It's imprudent for Trump to disagree with the Paris Agreement

By Patrick M. Regan, Professor of Political Science & Associate Director of the Environmental Change Initiative for ND-GAIN

President Trump and his his administration have suggested that a prudent action would be to reverse the United States’ commitment to the Paris Agreement. This is not something that the United States should take lightly, neither should the President.

The floods, droughts, storms and fires ravaging homes and affecting Americans across the country are no longer solely about addressing the reality of climate change, but also about addressing needs at a local level so policy makers can help municipalities in adapting to these changing conditions. The Paris Agreement committed countries to develop coherent adaptation plans; if the US abandons our commitment to the Agreement we also abandon our commitment to helping our own communities adapt to the changing climate.

Adaptation is a necessary and critical step that intervenes between physical changes and human consequences, and U.S. policy should be at the forefront of these efforts. Adaptation is about reducing the vulnerability – or risk -- from climate change to the things we value. Insurance companies are masters at evaluating risk and assigning cost to potential outcomes. Their payouts have escalated rather dramatically in recent years. Communities in this country and beyond have to similarly evaluate risks from a changing climate and put in place policies to adapt to new circumstances. We have to find ways to offset the expected consequences from our changing climate. Forest fires, storms and heat waves all impose a cost, both human and financial; adaption is about planning to minimize these costs.

An established measure of climate vulnerability – ND-GAIN Country Index – demonstrates that policy can influence the amount of risk faced from a changing climate. Recent social and political changes in Myanmar, for example, have contributed to it being one of the countries that most significantly reduced its vulnerability over the last year. Sri Lanka is another of the ‘big movers’ on the GAIN index. The changes in these countries were driven by factors unrelated to climate change, but the Index demonstrates that political reforms can put in place policies that reduce risks from climate change. It doesn’t take sweeping political reforms to reduce these risks, and instead commitments embodied in the Paris Agreement can help align strategies and policies that local level risks from climate change.

When the President points to the inefficiency of the Paris Agreement he is focusing primarily on the mitigation components of the agreement, which to his way of thinking puts too much of the onus on human causes. If a changing climate harms the agricultural, health or industrial sectors in countries across the globe, U.S. security is increasingly at risk. The dislocations generated by poor adaptation planning can lead to increased armed conflict, decreases in crop yields, and increases in the spread of disease carrying insects. All of these put our budget and our soldiers at risk, even if climate change is a result of natural processes and the consequences are thousands of miles away.

Adapting to climate change is a global concern. The Zika virus has reached our shores in Miami and our neighbors in Puerto Rico even though the initial outbreak was in Brazil. The Department of Defense (DOD) reported recently that as a result of climate change 600,000 square kilometers of arable land in Africa will become unproductive by 2060. This will only come about if the communities that face increasing drought condition and lose agricultural productivity do not adapt to the changing climate. Only 6% of African agriculture uses ground water irrigation techniques; adaptation strategies would require planning for the climate-driven changes, possibly through increased irrigation. If they fail and the DOD is correct, our soldiers might be called upon to defend our security from unrest on the African continent.

Adaptation is a function of the capabilities, planning and exposure in particular countries and at specific points in time. The Paris Agreement stipulated that each country would put itself in position to be able to answer questions about their adaptive capacity, to build programs that would increase their readiness to adapt, and to set in motion the mechanisms for the world community to facilitate the implementation of adaptation strategies in countries less able to do so on their own. Withdrawing our commitment to this agreement serves to decrease our security on many levels, not the least of which is suffering the human consequences that result from a lack of adequate planning.