Lots has been said about Trump’s decision to back out of the Paris Accord, but have we overlooked one factor: like-minded politicians abroad feeling encouraged to speak up? Judging from German events, opponents of the Paris agreement are coming out of hiding. As the Germans would say, Trump is making skepticism salonfähig: literally, “suitable for the salon” – something that can be talked about in polite company. Craig Morris explains.
Did I mention that we will have to fight for the energy transition the whole way?
— Craig Morris (@PPchef) April 5, 2016
One main spin on Trump’s decision to back out of the Paris Agreement is that it doesn’t matter: wind and solar can no longer be stopped, local governments will go ahead anyway, etc. Or that his decision is even good because it strengthens everyone else’s resolve.
This is the kind of denial that allowed Trump to win. Too many people didn’t take him seriously. His decision has strengthened the resolve of skeptics.
In our history of the Energiewende, my coauthor Arne Jungjohann and I write: “To the authors’ knowledge, no member of the German Bundestag denies anthropogenic climate change.” The wording is cautious; we weren’t complete sure. We just couldn’t find any statements suggesting that a German parliamentarian disputed the scientific consensus. But maybe they were too afraid to speak freely? Anyway, we mainly wondered whether our statement from the end of 2015 would survive the elections this fall, in which the German populist party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) is likely to enter parliament. It definitely contains outright denialists.
We didn’t have to wait so long. At the end of March, when Trump announced his “review” of the US commitment to Paris, a group of ten Christian Democrat parliamentarians in a group calling itself the “Berlin Circle” (Berliner Kreis) submitted a position paper to Chancellor Merkel (who is from the same party). The Circle members are not nobodies: Wolfgang Bosbach is a frequent guest on TV talk shows in Germany.
The paper (in German) pulls all the old strings:
- It begins with the words “without ideology,” which, in the energy policy debate, means anyone against nuclear is an ideologue.
- It says climate research is becoming “a question of belief” and says there should be no “moral blackmail” – after all, the “announced/expected dramatic consequences of climate change are based on models, whose correctness and falsifiability are not as clear as often claimed.”
- It doubts the “solitary role of the greenhouse effect,” meaning that solar flares, etc. may be significant factors (see this).
- It stress “new opportunities” arising from climate change, particularly an “ice-free Northwest passage, new fishing opportunities, and resource extraction” – the benefits of which would “probably be even greater than any negative ecological effects” of climate change.
- It calls the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) a “save-the-world circus.”
- And it ends with a call for a single instrument to replace all the regulations on buildings weatherization, support for renewables, etc.: a carbon price or carbon tax. The market would then decide what the cheapest way is.
Instead of plump denialism, the Berlin Circle thus takes a pragmatic stance to seem reasonable while still pursuing the same goals as plump denialists: dramatically weakening climate change mitigation. This is the kind of party-internal opposition Merkel faces, and it is growing. In Germany’s most populist state of North-Rhine/Westphalia, the CDU had posters against wind turbines (top left here) in state elections this year, and the new coalition government with the libertarian FDP is considering stepping away from its Climate Act (in German). On Thursday, Social Democrat politicians also argued in the Bundestag (in German) that a German coal phaseout would be as insignificant as a “bag of rice falling over in China.”
Little of this would have been salonfähig before Trump entered office. Policy wonks speak of the Overton window; it includes everything considered reasonable, and it can shift. Many worried that Trump might move previously unacceptable things like overt racism into the Overton window, but he may be shifting the window of proposals people dare voice in the German climate debate.
The silver lining from Trump’s climate cloud is that we’ve all learned a lot about the Paris Accord. Yes, it’s legally binding, but only in the sense that countries (participating voluntarily) are obligated to report emissions (there are no penalties for non-compliance), and it doesn’t go far enough anyway. But US climate expert Michael Oppenheimer summed up best why it was a step forward anyway:
I think we would have wound up in a situation where commitments [to reduce carbon emissions] would have been met at probably the lower level, but a heck of a lot more would have been done than if Paris didn’t exist at all.
And then we could also have used the name-and-shame game: the business of having to report your emissions under a transparent system, and say what you did and what you didn’t do. And that technique is effective in some international circumstances, like human rights treaties. It’s not like there was nothing there.
So there we are, back in a fight over principles – at square one, struggling to defend tiny steps forward. Or, as we put it in our book: “the Energiewende consensus has to be renegotiated continually…. And the pushback is real.”