The US Will Be The Only Country Not In The Paris Agreement. Now What?

24:14 minutes

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Thousands of delegates from around the world are meeting in Bonn, Germany this month to hash out more details on how nations will reduce carbon emissions under the Paris Climate Accord, the international effort to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius or less. Syria, once the last nation to hold out, announced this week that it will also sign on. This leaves the United States, which is intending to draw out as soon as legally feasible, alone in rejecting the agreement.

[Need to talk to a climate change denier? Try these tips.]

Manjana Milkoreit, a political scientist at Purdue University, and Katharine Hayhoe, climate scientist at Texas Tech, talk about the role of the United States in combating climate change. They also discuss a new report released—and ignored—by the Trump administration finding that the world is warming faster and with worse consequences than previously expected.

Plus, an aging fleet of military satellites has provided data about polar ice coverage since 1979. David Gallaher, National Snow and Ice Data Center senior associate scientist, explains why maintaining this record is both vital and threatened by a lack of new satellites.

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Segment Guests

Katharine Hayhoe

Katherine Hayhoe is a professor and director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas.

Manjana Milkoreit

Manjana Milkoreit is an assistant professor of political science at Purdue University. She’s based in West Lafayette, Indiana.

David Gallaher

David Gallaher is a senior associate scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center. He’s based in Boulder, Colorado.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Plato. With or without the United States, the work on the Paris Climate Accord continues. This week, talks are underway in Bonn, Germany to nail down more details about how nations will meet their goals for cutting carbon emissions, and how they will hold each other accountable in coming years.

And just Tuesday, Syria signed onto the accord, leaving the US as the only country not in agreement about climate change. Yet at the same time, the White House released a report just last week that highlighted human influence in climate change and warned the globe is already warming faster and more dramatically than previously predicted. This is the very same White House that is dismantling President Obama’s initiatives to reduce US carbon emissions.

So what does all of this mean? What happens next? That’s what we’re going to be talking about. Our number (844) 724-8255. Let me introduce my guests. Katharine Hayhoe, professor of Political Science and Director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University. She was the lead author on the new US Government report. Welcome to Science Friday.

KATHARINE HAYHOE: Thank you for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Manjana Milkoreit, assistant professor of political science at Purdue University. She has been at the talks in Bonn this week. Welcome to you, Dr. Milkoreit.

MANJANA MILKOREIT: Hi Ira, thanks for being on the show.

IRA FLATOW: Perhaps you can fill us in. What’s been happening at the talks this week? Can you give us a little wrap-up?

MANJANA MILKOREIT: Sure, happy to do that. So the talks have started, as you mentioned, working diligently on a lot of detail to work out how the Paris agreement can actually be implemented. Like any new agreement, the Paris agreement has left a number of questions open, and has raised a number of questions, especially with regards to implementing this new deal. And so parties are meeting to work out those details, which are really important to actually make it effective and make it work.

That’s what they’ve been doing. This is not very exciting work. It’s the nitty gritty of putting in place rules and details which parties call the Paris Rulebook. And that rulebook is supposed to be finished next year in 2018 and COP ’24 in Poland. So that’s what I’ve been doing.

IRA FLATOW: And of course, we’ve heard that Syria is in the accord, but the US is pulling out, though they still have people in Bonn this week. Is that sort of a contradiction or not?

MANJANA MILKOREIT: You might think that’s a contradiction. But actually for the time being, the US is still a full member of the Paris agreement. The agreement does not permit anybody to drop out for about three years after it comes into effect. That means until 2019 the US is a full member and therefore has a very good reason to be here. Even after that, they would have a good reason to be at the negotiations, because they’re still a member of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

So there are some, the Paris Agreement is a component of that, a top component. And they would be, even if they dropped out of that, they would still be part of this larger Framework Convention, and therefore should be here to have a voice. And so that’s what they’re doing right now.

But obviously, it is a bit contradictory–


MANJANA MILKOREIT: –as President Trump announces that he is not intending to stay in this agreement in the long run, but then negotiators are here and they’re actively participating in working out the details of the Paris Rulebook, which presumably will not apply to the US. So the negotiators are involved in making rules that will not apply to themselves if things go as President Trump intends them to go right now. So that of course has raised a few eyebrows, and might make things complicated, also, in terms of the credibility maybe of the negotiators around the table.

