What are the health impacts?
Australia is burning. The effects of it are being felt by the environment, wildlife and humans. Unfortunately, this is one of many situations that are having negative consequences in these areas. The Paris Climate Accord is supposed to help address these issues. So, why is the United States withdrawing from it? How will this impact your health?
On June 1, 2017, President Trump announced his intention to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord. However, in order to withdraw it requires that the agreement be in effect for three years before any country can formally announce its intention to drop out, which was November 4, 2019 and was when Trump made the official motion to withdraw. After making the announcement, then the country has to wait a year before actually leaving the pact, which means the earliest the US would be officially out of the accord is November 4, 2020, or one day after the next presidential election. However, it’s important to note that a formal withdrawal isn’t necessarily permanent because a future president could rejoin in as short as a month’s time. Even after withdrawing, the US would be allowed to attend negotiations and weigh in on proceedings but would be demoted to observer status. The concern is that US decision to withdraw will have impacts on the global climate that a future US administration won’t be able to undo. By doing this, the US joins the only two other nations, Syria and Nicaragua, on the planet who are not part of the climate accord.
Why is the Paris climate accord so important? It’s a momentous environmental agreement that was adopted by nearly every nation, 197 to be exact, in 2015 to address climate change and its negative impacts. The primary goal is to markedly reduce global greenhouse gas emissions in an attempt to keep the global temperature increase in this century to 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, while pursuing means to curb the increase to 1.5 degrees. Unfortunately, many studies evaluating the targets set by individual countries made in Paris show that the cumulative effect of those emissions reductions won’t be large enough to keep temperatures under that cap of 1.5 degrees. The 32-page document recognizes that many developing countries and small island nations that have contributed the least to climate change are the ones who could suffer the most from its consequences, so the agreement provides financial resources to help developing countries mitigate and increase resilience to climate change. This agreement builds on the financial commitments of the 2009 Copenhagen Accord, which was designed to increase public and private climate finance for developing nations to $100 billion a year by 2020. While that might seem like a significant amount money, it’s nothing compared to what is spent on global military spending, which was about $1.7 trillion in 2017 alone with more than a third of that coming from the US. In addition, the agreement helped to develop the framework for transparent monitoring, reporting and increasing countries’ individual and collective climate goals. Countries must report their greenhouse gas inventories and progress relative to their targets. They also must allow outside experts to evaluate their information. This means that the framework is the same for all countries. In addition, each country is expected to revisit their pledges by 2020 and put forward new targets every five years. It’s important to note that the agreement doesn’t include financial penalties. It took two weeks during the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s (UNFCCC) 21st Conference of Parties (COP21), which was held in Paris, to finalize the document. It was adopted on December 12, 2015, but could not take effect until at least 55 nations representing at least 55% of global emissions had formally joined, which took place on October 5, 2016. The agreement went into effect 30 days later on November 4, 2016. The agreement has commitments from all major emitting countries to not only cut their climate-altering pollution, but to intensify those commitments over time. There are 186 countries that are responsible for more than 90% of global emissions and all of them have submitted carbon reduction targets, which was known as intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs), prior to the Paris agreement, and became known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs) after a country formally joined the agreement. These goals summarized each country’s commitments for curtailing emissions through 2025 or 2030. It’s important to note that there are no specific requirements about how or how much each country should cut emissions by, so plans vary greatly in scope and ambition. Mostly, they’re reflective of each country’s capabilities, its level of development and its contribution to emissions over time. Since the US is historically was the world’s largest carbon emitter and we’re currently the world’s second largest carbon emitter behind China, our participation and leadership are critical to reaching target global reductions and minimizing health threats. As our part of the agreement, we agreed to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 28% below 2005 levels by 2025. Since the US already had several laws passed by Congress that were designed to cut carbon, it imposed no new legal obligations for us. Two of our initiatives include the Clean Power Plan, which is a state-by-state program designed to cut carbon pollution from the power sector and the tightening of automotive fuel economy standards to help reduce transportation emissions.
