Joe Biden has pledged to rejoin the Paris climate agreement on the first day of his administration, a promise unambiguous and therefore certain to be fulfilled, notwithstanding the essential absurdity of the Paris agreement narrowly and of climate policies more generally. Applying the EPA climate model under highly favorable assumptions, the Paris agreement if implemented immediately and enforced strictly would reduce global temperatures in 2100 by about 0.17 degrees C, an effect that would be barely detectable given the normal variation in annual temperatures. The Biden proposal for net-zero emissions by the U.S.: 0.137 degrees C. The temperature effect by 2100 from either net-zero emissions by the entire OECD or a 30 percent cut in GHG emissions by the entire world: less than 0.3 degrees C.
The ostensible reductions in GHG emissions under the Paris agreement are merely the summed promises (“nationally determined contributions”) submitted by the various nations. There is neither “science” nor rigorous benefit/cost analysis underlying them, and there is no enforcement mechanism in any event; short of military action, any such enforcement would be impossible, notwithstanding all the current talk about “border adjustment” tariffs to be imposed upon economies failing to satisfy the demands of the international climate and environmental left. Indeed, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change(UNFCCC), under the authority of which the Paris agreement was negotiated, makes it quite clear that the resolution of disputes is wholly voluntary:
A conciliation commission shall be created upon the request of one of the parties to the dispute. The commission shall be composed of an equal number of members appointed by each party concerned and a chairman chosen jointly by the members appointed by each party. The commission shall render a recommendatory award, which the parties shall consider in good faith. (Italics added)
Notice also that almost all of the NDCs are promised emissions reductions relative to a “business as usual” baseline, that is, an emissions path unconstrained by any policies at all. Because GHG emissions are closely correlated with energy consumption, itself driven by gross domestic product, even a small overestimate of future economic growth will yield a BAU baseline assumption for future GHG emissions higher than realistic. When economic growth proves lower than assumed, so will GHG emissions; accordingly, the NDCs can (and many or most of them will) be fulfilled without any change at all in actual underlying emissions behavior. Commitments fulfilled!
The Paris agreement obviously is a treaty requiring ratification by the U.S. Senate, but because it was doomed to defeat had it been so submitted by President Obama, he pretended that it was merely an administrative agreement, agreeing to its terms in September 2016 by sending a letter to the UN. That this is clearly unconstitutional should be obvious: If presidents can decide unilaterally which international agreements require Senate ratification and which do not, the presidential “power, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, to make treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur” becomes unconstrained, a blatant destruction of the Senate’s explicit power to provide or to withhold consent.
Accordingly, the failure of President Trump to submit the Paris agreement to the Senate for a certain defeat was a major mistake, as doing so would have preserved the proper respective roles of the president and the Senate under the constitution, while relegating the agreement to its well-deserved place on the trash heap of history. His decision merely to implement a formal exit appeared attractive because it circumvented opposition by the State Department bureaucracy to a treaty ratification vote; the certain defeat was inconsistent with the bureaucracy’s eternal goal of endless expansion of the scope of international negotiations regardless of the harm to U.S. interests. But Trump’s chosen path of less resistance has yielded the current situation in which Obama and Trump have created a precedent that Biden can exploit without so much as a nod to the Senate’s proper role.
And so it is unsurprising that Biden will implement that seemingly straightforward course of action, but rejoining the Paris agreement entails crucial complications and serious adverse effects far beyond the obvious higher energy costs and weaker economic growth.
Once Biden sends the requisite letter to the UN, the U.S. formally would become again a party to the agreement after thirty days. But then the U.S. would have to submit an NDC; that initially might be a placeholder, an example of which might be the original Obama NDC, an emissions cut of 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. Largely because of the massive expansion in U.S. natural gas productionattendant upon the fracking/horizontal drilling technological revolution---vehemently opposed by the environmental left as part of its ideological stance against fossil fuels---U.S. GHG emissions in 2019 were over 16 percent below those in 2005.
But even a projected fulfillment of the Obama NDC by 2025 would not satisfy the political corner into which Biden has painted himself. He pledged, prominently, net-zero U.S. GHG emissions from the electric power sector by 2035, and net-zero for the whole economy by 2050. As a central policy dynamic, those goals are indistinguishable from those typically subsumed under the heading “Green New Deal,” regardless of Biden’s attempt to claim that his plan and the GND fundamentally are different. That means that legislation would be needed to effect the necessary massive shifts in the U.S. economy, but such Congressional acts simply will not be forthcoming from a House of Representatives with a Democratic majority of, say, 225-210, or from even a Senate divided 50-50, with Vice President Kamala Harris casting deciding votes. There are too many Democratic Congressmen and Senators whose constituents would suffer large economic losses from such policies, and the 60-vote supermajority rule in the Senate would make matters even more difficult.