But at the same time, it is also true that other countries might be very interested in making this agreement work for the US, with a long term view, but also in case anything might change over the next three years and might change President Trump’s mind.

So there are a number of angles to take to this, but yes, it is certainly a challenging situation for the US delegation.

IRA FLATOW: A lot of moving parts, like they say.


IRA FLATOW: Dr. Hayhoe, you’re the lead author of this new US report. What makes this scientifically important that we haven’t heard from previous reports?

KATHARINE HAYHOE: Well, the hundreds of pages in this report can really be summarized in one sentence: climate is changing, humans are responsible, the risks are serious, and the window of time to keep global temperature below the level stated in the Paris agreement is closing fast.

Yet, at the same time, this report also lays out in great detail a lot of new understanding and new research on how our choices, the choices we make on how we get our energy, whether we get it from coal or gas or oil, or wind and solar, how our choices are affecting our planet. What it means to the oceans, to the Antarctic, to the giant ice sheets there, what’s happening up in the Arctic, what’s actually happening in the places where we live. How climate change is affecting the risk of some of the extreme events that we have seen so many of this year.

IRA FLATOW: It almost seems contradictory. I mean, we were talking, I mean, you know about, Dr. Milkoreit about what’s going on in Bonn, and now we have a report that’s released by the administration that contradicts the president’s opinion about global warming being man-made or human-caused. What– did this leak out by accident?

KATHARINE HAYHOE: Ira, the irony is unescapable. At this point, the Climate Science Special Report, which people can find online Science2017.GlobalChange.gov. This report is currently the most comprehensive and up-to-date report on climate science in the entire world. And yes, it was released by the United States, the only country who has stated it will be pulling out of the Paris Agreement right before the Bonn meetings. What is going on?

The reality is is that this report had been in the pipeline for a very long time, almost two years. Public review drafts were already released last Christmas. The fifth order draft had been leaked to the New York Times in the summer. And I don’t know for sure. I’m just an author. I’m not privy to the negotiations. But my educated guess would be that somebody realized that there would be 100 times more press and coverage if it were suppressed at this point than if it were just released. And that is a sad commentary on the state of our media today.

IRA FLATOW: Our Number (844) 724-8255 if you’d like to get in on this discussion that is, I guess, bewildering on many different levels. Let me–

MANJANA MILKOREIT: Ira, maybe I could just add to that.


MANJANA MILKOREIT: So I think the report was, you say it was released, and maybe it was something not held back for smart reasons, of letting the science be science. And certainly it’s not the case that the US delegation here is now stating any doubts about the climate science either, right. So they do not come here with any marching directions that entail climate skepticism of any kind. They are working constructively.

And so in that sense, there are kind of two separate processes, like it is often the case, that the science and the politics are rather separate, even if you expect them to merge and make sense of this problem together.

IRA FLATOW: I hear you almost saying that people are just ignoring what the President has said, and doing business as usual.

MANJANA MILKOREIT: No, certainly not. I mean, they do have a negotiation mandate that is, has come down partly, I believe, from the White House and from the issue of the State Department. And as long as there are no contradictory policy directions from the White House, they will keep working on the climate problems within the UN National Assembly as they have before. And that’s what they do right now. And I think that’s– yeah, for now this has not changed. And it’s unforeseeable how it will change in the future.

IRA FLATOW: Interesting. Well let me ask you, with the stated intention of pulling out by 2020, will the US pullout affect the success of the rest of the accord? Dr. Milkoreit.

MANJANA MILKOREIT: That is a very interesting question, and lots of people have been really worried about that. But it turns out, at least so far, that does not seem to be the case, at least not as badly as people have been concerned about.

So one effect people have, or one concern people have raised, is that other countries might follow suit. Given that the US is the second-largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world, them pulling out might actually signal to others that they should do the same. Or they might weaken the accord even if they don’t do it explicitly. They might do it silently by simply not upholding their own promises, and not taking action as they have promised to do so far, and not increasing action, either, because it is a collective action problem. If not everybody pulls their weight, we cannot solve this problem.

