treaty regime remains elusive.

Meaningfully addressing climate change requires countries to invest large sums of money in the present, contrary to their constituents’ immediate economic interests, for the primary benefit of future generations. This difficulty is compounded by the fact that any country that decides to act alone will not only be spending money, but will be placing itself at a competitive disadvantage to others who refuse to follow by continuing to use cheap fossil fuels. The expansion of both scientific and public understanding has changed neither the hard economic reality behind global inaction nor the technological challenges associated with lowering greenhouse gas emissions.

This post elaborates on the difficult political problem climate change poses, briefly recounts the history of international climate negotiations culminating in the Paris Agreement, and evaluates the Trump effect on climate policy both at home and abroad. It follows parts I and II of this series, on why climate change presents a national security threat and the seriousness of the threat it presents.


Greenhouse gases are a byproduct of economic growth. Whether it’s producing steel, powering industrial machinery, heating homes and offices, clearing land for residential or commercial development, or enabling the vast distribution of goods across the global economy, all current models of economic growth, regardless of ideology, are dependent on fossil fuels. And despite the advances of renewables and other non-fossil fuels, these alternatives are not yet able to replace the essential role fossil fuels play in modern societies. To make these alternatives a viable reality is an expensive proposition, requiring both long-term research investments to develop alternatives into commercially-viable fuels and long-term capital investments to deploy those alternatives at a society-wide level. These alternatives have to compete not only in terms of the efficiency and convenience with fossil fuels, but on price. Cutting reliance on fossil fuels to the extent necessary to mitigate the harm of climate change, in other words, requires nothing less than the transformation of every facet of the modern economy.

The international community has been conducting formal, multilateral climate negotiations since 1989. These negotiations have been contentious because they are, at bottom, about economic security and the global and generational distribution of wealth. Wealthy countries got that way in large part because they were able to spew unlimited amounts of greenhouse gas pollution into the atmosphere for generations. Now, developed countries are concerned that their efforts to reduce emissions will put them at a competitive disadvantage if developing countries do not face similar restrictions. But developing countries, citing their recognized right to continue to economically develop, argue that international climate policy must have some tolerance for their inevitable contributions to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. To developing countries, a climate treaty that imposes the same conditions on all parties, regardless of development status, looks like developed countries pulling away the ladder after they have safely ascended. Such a treaty also eschews developed countries’ historical responsibility for climate change.

The 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) struck a balance between these two perspectives. All countries were required to take some action on climate change, but their particular obligations varied based on their development status; developed countries committed to “take the lead” on reducing climate change with more ambitious (but undefined) emissions reduction targets. Critically, however, the treaty did not use the generic terms “developed” and “developing,” or employ a similar nomenclature that would recognize that a country’s development status—and therefore, its responsibility for addressing climate change—could change over time, as circumstances changed. Instead, the UNFCCC created static categories (e.g., “Annex I Parties” and “non-Annex I Parties”), set out in the treaty’s appendices. The result was that the UNFCCC divided the world into categories based on each country’s level of material development in 1992, without a mechanism to adjust to changes in nations’ material or economic conditions.

Even as the UNFCCC was being negotiated, the status quo it enshrined were in tension with the treaty’s broader objective of stabilizing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at safe levels. In 1992, countries listed as developed in the treaty’s appendix accounted for about two-thirds of annual global carbon dioxide emissions. But their relative share of emissions declined significantly over time, as countries such as China and India—“non-Annex I Parties” in the 1992 treaty—grew more affluent. Yet while developing countries’ emissions grew—reaching nearly two-thirds of total global emissions by 2015—their commitments under the UNFCCC remained frozen. China, which became the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter in 2006, had the same obligations under the UNFCCC as even the least developed countries, like Malawi, which accounts for a vanishingly small proportion of global emissions. Wealthy countries were legally on the hook for climate action under the terms of the UNFCCC, but they produced a shrinking share of the global total as emissions in China, India and other rapidly developing countries skyrocketed.

As a result, the agreement struck by the UNFCCC quickly became unacceptable to some Parties, primarily the United States. This became clear during the drafting of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which assigned quantitative emission reduction targets (e.g., a reduction of 5 percent below 2000 emission levels) to developed countries only. The U.S. Senate balked even before being formally presented with the treaty, voting unanimously to oppose any international agreement that did not include substantial commitments from developing countries. In the wake of Kyoto, developed countries, led by the United States, insisted that any agreement must include reductions from significant developing-country emitters like China and India. Developing countries viewed this as reneging on the principles in the 1992 UNFCCC, pointing out that developed countries had committed to “take the lead” on reducing emission and alleged that developed countries were using climate as a pretext to stymy their economic competitors.

