The previous LOTRW post, Presidential power – not all it’s cracked up to be, argued that the President’s recent decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement, while comforting to elements of his base, was really of small consequence. It follows that a concerned world need not overreact; instead energy and minds are better focused on the actual challenges posed in meeting the food, water, and energy needs of seven-going on-nine billion people; building resilience to natural hazards; and protecting the environment and its ecosystem services over time.
One reader (and friend) agreed: …the reaction from both sides was certainly overblown. He then added: here’s another perspective…that expands more on that point:
The link is to a blog by Keith Hennessey. From the website, Mr. Hennessey provides this thumbnail introduction to himself and the blog: Hi, I’m Keith Hennessey. I work as a Lecturer at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, teaching American economic policy to MBA students. I spent 14 years in Washington, DC advising a President and two Senators on a wide range of economic policy issues. This blog is aimed at students of American economic policy. Thank you for visiting.
In this particular post, Mr. Hennessey introduces us to a new acronym: QTIIPS (not my favorite – overly Qute? – but maybe I’m just jealous). He opens with this.
Both President Obama’s 2016 signing of the Paris Agreement on climate change and President Trump’s withdrawal from that agreement today fit into a category I will label as QTIIPS.
QTIIPS stands for Quantitatively Trivial Impact + Intense Political Symbolism.
QTIIPS policy changes provoke fierce political battles over trivially small policy impacts. Passionate advocates on both sides ignore numbers and policy details while fighting endlessly about symbols.
A policy change is QTIIPS if:
-its direct measurable effects are quite small relative to the underlying policy problem to be solved;
-it is viewed both by supporters and opponents as a first step toward an end state that all agree would be quite a large change;
-supporters and opponents alike attach great significance to the direction of the change, as a precursor to possible future movement toward that quantitatively significant end goal; and
-a fierce political battle erupts over the symbolism of this directional shift. This political battle is often zero-sum, unresolvable, and endless.
The rest of the post expands upon these ideas. If you have the time to read the full post, it’ll stimulate your thinking.
One point in the middle might catch your eye. It’s repeated here. He says this:
QTIIPS policy changes rest on the assumption that the first step is likely to lead to that theoretical quantitatively significant outcome. Most supporters of the Paris Agreement would privately concede that it is only a modest first step, and would then express hope that it could/will/might/should lead to further progress in the future. Opponents of the agreement would share their fears that this first step could/will/might lead to an eventual outcome they fear.
But this shared assumption, of a first step or slippery slope, could easily be wrong. If the Paris Agreement were never to have led to a more significant next step, then a key premise of the fight is wrong. The intense political symbolism and the fierce battles waged over both President Obama’s and President Trump’s relatively small policy moves would then be unsupported by strong policy arguments.
I think that’s the case here. I think Paris was not just the first step, I think it was likely the last step, that those who hoped it would lead to “deepening future commitments” were fooling themselves and others. I think Paris was agreed to only because national leaders realized it was impossible to get a numerically meaningful set of binding national commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by specific large amounts. They therefore grabbed the best agreement they could, however weak, kicking the can down the road in the hope that somehow their successors might have more luck. Because I am so skeptical about the first step claim, and because I care far more about the policy impact than about the symbolism, my reaction is mild both to President Obama’s signing in 2016 and to President Trump’s withdrawal announcement today. I think neither agreeing to Paris nor withdrawing from it would have changed future global temperatures by any meaningful amount. Even before today I was skeptical that it would lead to any significant next steps, so I conclude that these symbolic battles about the Paris Agreement are almost meaningless.
Reading this was puzzling initially. It seemed to me that the Agreement didn’t predetermine the importance of the challenge so much as it set into motion a process that would evaporate (as Mr. Hennessey argues) if the threat isn’t real or dissipates, but would grow if the situation grew more serious.
Then it hit me: I’ve always liked the Paris Climate Agreement; now I know why!
It’s because the Paris Climate Agreement mimics the approach of meteorologists, emergency managers, political and business leaders, and various publics to an approaching/developing hurricane.
At a hurricane’s earliest stages, no one knows whether its intensification and landfall will pose a real threat or not – and to whom. At the same time, there’s no wasted energy prematurely debating any of that, or getting emotional or top-down prescriptive about it. Instead, all participants at all levels and all locations individually begin making whatever initial preparations they feel appropriate in light of their own perceived vulnerability and options. At the same time, everyone engages in watch-and-warn. Furthermore, thanks to the World Meteorological Organization and a variety of long-established agreements, they transparently share information from observations and a variety of models, etc. The full public is kept in the loop as well.
And here’s the best part: the response is incremental. If the hurricane intensifies, the response develops commensurately. As the threat to a particular city or coastline rises, so do preparations. But where and if the threat diminishes, those preparing stand down. Rarely (especially as forecasts have improved) is the response inadequate or disproportionate.
Note that the key, the essential part, is also the inexpensive part: the watch and warn. It costs little to field the observations – the satellites and the radars, the surface in situ instruments, etc. to monitor conditions and their changes; to assimilate the data into variety of numerical models, to run these and form ensemble averages; to disseminate the findings. That’s true for both hurricanes and climate change. It’s essential that we not fly blind into this uncertain future.
One important addition has to be made in the climate-change version of this approach. When it comes to hurricanes, the world gets many occasions to practice: dozens each and every year, broadly scattered worldwide. By contrast, with respect to climate change, there hasn’t been the same opportunity for trial-and-error learning. That’s where research – not just on physical workings of the atmosphere and oceans but also on ecological processes and the social science of human response come in. That research is essential to effective risk reduction; it too is inexpensive.
Anticipating climate change? Responding commensurately? Without the drama? What’s not to like?
Love Paris? We all do. So did Cole Porter. Here’s the song, rendered by Ol’ blue eyes. Give it a listen. You know you want to.