New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker made an uncomfortable but necessary point during the second Democratic primary debate: The bar for action on climate change is higher than it used to be, and pledging to rejoin the Paris climate agreement is too low of a bar for presidential candidates.
“Nobody should get applause for rejoining the Paris climate accords. That is kindergarten,” Booker said. “[T]he majority of this problem is outside the United States, but the only way we’re going to deal with this is if the United States leads.”
Under the 2015 Paris agreement, the US committed to cutting its greenhouse gas emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. Even at the time of its signing, countries knew that the Paris agreement wouldn’t be enough to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius this century, so the expectation was that signatories would ramp up their commitments over time.
In 2017, President Donald Trump declared that the US would withdraw from the accord, though the US can’t formally exit the agreement until 2020. However, the Trump administration has done everything it can in the meantime to undo environmental rules, including repealing regulations on greenhouse gases.
Now US greenhouse gas emissions are rising after years of decline. And as Booker noted, so are carbon dioxide emissions around the world, reaching an all-time high last year. As a result, the whole world is off-track on fighting climate change, even though United Nations scientists warned last year that the world may have as little as 12 years to halve emissions to stay on course to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the more ambitious target in the Paris agreement.
While the US has made strides in shrinking its carbon intensity, it still has one of the highest per capita emissions rates in the world and it leads every country in cumulative greenhouse gas emissions. That means largest share of human-produced gases warming the planet are due to the United States.
All of this points to an even greater moral responsibility for the US to lead the charge on climate change and bring the rest of the world along too. That’s going to be even more challenging given that the US, as the only country backing away from the Paris agreement, has burned bridges with other countries, a critical element of any international action. In turn it has weakened the US’s ability to pressure other countries to act on climate change through aid, trade, and sharing clean energy technology.
So to whip other countries into action on cutting emissions, the United States has to repair and reframe all the ways it interacts with other countries. “We need to make sure everything from our trade deals, everybody must be supplemented to the crisis that is existential which is dealing with the climate threat,” Booker said. “It must be the issue and the lens with which we view every issue.”
This means not only aggressively clamping down on fossil fuel burning in the United States, but ending US sales of coal, oil, and natural gas to other countries. It would require financing clean energy projects in other parts of the world and sharing intellectual property. It may also involve tariffs and sanctions on trade partners that aren’t pulling their weight in cutting emissions.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a fellow 2020 presidential contender, has made the same point, but it’s an attitude other candidates would do well to adopt too. Some have already shown a willingness to pick a fight with the fossil fuel industry. It’s high time to acknowledge that the goal posts on climate change have moved and the US will have to take more ambitious actions on a more aggressive time scale to meet its already tepid climate change goals.
This September, the United Nations is holding a climate change summit where countries are expected to ramp up their commitments, but with so many of the largest emitters off course, much more drastic action is needed. And the Paris agreement is no longer the starting line.