And so that has been a concern, but all countries have re-stated their commitments to the deal. They are here. They’re working constructively. And they’re repeating their intention to increase ambition over time, which is a challenging thing to do and has been going very slow. But nevertheless, there has been no pulling back, at least not explicit pulling back, from others.

IRA FLATOW: Interesting.

MANJANA MILKOREIT: However, the challenge is of course that the US is a big emitter. And in the long run, without US contributions, the agreement will not be as effective as it could be if they were in. So that really is something where, in the long run, there will have to be an American contribution to solve the climate challenge.

KATHARINE HAYHOE: And if I may add, the discussion so far suggests that there is not an American contribution, and that is actually completely false. It’s not a 0% or 100%. As we currently stand, states, cities, businesses, and other organizations representing 40% of the US population and $6 trillion of the US economy are committed to the We Are Still In movement. The United States does not have a pavilion in Bonn, but that We Are Still In movement does have a pavilion, led by Michael Bloomberg and Jerry Brown.

So we are looking at a large fraction, not quite half but still a large fraction of the United States, which includes nine states, 252 cities, and almost 1800s businesses and investors are still in on the Paris agreement. IRA FLATOW: All right, let me check in on another story about climate. And this has to do with weather satellites. NOAA is launching one today to observe the poles. And this is the first in its new Joint Polar Satellite System series. But while our existing fleet of polar satellites is indeed aging and suffering, the new ones may not be enough to keep track of one very important piece of climate data. And that is the polar ice coverage. Here to explain more is David Gallaher, senior associate scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder. Welcome, David, to Science Friday.

DAVID GALLAHER: Yeah, can you hear me

IRA FLATOW: I can hear you. A little weak, but we can hear you. Tell us why this, where does our data about polar ice coverage come from?

DAVID GALLAHER: Currently, and for the last, since 1979, our standard basis for ice, sea ice in particular, has come from a series of satellites called the DMSP series, the Defense Military Satellite Program that’s been in existence since 1963. And these passive microwave records starts in 1979. The continuous record, that is, starts in ’79.

And it’s the ability of a passive microwave to see through the clouds that gives us a very steady, coherent mechanism saying, OK, this is not only, here’s where the ice is and where it isn’t, but also a way to compare from year to year. Is it growing? Is it shrinking? It’s that long-term record, that time series record, that enables us to really get this and get a handle on it.

IRA FLATOW: And why won’t the satellite launching today do the job?

DAVID GALLAHER: It’ll help, but it’s not complete. Unfortunately, it’s missing some of the lower-most frequencies that we use in establishing where that ice is.

IRA FLATOW: Why isn’t there a better replacement ready to go, then?

DAVID GALLAHER: Ah, well, there was. This is where it gets interesting. There was a satellite called F20 that was already bought and paid for. We’re talking a satellite that was worth around $400 million in today’s dollars. It was built almost 20 years ago, but the Air Force had bought these in a block called DMSP, it was their block 3C.

IRA FLATOW: Whatever.

DAVID GALLAHER: Anyway, They had bought this whole series. Anyway, they decided, Congress defunded the last satellite, and it was subsequently destroyed last year. They actually were forced to take it apart.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, whoa, well let me give this I, well let give the break ID, then talk about it.

This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International.


IRA FLATOW: Talking now with David Gallaher. They were forced to destroy the satellite.

DAVID GALLAHER: Correct. Congress defunded the satellite. They said nope, you can’t launch it. And you’re going, wait a minute, guys. It’s only– we’ve already paid for this thing. It’s sitting there, ready to go. The Obama administration was for it. The Air Force was for it. The Congress said nope, we’re not giving any money. And they wouldn’t even allow them to keep it in storage. They said the storage costs at $40 million a year was excessive. Its cost over the 20 years of the program has cost too much, and get rid of the satellite.

So, guess what they’re doing now? They’re trying now to put in money to build another satellite.

The problem is that they’re not going to get that new satellite built. And these– our old satellites are starting to fail.