The World Health Organization (WHO) and other public health agencies have praised the Paris climate accord because of its potential to curb death and illness across the globe. There are several reasons why this is the case. Human-generated emissions of carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane gases collect in the atmosphere and prevent heat from radiating off of the earth’s surface into space. This creates what’s known as the greenhouse effect. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), all of these heat-trapping gases have increased substantially since preindustrial times to levels that haven’t been seen in over 800,000 years. The main contributor is carbon dioxide and that is up by 40% since 1750. Nitrous oxide is up by 20% and methane is up by 150%. All of these are mainly from the burning of fossil fuels, but deforestation and forest degradation have contributed as well. When temperatures increase, it alters global weather patterns and change how and where precipitation falls. The changes in these patterns aggravate dangerous and deadly droughts, heat waves, floods, wildfires and storms, such as hurricanes. In addition, the high temperatures melt ice caps, glaciers and layers of permafrost. These can lead to rising sea levels and coastal erosion. Another impact warmer temperatures have is on ecosystems because it throws off migration patterns and life cycles. These changes in the environment endanger human health because increases in temperatures and extreme weather events jeopardizes our air, water and food; allows diseases to spread easily; and endangers our homes and safety. Our own leading military experts have warned that the impact of climate change will lead to more refugees as a result of famine. This will cause a rise in conflict and terrorism. Trump’s own secretary of defense has said that climate change is a national security threat.
Despite his own advisors saying that climate change needs to be addressed, why did Trump pull out of the Paris agreement? He states that it puts the US at an economic disadvantage because it, along with other wealthier nations, have to fund climate actions in developing countries. He states that the accord would cost our economy $3 trillion by 2040 and $2.7 million in jobs by 2025, which would make us less competitive against China and India. However, upon examination of his sources, the statistics come from a discredited March 2017 study that inflated the future costs of emissions reductions, underestimated advances in energy efficiency/clean energy technologies and doesn’t address the huge health and economic costs of climate change. Most research actually makes clear that the cost of not addressing climate change outweighs the cost of reducing carbon pollution. A recent study found that if the United States doesn’t meet its Paris climate goals, it could cost our economy as much as $6 trillion in the coming decades. A different study approximates that if we meet, or exceed, the goals through infrastructure investments in both clean energy and energy efficiency, we could see a gain of $19 trillion. As far as jobs, the clean energy sector employs over 3 million Americans, which is about 14 times the number of coal, gas, oil and other fossil fuel industry workers. This is only expected to increase as further investments in energy efficiency, renewable energy and electric grid modernization continue. The Clean Power Plan alone could provide more than a half-million new jobs by 2030. So, coal jobs aren’t being transferred out of the country as Trump claims, but are declining as the market shifts to renewable energy sources and natural gas prices decline. As far as falling behind China and India, the Paris climate accord is the first time both, who are considered developing countries under the UN standards, have agreed to tangible and largescale climate commitments. In addition, both countries have not only made significant progress toward meeting their goals within the agreement, but, after Trump’s announcement, the leaders from both countries reaffirmed their commitment to the agreement. This means they’re poised to lead the world in renewable energy, which means that by leaving the agreement, we’re falling behind.
According to the Trump administration, our results speak for themselves. They claim that US emissions of criteria air pollutants that impact human health and the environment declined by 74% between 1970 and 2018 and that US net greenhouse gas emissions dropped 13% from 2005-2017. Both of these happened as our economy grew over 19%. So, if that is the case, why does the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proudly flaunt that they have completed 46 deregulatory actions and have another 45 in the works? Some of the items that have been deregulated are standards designed to decrease the emissions of methane from oil and gas operational leaks and improve fuel efficiency/tailpipe standards for cars. The Administration also replaced the Clean Power Plan with its own rule that allows the coal-fired plants to continue to foul the air and climate. They are also moving forward with plans to open vast tracts of public lands for fossil fuel drilling and have proposed to allow more logging of national forests. Many of these rollbacks are opposed by some of those affected the most, major industrial players. This brings about the question, weren’t the regulations helping? Yes, they were because what the Administration fails to mention is that while greenhouse gas emissions did drop 13% between 2005-2017, it rose by over 3% in 2018 due to the role back of the regulations. Also, the US fell in the 2018 Environmental Performance Index for the first time in many years. This is an overall ranking of national environmental performance and is produced by Yale University, Columbia University and the World Economic Forum. Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University examined the EPA’s own data and found that fine particulate pollution increased over 5% between 2016 and 2018. This was after decreasing nearly 25% in the previous seven years. As Trump charges ahead with these unprecedented rollbacks of standards designed to protect our health and environment, it’s clear that he and his Administration disregard widely accepted scientific evidence that climate change is real and is a threat we can no longer ignore. He has made weakening environmental standards and climate protections the trademark of his presidency.
