The Paris Agreement is like my church’s pledge drive

How can a non-binding agreement be as important as Trump’s critics say it is? On a much smaller scale, I’ve just been dealing with something very similar.


If you’ve ever read the Paris Agreement on climate change — it’s dull but relatively short as international agreements go, so it’s not that hard — President Trump’s announcement that the United States is withdrawing from it was a bizarre performance. As you can see from David Victor’s annotation of the speech, virtually every line of it was either false, fantastic, or based on an incorrect assumption. (Near the beginning of the speech David Roberts tweeted: “If Trump says something true, I will notify you all.” There proved to be no need.) Parts of it were even internally contradictory, like the line where he called the agreement “non-binding” and “draconian” in the same sentence.

Thus, as of today, the United States will cease all implementation of the non-binding Paris Accord and the draconian financial and economic burdens the agreement imposes on our country.

But though it was wrong in almost every detail, the picture Trump painted was very vivid: The Paris Agreement is an international conspiracy to hoodwink the United States and wreck our economy.

The fact that the Paris deal hamstrings the United States, while empowering some of the world’s top-polluting countries, should dispel any doubt as to the real reason why foreign lobbyists wish to keep our magnificent country tied up and bound down by this agreement: It’s to give their country an economic edge over the United States.

He did not mention President Obama directly, but the implication was clear: Obama agreed to this either because he was a fool or because he was in on the anti-America plot. Unlike his predecessor, Trump is pro-America — he represents “the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris” — so he’s calling a halt to this nonsense.

Fact-checkers and other expert critics have been easy to find, but there’s a problem with their account, especially as it relates to low-information voters who are inclined to give Trump the benefit of the doubt: Not only is the experts’ interpretation of the Paris Agreement much less arresting than Trump’s paranoid fantasy, it doesn’t seem to hang together either. If the agreement doesn’t bind us into some kind of suicide pact, and doesn’t bind other countries either, how can renouncing it have the kind of apocalyptic consequences critics claim? If the nations that signed the agreement are still free to do whatever they want, how does Paris save any polar bears or avert hurricanes or keep the ocean from swallowing Miami?

So if we’re going to help the public resist Trump’s disinformation campaign, what we really need is not more detailed analysis from experts in international law or economics or climatology. We need a simple example from everyday life that helps people understand what the Paris Agreement is and does. In particular, the example needs to demonstrate how a non-binding agreement can be important.

Luckily, I happen to have such an example handy.

The Paris Agreement is a pledge drive. I admit, this model is in my mind for serendipitous reasons: This spring I was on the committee that organized my church’s annual pledge drive. But it turns out to be a pretty accurate parallel.

Every year, our drive works like this: We announce a target, a total amount that members will need to contribute during the next year if the church is going to do all the stuff our member-elected leadership thinks we should do. We send out a brochure explaining what that stuff is, and how the total compares to what we collected the previous year.

Then we ask everybody to send in cards with pledges: “I will contribute X dollars next year.” The pledges are in no sense binding. If you run into financial problems in the course of the year, you can always call the church office and say, “I’m going to have to lower my pledge.” Or you can just not send in the money. It’s not like we can take you to court or turn your pledge card over to the bill collectors.

The Paris Agreement is like that. It announces a goal: The nations participating in the agreement want to keep the overall increase in average global temperature since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution down to 2 degrees centigrade (or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). Since the main cause of this increase is the rise in greenhouse gases (mainly CO2) in the atmosphere, the agreement asks nations to make a pledge to limit their carbon emissions.

Each country determines the size of its own pledge. The pledge can be changed at any time. And there’s no enforcement mechanism that kicks in if you don’t fulfill your pledge.

Just like at my church.

What good is a nonbinding agreement? If no nation is actually committed to anything in a legally enforceable way, you might well wonder what the point of the agreement is. After all, nothing stops a country from announcing an ambitious goal with a lot of fanfare, and then doing nothing. So if you’re looking for absolute certainty that the world is finally going to take serious action to fight climate change, the Paris Agreement doesn’t provide it.

So what does it do? The point of the agreement, as I see it, is more subtle: Like our pledge drive, it’s a trust-building exercise among its members.

In any collective enterprise with voluntary inputs, there’s always a free-rider problem. If, say, I contribute a lot to the church and the guy sitting next to me on Sunday morning gives practically nothing, we both get to sing the same hymns and hear the same sermon. And since no household contributes more than a percent or two of the whole budget, the direct impact of each individual’s contribution to his or her own church experience is close to zero. (If nobody contributes, we’ll have to fire the minister and turn off the heat, which I would notice. But if everybody else contributes an appropriate amount and I don’t, probably not much changes.)