DAVID GALLAHER: These were only designed to last five years, and the newest one of which is already seven years old. Are we going to last another six years? That’s the question.

IRA FLATOW: Well why don’t they just, as one congressman once told Jane Lubchenco, why don’t you just turn to the Weather Channel and use their satellite, you know?

DAVID GALLAHER: Yeah, yeah, I know. I always love that. Don’t you? Where do you think the Weather Channel gets their data?


Last I checked they don’t have any satellites, so.

IRA FLATOW: So there’s going to be a gap in the data, then, you’re saying.

DAVID GALLAHER: Right. And this is highly significant. Because it’s kind of, the best analogy I can put is, imagine you’re a long-term heart patient who’s not doing well, kind of like Earth. And you have you’ve been, you have, or you’re wearing a full-time heart monitor to see what’s going on.

Suddenly they say, oh, we’re going to take that heart monitor away. And there’s a new one, it’s on order, but it won’t be here for another few months. And then they get the new one and oh, these leads are all different and we’re not getting the same data. Well, how do you compare the old to the new? And the answer is you can’t.

And that’s what we’re up against. We may, if we hit a gap, we won’t, even if they get a new satellite up, we won’t be able to really compare those two records if there’s not an overlap.

IRA FLATOW: Dr. Hayhoe, any reaction?

KATHARINE HAYHOE: Yes, this is, you know, the idea that a stitch in time saves nine later on. We’re looking at a lot more than nine stitches in terms of building a new satellite.

And I think this is the kind of endemic disregard of science, of observing, not just science but observing what is happening to this planet. Somehow, we as humans have ended up with this idea that we don’t need our planet. We would be just fine floating in outer space. The reality is we depend on this planet for the air we breathe every second, the food we eat, the water we drink, the places where we live. It is our home. And understanding what is happening to our home and what we are doing to our home should be essential, and it should just be common sense.

DAVID GALLAHER: And this is the record that NSIDC, and actually the rest of the world then, uses to really say, how are we doing?

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, let me– yeah, let me see if I can get a quick call in before the break. Let’s go to Jim in Cyprus Heights, California. Hi Jim. Jim!

JIM: Good morning.

IRA FLATOW: Quickly.

JIM: Good afternoon for you. Hello?

IRA FLATOW: Go ahead, yes. I’m running out of time before the break.

JIM: My question is, why do you always focus on the politics of climate change? I have many friends who are skeptics, and you never actually talked about the science.

IRA FLATOW: We talk about science all the time.

KATHARINE HAYHOE: I’d love to take that one.

IRA FLATOW: Quickly.

KATHARINE HAYHOE: All right. It’s because 99.9% of the time, the reason why people object to climate change is not really because of the science. Sure, they throw up sciencey-sounding arguments like “it’s just a natural cycle.” And we tackle that in our PBS Global Weirding videos that you can find on YouTube.

But if you have a conversation, within three minutes, with somebody who doesn’t think the science is real, within three minutes or less it will pivot to, I don’t want the government telling me what to do, or Al Gore yada yada yada, or you know they’re like, they’re going to take my truck away.

The real problem is the ideology, is the politics, is the solutions.

IRA FLATOW: We’re going to say goodbye to David Gallaher, senior associate scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder. The rest of you stay on the line, keep calling us, and we’ll be back after the break. Stay with us.

I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday. We’re talking about the future of the Paris Climate Accord as international talks continue in Bonn this week. We’re talking with Katharine Hayhoe, professor of political science, director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech. That’s in Lubbock, Texas. And Manjana Milkoreit, who is assistant professor of political science at Purdue University. She’s been at the talks in Bonn this week.

So in the few minutes we have left, I know Dr. Hayhoe you were eager to jump on that call about not believing in this. And is there anything you can say to people who are climate skeptics or deniers that would change anybody’s mind?

KATHARINE HAYHOE: So, it isn’t a black or white issue. It isn’t a yes or no. If we look across the spectrum, only 10% of the population are hardcore dismissives, in that they will dismiss anything, any piece of evidence you show them.

