Posted on 26 July 2017 by Guest Author
Dr. Benjamin Franta is a doctoral student in history at Stanford University. He has a PhD in applied physics from Harvard University and is a former research fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
Since President Trump announced on June 1 that the U.S. would cease implementation of the Paris Agreement, pundits have argued about whether the American pullout will truly affect greenhouse gas pollution one way or another, since, after all, the Paris Agreement was not legally binding to begin with.
We don’t know the future, but we do know the past, and here’s something we shouldn’t miss: we’ve seen this before. The same arguments used by President Trump – and even the same people he cited – were used by the oil and gas industry to block climate policies throughout the 1990s, including the United States’ implementation of the Kyoto Protocol. The playbook from twenty years ago is back, and this time we must be ready for it.
What arguments did President Trump use to justify leaving the Paris Agreement? First: it would devastate the U.S. economy. Second: it was unfair to the U.S. Third: it wouldn’t actually help reduce global warming. And fourth: it would prevent the alleviation of poverty.
These, it turns out, are exactly the same arguments used by the oil and gas industry in the 1990s to block implementation of the Kyoto Protocol in the U.S.
After the Kyoto Protocol was adopted at the third U.N. Conference of Parties in 1997, the American Petroleum Institute – the biggest trade association for the oil and gas industry in the U.S. – commissioned a report from Paul Bernstein and David Montgomery; economists who claimed that implementing the treaty would cost ten times more than what government economists had calculated. And the industry claimed that the Kyoto Protocol would be uniquely harmful to the U.S., with the executive vice president of the American Petroleum Institute calling it “unilateral economic disarmament.”
Additionally, in the run-up to the Kyoto meeting, a coalition of oil companies and others created an ad campaign called the Global Climate Information Project, which insisted, among other things, that the Kyoto Protocol wouldn’t actually reduce global warming. And Lee Raymond, then CEO of Exxon and chairman of the American Petroleum Institute, asserted that reducing carbon dioxide emissions would prevent the alleviation of poverty, “deny[ing] people the opportunity to improve their way in life.”
These arguments – that climate policies would devastate the U.S. economy, would be uniquely unfair to the U.S., wouldn’t reduce global warming anyway, and would prevent the alleviation of poverty – were the standard talking points of the oil and gas industry as it blocked climate policies in the 1990s. And those talking points worked: Americans eventually elected a president, George W. Bush, who bought the industry’s claims and pulled the U.S. out of the Kyoto Protocol.
Is the fossil fuel industry behind President Trump’s identical talking points? We don’t know yet for sure, but as they say, when you see a turtle sitting on a post, you know it didn’t get there by itself. And when you see the same talking points used decades apart to stop climate policy (and when those talking points are now even more dubious and indefensible than before), it’s hard not to see a post turtle: four nonsensical talking points; four wiggling feet.
It’s not just the talking points that are back – it’s the people, too. President Trump, in claiming high costs for the Paris climate agreement, cited a report published in March by NERA Economic Consulting. Its first two authors are Paul Bernstein and David Montgomery – the very same economists the oil and gas industry used to fight the Kyoto Protocol.
Bernstein and Montgomery didn’t just work to stop the Kyoto Protocol; they were the go-to economists for the oil and gas industry throughout the 1990s. Whenever the threat of climate policy arose, the American Petroleum Institute hired one or both of these economists to pen a report claiming high costs and recommending policy delay. This strategy was used in 1991 against carbon dioxide control, in 1993 against the Clinton Administration’s proposed BTU tax, in 1996 against the goals of the U.N. Conference of Parties in Geneva, in 1997against the goals of the U.N. Conference of Parties in Kyoto, and in 1998 against the Kyoto Protocol’s implementation.
The industry portrayed the reports it commissioned from Bernstein and Montgomery as factual and independent, manufacturing economic fears and a false image of economic debate. In the run-up to the 1997 meeting in Kyoto, for example, Mobil oil company claimed in the New York Times that “[t]he cost of limiting emissions could range from $200 to $580 per ton of carbon” based on “[a] study just issued by Charles River Associates.” Mobil didn’t name who authored the report (Bernstein and Montgomery were the first two authors) or who funded it (the American Petroleum Institute).
It’s clear that Bernstein and Montgomery had a conflict of interest, but was their analysis truly flawed? Consider this: they ignored the costs of climate change, and they assumed that clean energy wouldn’t decline in cost but would remain many times more expensive than fossil fuels for decades into the future. In a sense, they simply assumed the result that they claimed to show.