The 2015 Paris Agreement was a milestone because it broke this impasse. For the first time, every country, regardless of development status, agreed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The Agreement made no mention of the original appendices in the UNFCCC, signaling a new understanding that each country’s commitments would evolve alongside its economic growth. It laid out what negotiators hoped would be an enduring framework for future climate action, uninhibited by the 1992 appendices and the politics they represented.

Every party to the Paris Agreement is legally required to submit a plan to reduce its emissions. Universal participation came at a steep price, however. In order to coax reluctant countries to participate, the Paris Agreement allowed each country to decide for itself how much it would reduce emissions. Moreover, the Agreement did not legally bind participants to achieve these targets, and it imposed no penalties for violating these unilaterally determined “pledges.” Although there are no legal consequences for non-compliance, the Paris Agreement requires every nation to submit data that allows both experts and other countries to assess its compliance with its pledge. (The technical details of this transparency and verification regime were established last month in Katowice, Poland.) Finally, the Paris Agreement required Parties to update their pledges at regular intervals, with a view to increasing ambition.

Paris was a real achievement in overcoming years of acrimonious finger-pointing within the international community. But it did so by relying on the shaky premise that voluntary actions taken in international fora can galvanize nations to adopt the economically and politically unpopular domestic policies needed to reduce their emissions. In the years since Paris, this mechanism has proven unreliable for two reasons. First, domestic politics in many countries are simply unresponsive to international shaming. The U.N. concluded in November that about half of G20 countries are not on track to achieve their Paris pledges. The United States under the Trump administration has proven particularly immune to international shaming and stands as a prominent example of this dynamic, but it is not alone in either falling short on meeting its pledge (see also Australia, Canada and five other G20 countries) or its professed hostility to the Agreement (see, e.g., Brazil). Second, and relatedly, it is far from clear that the greater transparency will be sufficient to solve the collective action problem.

These problems would exist even if President Trump had never been elected. The trouble—for both U.S. and international climate policy—is that Trump was elected, and has exposed the somewhat tenuous, idealistic foundations not only of the Paris Agreement but also of domestic U.S. climate policy, which has been driven over the last thirty years exclusively by the executive branch.

As part of the Paris Agreement, the U.S. pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26–28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. This pledge was to be achieved through regulatory action under existing environmental statutes, and was completely legally independent of any international commitment. The U.S. Paris pledge was ambitious even under a blue-sky scenario where market, economic and technological factors broke in favor of reducing emissions. For example, achieving the Paris goal required economic and technological tailwinds such as flat electricity demand growth and declining technology costs for things like batteries and solar panels, as well as additional regulatory action beyond what was finalized by the time President Obama left office.

Understanding what Obama accomplished on climate—and why it is taking the Trump administration so much time and effort to dismantle that work—requires understanding this complex and fractured mix of authorities along with and the emissions profile of the United States. About 30 percent of U.S. emissions comes from generating electricity; another 30 percent from transportation (including rail, plane and heavy duty freight emissions, as well as passenger vehicles); industry is responsible for about 20 percent; commercial and residential buildings are responsible for 10 percent; and agriculture accounts for the remaining 10 percent. These emission sources are not all under the jurisdiction of the federal government, much less the same agency within the federal government. Therefore, Obama’s comprehensive Climate Action Plan, proposed early in his second term, represented an effort to leverage statutes governing a wide range of federal activities, including both regulatory and discretionary executive branch actions, ranging from tightening fuel economy standards, to managing fossil fuel leasing on public lands, to funding state efficiency programs. Even though these actions arguably stretched the bounds of the president’s existing regulatory authority, they still were not enough to drive U.S. emissions to the Paris target of 26–28 percent below 2005 levels, even with optimistic assumptions about markets and technology change.

Emissions were on a downward trajectory when Obama left office, averaging 1.2 percent annual emission reductions between 2005 and 2017. Policy helped drive this trend (and prevented backsliding), but the majority of emissions declines were attributable to non-policy factors. Through 2015, about 85 percent of this decline was attributable to slower-than-anticipated economic growth, lower carbon intensity of the economy (due mostly to coal-to-gas switching in the electricity sector), with the remainder resulting from energy efficiency standards, other policy programs, technological improvements and structural shifts in the U.S. economy. (Policy, both climate-related and otherwise, also indirectly influenced the carbon intensity of the economy.) By the time Obama left office, many of his most significant climate policies had not yet taken effect. For example, the first compliance period for the major rule targeting emissions from existing power plants was not until after 2020.

The Trump administration immediately moved to undo nearly all of Obama’s climate actions, repealing everything from the high-profile effort to reduce emissions from existing power plants to standards to curtail potent emissions from the production of oil and gas, and delaying lower-profile but important energy efficiency standards and regulation of emissions from landfills, among other deregulatory actions (for more, see a full list of Trump administration deregulatory climate actions). The administration has not succeeded in all of these efforts; it has not even finalized action on all of them. Because many of these repeal efforts are either still tied up in the regulatory process or entangled in litigation, it is difficult to assess the long-term impact of the Trump’s administration policies on U.S. emissions.

