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June 9, 2017

How Will the Brave New Post-Paris World Work?

Mark Trexler

Whether you are someone looking for action to slow climate change, or someone who opposes such action, the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement is bad news because it creates more uncertainty about the future. That uncertainty translates into risk.

  • If you’ve sought action on climate change, President Trump’s announcement reflects a step back from even the least-common-denominator approach to global cooperation achieved in Paris. It creates one more barrier to the prospect of the global community taking more ambitious action to substantially limit climate change.
  • If you’ve opposed action on climate change, you, too, are in a less certain policy and political landscape. The President could have garnered international acclaim by remaining in the Paris Agreement, and simply sucked it dry from within — a process that was already well underway through his abandonment of the Clean Power Plan, the Social Cost of Carbon, and other measures. By actually announcing that the U.S. will withdraw from the Paris Agreement, however, the President drew a clear line in the climate sand and dared all comers to cross it. The efforts of numerous constituencies to do so could open a Pandora’s box for those opposed to climate action.

I don’t want to prognosticate about who is most likely to win or lose as a result of the even more uncertain climate landscape President Trump has created. But I am trying to better understand the Brave New Climate World that social media and opinion pages have been so actively selling since the President’s announcement. Including that:

  • City and regional governments of all sizes and different political persuasions “get” climate change. They understand the risks posed by climate change to urban infrastructure, health, and economic welfare; are acting through everything from “net zero” building standards to electric vehicle and bike lane infrastructure and renewable energy; and will pick up the pace as a result of the President’s action.
  • Tens of millions of individuals “get” climate change, understand the risks climate change poses to their portfolios and to their grandchildren, and will now respond aggressively to use energy far more efficiently, buy electric vehicles, and eat less meat.
  • Business “gets” climate change, accepts its role in stepping up to the climate plate, is already acting through everything from science-based targets to green power purchases and internal carbon pricing, and will now pick up the pace.
  • Investors “get” climate change, understand the risks climate change poses to their investment portfolios, are pushing companies forward through portfolio footprinting, climate stress testing, and better risk disclosure, and will now pick up the pace.

One way of looking at these arguments is as simply suggesting that a low carbon transition is already underway, and the President’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement won’t stop it. The idea that we’ll eventually transition to a low carbon economy, however, is a no-brainer. As suggested by the adage “we didn’t leave the Stone Age because we ran out of stones,” it’s almost inevitable. The real question is how much warmer the planet is likely to be by the time that inevitable transition concludes. More than 6oC warmer? Possibly. Between 4 and 6oC? Probably. Less than 3oC? Probably not. Likely outcome – dangerous climate change.

The Brave New Climate World vision as I’ve characterized it above only has meaning if it suggests that the identified actors can substantially accelerate the natural pace of the low-carbon transition, and significantly lower the post-transition global temperature forecast. It is certainly an attractive idea.

The Brave New Climate World vision may be new, but the different pathways making up that vision have been extensively studied. Indeed, large knowledge bases exist for each of the pathways bulleted above. For city and regional climate action, much of that knowledge base is here. For individual action, here. For business decision-making, see here for business risk, here for business opportunity, and here for business response. And see here for investment sector responses to climate change. Each of these knowledge bases pull together hundreds of reports, news stories, videos, and much more.

What’s generally missing from these knowledge bases are road maps for how city-driven, individually-driven, business-driven, or investor-driven initiatives can substantially accelerate a low-carbon transition. It’s easy to state that these initiatives “must” (and therefore will) succeed for the good of the planet. But that is rhetoric, not a road map. It’s easy to say that if all the world’s companies voluntarily implemented science-based targets it would make up for missing climate policy, but that is mathematical extrapolation, not a road map. The same goes for similar “if all . . .” statements involving cities, investors, and individuals. Yes, if everyone stopped eating meat and started driving electric vehicles it would lower future temperatures; but where is the road map that demonstrates that such a self-motivated outcome is plausible?

The problem all of these visions face is that if the economic externality behind excessive GHG emissions is not corrected (via implicit or explicit global carbon pricing strategies that induce behavior change) how can across-the-board business, city, individual, or investor decision-making be expected to change? It’s true that there are many anecdotal examples of companies, cities, and individuals doing great things and showing real leadership. Their relative numbers, however, are very small. And the carbon pricing we’ve seen to date, including self-imposed internal carbon-prices by growing numbers of companies, are generally too low to generate significant behavior change.

So while the Brave New Climate World vision being so widely expressed since President Trump’s announcement is a very interesting one, I’m left looking for more. Where is the analysis that goes beyond anecdotes to road map how cities, businesses, individuals, or investors can plausibly affect global temperatures through the specific levers available to them?

Whether you think of combating climate change as a 1,000,000 piece jigsaw puzzle or as a planetary game of Climate Chess, thinking through how to respond to President Trump’s announcement is critical. If you’ve seen anything resembling the kinds of road maps I’m talking about, please pass them along so I can include them in the Climate Web’s knowledge bases. And if you haven’t, the knowledge bases I’ve pointed to above might be a good starting point.


This post was originally published on LinkedIn.

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Mark Trexler

Mark has more than 30 years of regulatory and energy policy experience. He has advised clients around the world on climate change risk and risk management. He is widely published on business risk management topics surrounding climate change, including in the design and deployment of carbon markets. Mark has served as a lead author for the IPCC and holds advanced degrees from the University of California at Berkeley.

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