Climate change is one of the most serious issues of our time, and when President Trump announced on June 1 he was withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris climate accord, it set off debate about the merits of the decision. We asked three alumni experts what they think.
Judah Cohen Ph.D. ’85, GSAS ’94
Cohen is director of seasonal forecasting and principal scientist at Atmospheric and Environmental Research. In addition to his research interests, Cohen is leading AER’s development of seasonal forecast products for commercial clients. Cohen also has a research affiliate appointment in the civil and environmental engineering department of MIT.
My simple answer is yes. The science is conclusive that the earth is warming, that anthropogenic activity is contributing to that warming and the warming is most likely to continue. It is also probable that a warming planet will have detrimental consequences for society, especially in the United States, which has a nearly optimal climate for supporting a thriving society. Therefore, I do believe that it is in the United States’ interest to support global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, to stabilize the climate and to prevent runaway warming. And to that end, it is to the benefit of the U.S. to participate in the Paris Climate Accord in a concerted and global effort to reduce greenhouse gases and other human activity that contribute to rising temperatures.
However, there is a part of me that believes that it is preferable that President Trump withdrew the U.S. from the accord. The agreement was voluntary and not enforceable. It is clear that the current administration is not persuaded by the science or scientists on this issue and is not motivated to make policy that incentivizes reducing greenhouse gases. The goals and actions of the administration are to facilitate greater production and consumption of fossil fuels regardless of whether the U.S. is a signatory of the accord — so better to dispense with the pretense that the administration is a responsible steward of the environment. By renouncing the U.S.’ participation in the accord, the citizens of the U.S. and the global community know exactly the priorities of the administration on the issue of climate change and efforts to mitigate potential deleterious impacts. The hope is this will motivate concerned people, communities and companies to take action that changes the trajectory of the U.S.’ contribution to anthropogenic climate change in spite of the current administration.
The United States is the source of about one-quarter of the greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere — more than any other country. We also have among the highest per capita emissions. There is increasing evidence (some of it developed by scientists at the Earth Institute) that these emissions are already contributing to extreme weather events and will pose grave dangers to our children and grandchildren. Thus the United States has a special responsibility to act.
President Trump’s proposed withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord and his moves to cancel the Clean Power Plan and other federal efforts to reduce emissions are an abdication of that responsibility.
Paris set ambitious targets but soft methods to achieve them. Each country picked its own goals and methods of meeting them, with no enforcement mechanism if they failed. Trump and his EPA chief, Scott Pruitt, willfully ignored the facts in calling Paris a bad deal for the United States.
Some fear that the U.S. withdrawal will allow China to seize international leadership on the climate issue, which is ironic on many levels. So far no other countries have announced they will also drop out, but Trump’s action will embolden political forces in other countries that oppose climate action and, like Trump, want to cling to a fossil fuel-based economy and ignore the environmental, public health and economic benefits of transitioning to a system of clean energy, using technologies whose costs are plummeting. Fortunately, when environmental rationality returns to the White House (I hope with the 2020 election), the U.S. will be welcomed back into Paris. Meanwhile, though, we are losing precious time.