Much more people, many more people, are doubtful or even cautious about this. Why are they doubtful and cautious? Because they’re hearing people say contradictory things, and they’re being told that who they are, if they’re a conservative, if they are a person of faith, if they are Republican, if they believe in the free market, or national security, they’re being told that the who they are is a person who can’t support the solutions, because the only solutions are the government setting your thermostat, taking away your truck, ruining the economy, and letting China rule the world. These are kind of the fake solutions that are presented.

So, how do we get around this? By talking the real solutions. By talking about how wind supplies you know, 15% of Texas’ electricity almost by now. By the fact that Chinese companies are coming into Wyoming and training coal miners who’ve lost their jobs on how to do wind installations. By the fact that we are seeing changes all around the world happening. India is setting the cheapest prices in solar energy this past year. We’re seeing the solutions, and they’re solutions that grow the local economy and invest in people at the local scale. They’re not solutions that are punitive, that would destroy the economy, and that would run counter to people’s political ideology.

IRA FLATOW: Dr. Milkoreit, the Paris Accord ultimately does not force any country to lower its carbon emissions. Do you think this kind of agreement can be successful, then, in slowing warming anyway?

MANJANA MILKOREIT: That is something that remains to be seen. So as you said, everybody only has voluntary commitment. Every country makes pledges and submits that they want to fulfill, or at least think that they are going to fulfill over the next few years.

And the way that the Paris agreement is trying to deal with the question of effectiveness, and trying to make sure that these pledges actually all add up to reaching the globally-shared temperature goal, for example, is by setting up a number of transparency and review mechanisms, the ambitions, as I call them in negotiation jargon. And that means that, not only do countries make new pledges or revised pledges every five years, but they also check in on each other’s pledges and actions every five years to track and assess how far they have gotten.

So there are a number of mechanisms that try to look at what countries have actually done, and how much it adds up to, in terms of moving towards these shared goals. And parties hope that this collective process of assessment and transparency, creating some kind of peer pressure and a bit of a psychological moment of truth every five years, is going to help nudge parties to keep doing more over time.

So it is an architecture that is constantly trying to create momentum towards more action on climate change. And it remains to be seen if that’s going to work, but those are the kinds of details that are being worked out in Bonn right now. And if they’re being worked out in a good way, then we might see some success over the next five 10, 15 years with the regular stock-taking and transparency mechanisms.

IRA FLATOW: So what would be the best-case scenario, then, that could come out of the accord?

MANJANA MILKOREIT: Well, the best-case scenario is that this cycle of ambition actually works. So currently, as you probably know, countries have pledged, or have made their initial pledges with the Paris Accord in 2015. And those pledges do not get us anywhere close to the global temperature goal of well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. They got us about one-third there, which means everybody’s got to do more.

If the rules parties put in place end up working, and actually encouraging every party to make revised pledges every five years that go up over time– so there’s an implicit norm here that countries would make pledges that go up or increase their ambition, right, they would pledge more over time –and that the more one party pledges, the more another party might be encouraged to pledge. And also, the more the wealthy parties actually do to support the developing countries, the more the developing countries can contribute to this process, too.

So the theory is that, over time, these promises would add up to more, and the ratchet mechanism, as it’s called, would work its way towards closing the emissions gap, and now also an adaptation in a finance gap that people are talking about.

IRA FLATOW: Dr. Hayhoe,

MANJANA MILKOREIT: That was my time.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah? Do you agree this is the best outcome–


IRA FLATOW: –you could expect?

KATHARINE HAYHOE: I do. In Paris, most of us were thinking about all the carbon emission reductions that developed countries had to do. But many more countries were there saying, hey we haven’t hardly produced any carbon emissions at all, yet we need to not only develop, not only build our economies, but we are increasingly coping with the impacts of a changing climate, a climate that’s changing not because of anything that we really did.

So to me the best analogy for this international process is a potluck dinner. Who’s bringing what to the table? The people who have contributed the most to the hunger problem need to show up with the biggest dishes. And, as you know from potlucks, you know you always end up with too much of one thing and not enough of another.

IRA FLATOW: Spoken like a true Texan.


Thank you very much. Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, professor of political science and director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, and Manjana Milkoreit, who is assistant professor of political science at Purdue University. She was at the talks in Bonn this week.

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