Climate change is like that, especially for countries smaller than China or the United States. Denmark, for example, is a world leader in wind power. In 2015 it generated 40% of its electricity from wind, and plans to be over 50% by 2020. But it’s such a small country that, considered in isolation, its achievement makes practically no difference to the global climate. Even the U.S. isn’t big enough to turn things around by itself, which is sometimes used as an excuse for doing nothing. As Marco Rubio put it during a Republican presidential debate: “America is not a planet.

But the nations of the Paris Agreement — everybody except Nicaragua, Syria, and now us — are really close to being a planet. If they can work together, the gains will be meaningful. Building the trust that allows them to work towards a common goal is where the pledge-drive idea comes in.

The point of a pledge drive is to make sure that if you volunteer to make some sacrifices, you can know that you won’t be alone. Before I send in a single dollar towards next year’s church budget, I get to know what all the pledges total up to. (We missed our goal this year, but we’re close enough that almost all our plans still look feasible.) And before I pledge next year, I get to find out whether this year’s pledged money actually came in. (Again, it’s usually a little bit short, due to people losing jobs and having other unexpected financial problems. But it’s never been so short that fulfilling my commitment made me feel like a sucker.)

That’s what Paris is about. It got each nation to commit to either lower its carbon emissions or (in the case of developing nations) to significantly slow the rate of increase. (China, which still has hundreds of millions of people to bring into the modern age, pledges to stop increasing emissions by 2030. They seem likely to do better than that.) Nations also agree to share information about what they’re doing and how well it’s working. There is, in addition, a literal pledge drive in which rich nations raise money to help poor nations take action. (This is the Green Climate Fund that Trump is revoking Obama’s pledge to.)

So before any nation takes Paris-based action to lower its emissions, it gets to see what the other nations are pledging to do. And along the way, every nation gets to see how faithfully the other nations are carrying out their commitments. It’s a way for sovereign nations to move forward on their own climate-change plans while feeling confident that enough other nations are moving forward that they’re not wasting their effort.

To me, that sounds pretty familiar.

What’s not in the agreement. The Paris Agreement does not specify an carbon-emission goal for any particular nation, or mandate techniques for meeting those goals. What a nation commits to do and how it fulfills that commitment is its own business. The agreement also has no enforcement mechanism, no equivalent of the World Court or the WTO that could pronounce judgment against nations that don’t meet their goals.

So Trump’s claims that the Paris Agreement “blocks the development of clean coal” or mandates that “we can’t build [coal-fired power] plants” or puts our energy reserves “under lock and key” are pure fiction. If anybody had a genuinely clean way to get energy out of coal, it would lower our emissions and help us meet our Paris goals. So clean coal is only “blocked” to the extent that it doesn’t work. And energy reserves are under lock and key only to the extent that we voluntarily forego their use.

Likewise, his statements that “foreign leaders … have more say with respect to the U.S. economy than our own citizens” and that “our withdrawal from the agreement represents a reassertion of America’s sovereignty” are nonsense. Our elected government made a pledge that it can adjust at any time. If it chooses to fulfill that pledge, how it does so is totally its own decision.

Why withdrawing makes no sense. I mean that literally. It’s not just that I disagree with Trump’s decision as a matter of policy, it’s that it makes no sense.

Think about it in terms of the pledge drive. Suppose I believed about my church what Trump seems to believe about Paris: that my pledge is so much higher than other people’s that the rest of the congregation is essentially taking advantage of my generosity. Everybody else should either pony up more money or get used to the idea of a more austere church.

OK then: Does it make sense for me to withdraw from the pledge drive? Not a bit. It’s not the pledge drive itself that I think is unfair to me, it’s the size of my voluntary contribution relative to the total. But I could fix that unilaterally. If I felt like a sucker, it might make sense for me to lower my pledge for next year, or even to call up the church office right now and angrily announce that I’m done contributing for this year, even though I haven’t fulfilled my pledge yet. If they need more money they should get it from somebody else.

Trump could have done that. If he has any particular terms in mind — which I suspect he doesn’t; I doubt he’s thought about it that deeply — the “renegotiation” he called for could just be an announcement. If he believes Obama’s pledge is unfair to us or beyond our abilities, he could lower it to an amount he considers fair and achievable. No other nations, no international authority, would need to sign off.

There is a discussion going on about how fair or achievable Obama’s goals were, or how much sacrifice the country should be willing to make to fulfill them. David Victor’s annotations are sympathetic to the view that Obama’s goals would require considerable economic sacrifice, while Paul Krugman believes that “We have almost all the technology we need, and can be quite confident of developing the rest.” (I haven’t studied the question enough to have a opinion worth sharing.)