Trump’s focus has been on defending American jobs in the fossil fuel sector. One of the major issues he fails to address is the loss of American lives and productivity as people get sick from these jobs and climate change. Many millions of Americans, especially children, the elderly and the poor, are already suffering the effects of climate change. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), over 3,500 Americans have died in climate- and weather-related disasters since Trump took office, which is double the number who lost their lives in such events under the entire eight years of the Obama administration. We can easily calculate the impact of diseases related to air and water pollution and the cost of this to the Gross National Product by looking at the increased care cost, work hours lost and number of premature deaths. According to a study published in Health Affairs, health conditions linked to climate change are approximated to have cost our healthcare system $14 billion a year between 2002 and 2009. Per the Center for Disease Control (CDC), poor air quality stemming from climate change exacerbates chronic conditions, like asthma, which affects 25 million Americans and was liable for $56 billion in medical costs and many lost school and work days in 2007 alone. On a global scale, the WHO states that 7 million people died prematurely from air pollution caused by fossil fuel combustion in 2012. Also, extreme heat from rising temperatures directly influences cardiovascular deaths and other respiratory diseases. The WHO notes that the effects of climate change impact multiple kinds of healthcare needs. For example, a flood precipitated by changing climate patterns would not only kill and injure people, but spread disease-causing pathogens and devastate local economies, which would result in disruptions to physical and economic security. All of this combined would have a serious impact on mental health. Due to situations like this, the WHO estimates that there will be an additional 250,000 deaths worldwide per year starting in 2030 if nothing is done to combat climate change. These numbers will only continue to rise if we don’t take action. As the IPCC notes, it’s uncertain precisely how much of an increase in temperature is needed to cause an abrupt and irreversible change in the earth’s systems, but the risk of crossing the threshold is getting ever closer. It’s for certain that we’re facing a growing global public health crisis and it’s already being felt here at home.
Most Americans, even half of President Trump’s voters, believe climate change is a problem that needs to be tackled and the vast majority support the Paris Agreement. Due to Trump’s announcement of withdrawal from the accord, many city and state officials, businesses leaders, universities and private citizens have started or joined several different initiatives, like America’s Pledge, the United States Climate Alliance, We Are Still In and the American Cities Climate Challenge, in hopes of showing the world that Americans are behind the Paris Agreement even if the Trump administration is not. The only concern is that these sub-national government pledges are voluntary and there is no agreed-upon way to gauge how far their efforts are collectively getting towards our pledge numbers to cut emissions under the agreement. One state that is definitely committed to a carbon-neutral future is California. With 80 million people, it plays a big role in the country and many states are following its example. Several states, including California, cities, and companies are moving ahead with development and deployment of mitigation technology. They’re encouraged by emission reduction goals and are committed to moving towards sustainability. Hopefully, some of these technologies are designed to increase investment in research and technology development, such as early warning and response systems for extreme weather events, develop institutional support for work across government agencies, like public health, urban planning, transport, education and tourism, because the risks posed by climate change cut across many sectors and region and testing the efficacy and efficiency of policies and program, to provide the evidence needed to create informed policy making. Many business leaders are looking towards renewable, clean energy and are voluntarily reducing their greenhouse gas emissions, including several healthcare companies. One example is Virginia Mason, which has taken steps toward addressing climate change within their own facilities by introducing sustainability initiatives, like reducing landfill waste, increasing water conservation and sourcing food from local producers. Another example is Kaiser setting a goal of removing more greenhouse gases from the atmosphere than it emits by 2025. One thing is for certain as we continue down this path of non-national government and businesses committing to doing more, consumers and public opinion will hold them to their pledges.
