In December, world leaders will gather in Katowice, Poland for the 24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, dubbed COP24, to review the ongoing implementation of the 2015 Paris agreement and discuss the next steps in combating climate change. An air of fresh urgency surrounds the summit following the release of a special report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which warned of catastrophic consequences unless the world cuts its carbon emissions, substantially and immediately.
The conference comes shortly after the publication of an ominous U.S. government report last week. The report projects climate change will cost hundreds of billions of dollars due to extreme weather, decreasing agricultural yields, fatal heat waves, the spread of vector-borne diseases and other adverse health effects, ultimately shrinking the American economy and endangering millions of lives.
Despite withdrawing from the Paris agreement, President Donald Trump’s administration will send representatives to Katowice. However, rather than participate in meaningful discourse, the American delegation plans to give a presentation on the merits of coal. Yes, at an international summit to combat climate change, the Trump administration will be promoting the dirtiest fossil fuel.
Trump’s refusal to acknowledge the climatic impacts of coal is absurd, but frankly unsurprising given his long history of denying human-caused climate change and its grave implications. Trump and the Republican Party’s stubborn refusal to believe proven climate science contributes to the American public’s ignorance on the matter, particularly amongst their base. A majority of Republicans don’t believe humans cause climate change and say the seriousness of global warming is exaggerated. The result is the extreme politicization of what should be a nonpartisan, non-controversial issue. After all, with the exception of the U.S., every country in the world — including those ruled by both left-wing and right-wing governments — is part of the Paris agreement.
While the rest of the world seems committed to solving the issue of climate change, this is not an issue that can be solved without American involvement. The U.S. is the world’s second-highest emitter, accounting for 15 percent of total emissions in 2015 and has among the highest emissions per capita. Given the urgency of action outlined in the latest IPCC report, the world simply cannot afford for any major country, much less the U.S., to not aggressively cut emissions if the world is to avoid the severe consequences of warming in excess of 1.5 degrees Celsius. The U.S. prides itself on being a global leader, but when it comes to international efforts to alleviate climate change, the U.S. has shown little interest in participating, much less leading.
The scary thing is that the Paris agreement was just the first step of many in truly cutting emissions. The agreement instructed each country to devise its own emissions reduction target and a plan to reach it, but it stopped short of requiring a certain level of emissions cuts by any given time or mandating certain types of emissions-cutting mechanisms. The agreement was obviously a significant first step, but countries must now reevaluate their targets to ensure the world collectively reaches the 1.5 degrees Celcius target (or get as close as possible), and establish a concrete plan of action to achieve their individual targets then.
Emissions reductions will not happen automatically. Governments must be prepared to implement policies to guide the economy to lower emissions levels. There are two main ways to do this. First, by implementing carbon pricing through either a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system, which forces companies and consumers to consider the external costs (i.e. climate change costs) of carbon emissions. This way is the most efficient and effective but also the most politically difficult to accomplish — President Barack Obama tried to establish a cap-and-trade system in the early years of his presidency but failed, despite Democratic majorities in Congress. The second way is through a bundle of individual regulations, such as fuel efficiency standards in cars and subsidies for renewable energies. In this realm, President Trump is derailing existing regulations, lowering fuel efficiency standards, slashing funding for renewable energy research and development and proposing subsidies for derelict coal-fired power plants to keep them profitable.
These actions defy logic and have serious implications. The time for dragging our feet has passed. The world has an extremely narrow window to address climate change, yet the Trump administration is pulling the U.S. backward. U.S. non-involvement will sink international efforts, and that will sink the planet. The upcoming conference in Katowice is a reminder that the current U.S. response to climate change is not just inadequate, it is pitiful.
Noah Harrison can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org