Despite record coal plant closures, U.S. emissions rose in 2018 for the first time in eight years—an estimated 3.4 percent increase after a 0.8 percent decrease in 2017. The Trump administration’s policies were not the only—or even the primary—factor in the recent U.S. emissions uptick. Last year’s emissions rise was attributable in large part to growing demand for electricity, growth in trucking and air travel, emissions from the industrial sector and unusually cold weather. The Trump administration has contributed to this increase in emissions, but the real story in this number is that factors beyond policy also play a significant role in emission outcomes.

It would be wrong to conclude from this that Trump’s policy actions have not had and will not have a deleterious effect on U.S. and global emissions. There is some evidence that Trump’s election has negatively impacted clean energy markets. More importantly, because of the complexity of both the regulatory and energy systems in the U.S., there is necessarily a lag between the implementation of government policies and the emissions outcomes. While the administration has, to date, had an impact on emissions at the margins, the full extent of Trump’s climate impact will only materialize several years in the future.

This impact will likely have two components. First is the impact directly attributable to Trump’s deregulatory policies, which will be apparent if and when the administration finalizes its regulatory rollbacks—for example, the changes to fuel economy standards and looser restrictions on existing power plant emissions. The cumulative increase in carbon dioxide from the proposed fuel economy rollback by 2035 could be larger than the total national emissions of 82 percent of the countries on earth—but the proposal has not yet been finalized, and, even assuming it survives the inevitable court challenge, it would not go into effect until 2020 at the earliest.

But even if many of Trump’s repeals are ultimately struck down by the courts (and there is reason to believe that many of them are vulnerable), the biggest impact may be the opportunity cost of not regulating emission sources sooner. This is the effect not only of dismantling the Obama administration’s policies, but also of not taking further action. Because climate change is a cumulative problem, every day that emissions are not reduced has the effect of worsening the problem. In the climate context, “standing still” is losing ground.

Consider how much more difficult it will be for the U.S. to achieve its Paris pledge under the Trump administration than it would be under a hypothetical Clinton administration that continued, strengthened and expanded Obama administration policies. While it is still technically possible to achieve the U.S. Paris pledge of 26–28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, the absence of strong federal policy signals indicate that it is unlikely the U.S. will make it. To achieve this ambitious goal, all the factors that influence U.S. emissions—policy, markets and technology—would require significant tailwinds. Currently, as a result of Trump’s policies and broader market trends, the U.S. is projected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 12-20 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, with the lower bound representing the Trump administration’s success in rolling back Obama-era policies, among other factors. The cumulative impact of Trump’s policies is that the country is even less likely to achieve a goal that would have been a reach even under a Clinton administration (irrespective of more ambitious state action that was catalyzed in reaction to the federal government’s abdication on climate).

The question, then, is whether U.S. success or failure to achieve the Paris pledge matters. Will it move the needle in the only way that counts: reversing the centuries-long accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which to the present day continues unabated in spite of 30 years of international climate diplomacy?

No, but it matters anyway. While the United States is a small part of a larger international problem, it will probably not be possible to decarbonize the global economy without the political, economic and technological will of the United States. U.S. leadership and innovation can provide useful economic and regulatory models. Figuring out how to decarbonize an economy is a collective good, and the U.S. cannot only create the good but can also drive down the cost of replicating it around the world. To the extent that the U.S. achieves the Paris pledge, those solutions—and the technologies and regulatory models that were successful—can be exported.

It also matters because even achieving the ambitious U.S. Paris goal is supposed to be the easy part compared with the long-term goal of decarbonizing the economy. While both the Paris Agreement and the U.S. pledge are ambitious from the perspective of the current political landscape, they are also wildly inadequate as part of the broader effort to fight climate change. The Paris Agreement, and the U.S. domestic efforts to implement its pledge, are not ends in themselves. It will do no good if the U.S. manages to squeak out a Paris pledge victory but has no plan (or legal authority) for more aggressive reductions.

It is clear that existing strategies—international and domestic—are insufficient. They are placeholders for a set of more ambitious policies that Americans do not yet have the political will to implement. On the domestic front, achieving real progress requires more than piecemeal regulatory efforts cobbled together from pre-existing legal authorities that are an awkward fit for tackling climate change. Similarly, the Paris Agreement was only a victory because expectations for what international climate diplomacy can deliver are so low.

Figuring out how to be as ambitious as we have been has required 30 years of international and domestic policy. The science suggests that even more ambition is necessary to avoid catastrophic and irreversible consequences. If it takes another thirty years to rise to the necessary level of commitment, humanity, and the rest of life on earth, are all in serious trouble.

Michelle Melton is an attorney who works on environmental issues. The views expressed in this post are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of her employer.

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