Will they or won’t they? The past few weeks have seen a flurry of reporting on the internal White House struggles over whether to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement.
The agreement, which calls for action by the world’s nations to limit global temperature increases, was a major target of criticism by President Trump when he was on the campaign trail. But advisers both inside and outside the administration now argue over whether it would be better to try to reform the agreement rather than end U.S. participation altogether. These arguments have led to some unusual places. For instance, some coal companies argue the United States should stay in the agreement to influence it in a more pro-fossil fuels direction.
Others have argued that staying in the Paris agreement would create legal obstacles to rolling back Obama-era regulations of greenhouse gases. That’s probably not true, as the agreement is not binding, but it does raise the question of how Paris can be so important when it doesn’t require anyone to actually do anything.
The problem with Paris fundamentally is the same problem that faces all international agreements on climate change. We don’t have a world government (I realize that may seem like a strange thing for a conservative to say, but hear me out). The essence of government is force. To quote George Washington on the Internet, “Government is not reason, it is not eloquence — it is force.” If there’s one thing a government does well, it’s using force.
Forcing people to do things is generally a bad idea. But unless one is an anarchist, there are times it is unavoidable. Trying to fund the military solely through voluntary contributions, for example, would leave a nation vulnerable to attack. If you doubt that, think of the last time you paid more in taxes than you legally owed. Without funding through taxation, national defense would represent what’s known as a collective-action problem. I get the benefit of military protection regardless how much I contribute to its upkeep. Left to my own devices, my incentive is to skimp on my own contribution, hoping that others will pick up the slack. The same incentives, however, apply to everyone else.
Dealing with climate change likewise represents a collective action problem, except at the international rather than the national scale. When a country takes action to limit its greenhouse-gas emissions, it bears all the costs itself, but the benefits accrue to all countries, regardless whether they have taken comparable steps to limit their own emissions. It is called “global” warming, after all. It is each country’s personal interest to keep emitting and hope someone else will take the costly steps needed to solve the problem.
Moreover, even if a country did eliminate its own emissions, it wouldn’t solve the problem. In fact, to the extent that lower emissions from one country have an impact on future temperatures, they create incentives for other countries to emit more. This helps explain the otherwise strange phenomenon whereby island nations likely to be wiped out by rising sea levels still burn fossil fuels.
And unlike national defense, the collective-action problem with climate change can’t be solved by coercion, since there is (thank God) no international government capable of forcing nations to act in this way. Politicians may be happy to have signing ceremonies where they pledge their nations to take strong action in the future (preferably after they are out of office), but they rarely follow through. If long-term emissions reductions are to be achieved, it likely won’t come via international conferences and agreements. Countries will reduce emissions only when they have some reason to do so other than the direct effects of climate change. That’s not impossible, but it will require creativity.
Back during the early days of radio, people assumed that broadcasting represented a collective-action problem that could only be solved by government. Why would people pay for radio programming when they could get the radio broadcasts for free? Broadcasters were able to get around this problem by bundling their programming with advertisements, and having advertisers foot the bill. In the same way, reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions could be “bundled” with other benefits—such as tax cuts, cheaper energy or cleaner air—that provide immediate benefits at the national level. Developing these will be far more important than whatever the Trump administration decides to do about Paris.
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