Another area of concern related to Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement is that it’s the latest abandonment of American leadership on the global stage, which leaves the US at a clear disadvantage in the concert of nations because it sends a clear message to the rest of the world that the second-highest emitting nation has no intention of doing its part to save the world. The reaction of world leaders to Trump’s announcement was immediate and unanimous with all of them reaffirming their support for policies to achieve a carbon-neutral future. The first three nations to issue a statement were France, Germany and Italy. They stated that “We deem the momentum generated in Paris in December 2015 irreversible and we firmly believe that the Paris Agreement cannot be renegotiated, since it is a vital instrument for our planet, societies and economies”. Less than 24 hours after the announcement, the European Union (EU) rejected Trump’s offer to renegotiate the accord. EU officials said they would by-pass the White House and deal directly with the US states and major corporations who have pledged to uphold the Paris Agreement. Canada concurred with this statement. In fact, California has already signed climate agreements with China. With China and India’s announcing their adherence to the Agreement, it demonstrates just how important this issue is since they initially agreed to be a part of the Paris Agreement due to the fact that US was taking action. What’s the most concerning is that even Russia has joined the general consensus that this is a vital issue. All this means that the US is on the outside of the global community looking in and signals the start of a re-alignment of world powers. The decision gives China the opportunity to fill the void left by the US. Some nations are considering more punitive measures with France and Germany proposing a European carbon tax to impose on countries with less stringent climate protection policies. This would only exacerbate trade tensions with the Trump administration. It’s important to note that Europe has been threatening such a tax for years, but hasn’t followed through yet.
If at some point in the future we want to reenter the Agreement, it will probably not go smoothly. This is because the Paris Agreement is the second global climate change pact that the US joined under a Democrat and abandoned under a Republican. In order to understand, let’s look back just for a moment. In 1992, President George H.W. Bush joined 107 other heads of state at the Rio Earth Summit in Brazil to adopt a series of environmental agreements, including the UNFCCC framework for international negotiations of future agreements, or protocols, that remains in effect today. While this was important, it didn’t set any limits on greenhouse gas emissions for individual countries and contains no enforcement mechanisms. Every year, participating countries meet at a Conference of the Parties (COP) to evaluate their progress and continue talks on how to best deal with climate change. At the COP3 in 1997 in Kyoto, Japan, a landmark environmental treaty that was adopted. It represented the first-time nations agreed to legally mandated, country-specific emissions reduction targets and had penalties for not meeting the targets. It set binding emissions reduction targets for developed countries only. It didn’t go into effect until 2005. So, while the US initially signed the agreement, we never ratified it because President George W. Bush argued that the deal would hurt the US economy since developing nations, like China and India, were not included. So, without the participation of these three countries, the treaty’s effectiveness proved limited. The Kyoto Protocol’s initial commitment period extended through 2012, but, in 2011, the countries that were a part of it pledged to create a new, comprehensive climate treaty by 2015 that would require all big emitters not included in the Kyoto Protocol to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. In 2012, the Protocol was extended to 2020 while the new treaty was being worked on. The new treaty was expected to fully replace the Kyoto Protocol by then. However, this treaty became the Paris Agreement and went into effect earlier than expected, in November 2016. Obviously, the majority of the countries on the planet joined, and continue to support, the agreement. So, if a future president wanted to rejoin the Paris Agreement, they would likely have to show specific policies demonstrating how the US intends to move away from fossil fuels. Even with that, other countries would be rightly suspicious that the support for climate action could move back in the other direction in another election cycle. This back and forth has caused many countries to write off the US as a partner because they feel we just can’t be counted on.
Every single one of us needs clean air, clean water and a predictable, healthy environment in order to survive. So, we don’t have the time to take a wait-and-see approach because our health and the health of the planet depend on us taking action. There’s no question that leaders from around the world agree that climate change is driven by human behavior and it’s a threat to not only the environment, but all of humanity, and that the only way to stop it is if we work together. This is why the Trump administration’s decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement greatly increases the chances that the collective global effort to reduce carbon emissions will not be enough to avoid catastrophic consequences. One thing it does for sure is demonstrate that America’s climate change skeptics, including Trump, are the global outliers.
To address the gravity of the climate crisis, the Paris Accord is an indispensable tool, but is clearly insufficient on its own. The good news is that it has put public health front and center for most countries on the planet. In order to see real change, we, the American people, need to continue down the path of correcting the issues that are causing climate change without waiting for the government to step up and do the right thing.