Fleeing the Paris Accord Makes Scientific Sense
President Trump’s announcement of the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Accord climate agreement is a bombshell news story. His declaration has met with widespread condemnation in the press and scientific outlets. These critics raise some good points.
Piecing together a broad international agreement that extracts concessions from hundreds of nations is a Herculean effort. There’s no guarantee that if this accord falls apart a future agreement could be reached again—if it should be deemed necessary. If human activity truly bears out as a great threat to society and the current climatic cycles of our planet, we may lose crucial time in combatting it. If we buy into the slippery stock of international good will, this decision will not earn us dividends.
Still, there are scientifically valid arguments for fleeing Paris.
The IPCC paints a gripping watercolor of Earth's future. Oceans rise to swallow up coastal cities and submerge low-lying islands. Imagine New York City becoming an archipelago! (Perhaps the media would be less concerned if parts of, say, Kansas or Idaho were to return to the sea.) However, these predictions arise from climate models that extrapolate a century or more into the future. In 2016, a broad study showed that our climate forecast models did a poor job of predicting just one decade of sea level change!
Another pillar of the Paris Accord is its reliance on predictions of global temperatures over the next century. Surprisingly, climate models aren't so hot at predicting global average temperatures either. Even the advocates of climate science, publishing in the most respected scientific journal in existence, will admit that they utterly failed to predict just the past 20 years. Over that period there was far less warming than predicted.
Failed climate predictions litter the troposphere, as I have detailed before here at RealClearScience. Sea ice at the arctic pole floats on. Claims of horrific hurricane seasons have been widely debunked. The burning of climate heretics at the stake has not stopped all dissent.
I am not an expert on climate science. But when I see models that fail so badly in their predictions, it triggers my basic trained instincts as a scientist. Something is wrong. We need to stop, calm down, and think.
The actions called for in the Paris Agreement are founded upon the predictions of models that have a poor track record of success. That’s not a failure of scientists or computers. Earth’s climate is so incomprehensibly complex and hard to fully understand that no computer ever built could model its vastness and detail. You’ve heard of the ‘butterfly effect.’ This is its most grand expression. No empirical model could successfully predict the climate in more than weak detail for an extended period before succumbing to chaos.
Yet, we are planning our future based on the these terribly oversold predictions. We might not fare much better trusting the divining of Miss Cleo.
Finally, the issue of climate science brings us to a moral question. How can we balance the predicted possible good of our civilization 100 years from today with the economic livelihood and prosperity of our economy tomorrow and every year up to that time? How can we fairly devise such a massive regulatory scheme on billions of souls? I don’t pretend to know the answer. But I think it’s very clear that there are two moral and ethical viewpoints at odds here. Science doesn’t rule and dictate the realm of morals, economics, and livelihood. Regardless of who is right, both sides have a point, and we ought to respect that. Scientists can build models and test predictions, but we shouldn’t be in the business of telling the public how to live their lives. (The public isn't stupid. They don't like this either.) That should be decided by the will of the people, expressed through elections. "Elections have consequences," someone said bluntly.
There are some good scientific arguments for US participation in the Paris Agreements. However, there are legitimate scientific, ethical, and even moral arguments against it as well. The science isn’t strong enough, and its rule does not extend so far into the realm of our daily lives and ethical values. Our withdrawal is, emphatically, not the end of the world.