Accordingly, a President Biden intent upon fulfilling his self-imposed mandate would find it necessary to use the regulatory process to force the promised upheaval in U.S. energy markets, presumably under the authority of the Clean Air Act. The Obama administration attempted to employ precisely this approach, and encountered towering legal obstacles that essentially made achievement of its climate policy goals impossible. Even were a Biden administration able to overcome these central legal problems---not a plausible outcome given the change in the federal judiciary over the last four years---any such regulatory process would consume years under the requirements of the Administrative Procedures Act.
Alternatively, or perhaps in combination with a massive regulatory effort, a Biden administration in concert with leftist environmental legal groups might try to persuade various judges to rule that formal U.S. participation in the Paris agreement overrides the legislative powers of Congress and the constraints imposed by actual existing legal authority upon expansive regulatory activity. Such rulings would be certain to receive attention at the appellate level, and very likely from the Supreme Court. How probable is it that the latter would be willing to adopt the position that the Paris agreement---never ratified by the Senate---has diminished U.S. sovereignty in such a way as to render the legislative powers of Congress null?
That is not all. “Climate policy” is an attempt to impose a large artificial increase in energy costs, and the asserted costs of “mitigating” the purported adverse effects of anthropogenic climate change must be borne by someone. (I shunt aside here the reality that there is no actual evidence of such adverse effects.) Accordingly, the developing economies demanded at the 2009 15th Conference of the Parties in Copenhagen a commitment from the developed economies for large annual subsidies. The result was the Green Climate Fund, established in 2010; it is supposed to raise $100 billion per year beginning in 2020. (As of earlier this year, a total of $10.3 billion has been pledged.) The Obama administration pledged about $3 billion in total, and actually transferred about $1 billion; needless to say, the Trump administration has been far more skeptical of the UNFCCC and the GCF.
Will the Biden administration find the $3 billion pledge sufficient politically? The developing economies have been vociferous in their demands for large financial transfers as a quid pro quo for acceptance of higher energy costs, and without such transfers it is easy to envision a large-scale refusal to implement the Paris NDCs, in particular because Article 9 of the Paris agreement mandates such financial aid. The aforementioned State Department bureaucracy will be aghast, and the leaks and other tools with which to embarrass the Biden White House will become prominent. And it is not obvious that the closely-divided Congress will be willing to appropriate the requisite dollars, especially given all the other continuing and new spending demands certain to be manifest.
Note that the GCF says that the “advanced economies have agreed to jointly mobilize significant financial resources” and that the “GCF engages directly with the private sector through its Private Sector Facility.” And so it is not difficult to predict that the Biden administration will attempt to assuage the GCF financing demands by putting the squeeze on the private sector, by threatening adverse actions in terms of regulatory, tax, and other dimensions of policymaking. In a word, the U.S. contribution to the GCF will take the form of a shakedown, accelerating the already-destructive practice of the federal government to behave like a protection racket.
The basic political problem created by the net-zero policies advocated by Biden is simple: the destruction of a substantial part of the economic value of the energy-producing and -using capital stock, and therefore an unavoidable impoverishment for millions of people. The Biden answer to this reality is that we can subsidize and otherwise mandate the creation of millions of replacement “green jobs,” a hallucination that only ideologues can believe. Sharp increases in energy costs mean a smaller economy and less employment, a reality that no amount of central planning can overcome. It is no accident that electricity prices in California are the highest in the lower forty-eight states. So much for the argument that wind and solar costs now are competitive, a preposterous assertion that shunts aside the costs of their inherent unreliability and the massive subsidies and guaranteed market shares bestowed upon them.
“Climate policy”---a forced reduction in GHG emissions---inexorably means, again, a substantial increase in the cost of energy, a reality that no amount of propaganda about the “competitiveness” of wind and solar power, batteries, carbon capture, and other unconventional technologies can change. That is the basic reason that such policies cannot be enacted democratically. Instead they must be forced upon the body politic by bureaucracies acting both alone and in concert with leftist environmental pressure groups, judges, and the international climate nomenklatura, all justifying their policy diktats on the basis of “existential threat” assertions utterly unsupported by the evidence. Such are the implications of reentering the Paris agreement: a further erosion of the rule of law, of U.S. sovereignty, and of the protection of property rights. It is deeply unwise and destructive.