But Trump is not engaging in that argument. He could simply tell the world what goals he considers fair and why. But he doesn’t. Instead, he’s withdrawing from the process of setting any goals at all.

Given that I could lower my pledge any time I find appropriate, the only reason I would withdraw from the entire pledge drive is if I acknowledge no responsibility to support the church financially. It would be tantamount to deciding to withdraw from the community.

That’s what Trump is doing here: He’s not defending our sovereignty or protecting our jobs or doing any of the other positive things his speech claims. He’s denying that we have any responsibility to work with the rest of the world in addressing one of the major problems of our era. He is, in essence, withdrawing from the community of nations.

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Comments

  • Dennis Maher  On June 5, 2017 at 9:44 am

    “If the nations that signed the agreement are still free to do whatever they want, how does Paris save any polar bears or avert hurricanes or keep the ocean from swallowing Miami?”

    I have another answer to this: The Paris “Accord” is based on the idea that we might trust each other and agree to something on the basis of our common membership in the human community. Of course Trump and many others would consider that absurd. That is the problem- he wants to undermine trust because he doesn’t have any.

  • joeirvin  On June 5, 2017 at 10:14 am

    Actually, makes perfect sense from Trump’s perspective. “Withdrawal” changes nothing; alternative energy and its jobs moves forward while Trump reinforces his standing with his racist base. For him, he can play the nationalist card, placate his base, and can brag about job creation later. Racism is at the root of much of what Trump both says and does. No, he doesn’t give a twit about the community of nations as long as he and his cohorts make money.

  • GJacq726  On June 5, 2017 at 10:59 am

    Incredibly important point about delivering the message. Thank you.

  • Anonymous  On June 5, 2017 at 6:56 pm

    Trump is anachronous to trust. He does personify egotistical ignorance.

  • Dan Cusher  On June 5, 2017 at 9:41 pm

    I think you missed one big detail at the end, and it explains why leaving the Paris Agreement actually does make sense for Trump, for his political goals. Conveniently, your analogy still works to illustrate it, but only if we change this from your UU church to a more rigid one. Then, imagine that a member who made a decent pledge earlier in the year has suddenly become an atheist, and he’s feeling a lot of resentment toward this church who he feels has been lying to him. (Disclaimer: as an atheist, I do not feel that way, but I know some who do.) He might make a big spectacle of renouncing his pledge, not because he feels like a sucker due to the free-ride problem, but because he thinks the entire reason for the church existing is a lie.

    Trump is leaving the Paris Agreement because he believes (or at least wants his supporters to think he believes) that the whole reason for this agreement is a lie. They believe that there is a conspiracy among liberals, scientists, etc to use this global crisis to manipulate people, just like the resentful atheist likes to quote that “religion is the opium of the people.” Leaving with such fanfare sends the message to his supporters that those liberals, scientists, Jews, Chinese, Illuminati, etc are not fooling him, and he’s not going to let the American government continue to be duped by them either.

    • GJacq726  On June 6, 2017 at 6:59 am

      Really good point, Dan. Two things I’ve come ion recently that support. David Brooks on NPR Friday said this will sit well with his base, and I think because of what this article points out, (You use a similar description.)

      http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_slatest/2017/05/18/roger_ailes_is_survived_by_trump_hannity_this_awful_time.html?wpsrc=sh_all_mob_fb_top

    • weeklysift  On June 8, 2017 at 8:59 am

      Oddly, though, he won’t just say that. Not even his spokespeople are responding to the question of whether he thinks climate change is real.

      • Dan Cusher  On June 8, 2017 at 11:20 am

        A Trump tweet, days before the election: “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” I think his recent silence on that goes back to what you’ve been saying about propaganda and subtly referring to an existing false belief. When he goes on about how “our withdrawal from the agreement represents a reassertion of America’s sovereignty,” it triggers, in his supporters’ minds, those ideas of climate change being a conspiracy to manipulate us into aiding those who want to destroy us.

        Now that I think about it, a TON of what the conservatives have been saying/doing goes back to the idea of cuckoldry. I don’t think the Trumpist/Neo-Nazi use of that concept got nearly enough attention when it briefly flew through the MSM a few months ago.

  • Roger Owen Green  On June 7, 2017 at 12:04 pm

    I’ve sent this article to MY pastors!

Trackbacks

  • By Cue the Laughter | The Weekly Sift on June 5, 2017 at 11:00 am

    […] This week’s featured post is “The Paris Agreement is like my church’s pledge drive.” […]

  • […] bad, since mayors and governors and industry will step up. But with The Weekly Sift guy explaining The Paris Agreement is like my church’s pledge drive, plus what John Oliver said (or here), and what Ben & Jerry wrote and what Arthur wrote, […]

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