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The Sacred Science

Irwin M. Stelzer

They have come to Bonn, Germany, some 25,000 diplomats, scientists, and lobbyists from some 200 nations to put flesh on the bare bones of the climate agreement signed two years ago. That’s when members of the congregation, gathered in Paris, pledged to limit further global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels (a target few knowledgeable observers believe is attainable).

It was Fiji’s turn to play host, but the congregation had swollen to a size the small island-nation could not accommodate them all.

The meetings, budgeted to cost $136.3 million and scheduled to run until November 17, began on a high note: a new member was added to the flock. Bashar Assad’s Syria signed on to the non-enforceable agreement, presumably intending to honor his pledge much as he had once promised to abandon the use of chemical weapons. Syria has been prevented by international sanctions from sending representatives to these conferences, and has not yet filed its plans for reducing its emissions. But with Syria becoming an accepted member of the climate fraternity, “the U.S. is now so isolated”, announced Safa Al Jayoussi, executive director of Indyact, a Lebanon-based environmental organization “that works with Arab countries on climate change,” according to the New York Times.

All religions have their rituals, and the believers in global warming have theirs. To offset the enormous carbon footprint created by the jet-setting congregants, Germany’s Angela Merkel has issued bicycles to attendees who must travel from hotel to meeting rooms, and bottles in which to put tap water, thereby making the production of 500,000 plastic cups unnecessary.

Merkel, whose shutdown of her nuclear plants has forced Germany to rely more heavily on coal and lignite (the dirtiest sort of coal), prefers increasing—yes, increasing—her country’s emissions, rather than letting it go dark when the wind don’t blow and the sun don’t shine.

Germany now generates 40 percent of its electricity from coal; the figure in America is 30 percent and falling, making Merkel’s attack on the apostate, Donald Trump, more a diversionary tactic than an expression of true outrage.

Yet in the hypocrisy race, where the prize goes to the leading Trump-basher, Merkel might not be the clear winner. Her colleagues use a cap-and-trade system that allows 46 percent of all permits to be given at no charge to major energy-intensive industries that might flee the EU if forced to pay for pollution permits. Femke de Jong, of Carbon Market Watch, told the Wall Street Journal, “The EU carbon market will continue to fail at its task to spur green investments and phase out coal.”

Trump has nailed his objections to the climate-warming thesis to the door of his Environmental Protection Agency: climate change is a hoax, fake news, impoverishing hard-working coal miners. He has set in motion the withdrawal of America from the Paris accords in 2020, the earliest date permitted by the agreement. Meanwhile, the United States will attend the meetings.

Trump, reportedly at the urging of his daughter Ivanka, says his withdrawal might be withdrawn if his art of the deal produces an agreement that is fairer to his country than the current arrangement—which requires America to reduce its emissions while China is permitted to increase the emissions from its own plants and the 700 coal-burning electric-generating stations it is financing around the world. The president, who handles cognitive dissonance rather well, feels no need to reconcile his willingness to re-join an emissions-fighting coalition with his view that emissions are not a problem.

But like all true believers, Merkel says there is no room for re-negotiation—bend a knee to Paris, or leave and be, well, damned. But please don’t take with you the U.S. troops that we rely on to prevent Vladimir Putin from nibbling away at NATO’s geographic buffer that protects Germany from becoming a close neighbor of the Russian revanchist. And do keep sending money to developing nations so that they don’t decide their emissions-reductions pledges are too costly to honor.

Both parties know they are right. To the Bonn congregants, dissenters are “deniers,” a word previously reserved for those who denied the occurrence of the Holocaust. To the Trumpkins, the climate models have been conjured up to expand the regulatory state.

“The distinctive characteristic of academics, their DNA, is doubt,” writes Jean Tirole in his Economics for the Common Good. Neither view represented in Bonn is possessed of that academic devil, doubt. The Trump side, in an inadvertent admission of their fear of facts, is cutting off funding for further research, while the climate-change believers, less confident in their conclusions than they would have us believe, bar doubters from access to academic journals and, with the help of state law enforcement officials, try to toss corporate dissenters into jail, burning at the stake no longer being considered an available punishment.

This mutual distrust compounds the political difficulty of devising policies that persuade voters to bear the costs of policies that will primarily benefit not themselves, but future generations. This is a problem of the sort politicians hate to confront. We do not know with certainty whether the earth is warming, if it is what is the cause, and how cataclysmic the consequences of inaction might be. We do not know whether recent weather upheavals from the United Kingdom to Houston to Puerto Rico to fire-scorched California and Portugal are early warning signs, or mere continuations of past life- and property-destroying storms and fires. We do know that the costs of taking what Churchill called “action this day” must be defended by current officeholders, while the benefits of those tax-funded outlays will not be reaped until those officials are long since retired. Their reluctance to act is understandable.

Which brings us to an unintended benefit of the planned Trump withdrawal. State and city governments in the United States, most of them Trump-haters to their cores and eager to embarrass him publicly, are stepping up programs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in their areas. More important, America’s private sector has swung into action. More than 900 firms have pledged to reduce their emissions by as much as Obama claimed the Paris agreement would. The executives of these companies now have their reputations on the line with investors and increasingly green customers. Trump is a passing phenomenon when compared to the long depreciable lives of investments made in plant and equipment. No executive wants to be required to explain why an investment made today is later “stranded,” valueless because it doesn’t meet environmental standards prevailing at some distant date. This private-sector activity belies the position of some Parties (capitalization required when referring to signatories) and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that would, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Global Energy Institute, “like to see businesses banned [even] from observing the meetings.”

The 25,000 delegates gathered in Bonn believe, as did Rick Blaine, that “We will always have Paris.” Trump, so far, prefers to be rid of meddlesome emissions restrictions and move briskly backwards into a world dominated by fossil fuels. We will know more next year, when the Paris agreement calls for a “Facilitative Dialogue” to assess the various nations’ commitments. Bidding for the film rights has not been vigorous.

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