Gazette opinion: Au revoir, Paris; hello Iraq, Syria and North Korea

By the Billings Gazette Editorial Board

For a moment, let’s just pretend that as the United States exits the Paris Climate Accord, the coal economy is going to come rushing back.

And while we’re at it, let’s welcome back the telegraphers, lithographers and scriveners.

What happened to those jobs of the previous century was not a function of government overreach, but the inevitable change in markets and technology. Those now-extinct professions became that way precisely because of the free-market system which we hold so dear. Technology and innovation came along and rendered those jobs obsolete. We bet that was little comfort to those whose entire work had been wiped out by, say, the telephone.

The point is that the lament was momentary but the progress endured.

So, too, we might imagine with coal.

The Billings Gazette Editorial Board has discussed coal plenty on these pages. Today, it’s time to make the truly American case for remaining in the Paris agreement, along with most of the rest of the world. The decision to remain should be seen as an issue that reaches far beyond a discussion of energy.

We now join a rogue’s gallery of countries which do not participate in Paris, including Syria, Iraq, Yemen and North Korea. That alone should give us pause. Are those the countries with whom we want to be associated?

Keep in mind that participation in Paris not mandatory, and the terms, if we had truly believed needed changing could have been negotiated.

And yet we continue to debate climate change and the human impact as part of that.

Looking around in Montana, we can see something is changing. Our forests are burning up and the Yellowstone River last year ran shallow, hot and stressed.

We owe it to the next generation of Montanans to leave the state at least as good –if not better — than when we inherited from our parents and grandparents. That means we have an obligation to do our part when it comes to climate change.

Exiting Paris means much more to America than simply pulling out of a deal we don’t like, or curbing carbon emissions.

Exiting Paris is an abdication of our long-standing and proud leadership role in the world.

As a superpower, if we don’t commit to change, why should other countries? If America — the greatest country on earth — exits then surely others cannot be blamed for doing whatever they want. Meanwhile the global temperatures will continue to increase.

The changes to Paris indeed may only work to effect 0.2 degrees Celsius of change. But that 0.2 degrees Celsius is part of a larger 2 degrees that will be captured as part of worldwide carbon reduction. That translates to nearly four degrees Fahrenheit. Point-two degrees doesn’t sound like much, but four degrees is a much bigger deal, especially when we’re talking about melting ice caps, flooding and the world burning up.

Whether it’s World War II, a humanitarian aid after a disaster, or fighting against terrorism, America hasn’t just asked the question: Is something a good deal for us? Instead, it’s framed its decisions on whether we had an obligation to use our power and status for the benefit of the entire globe.

President Donald J. Trump has railed against the Paris provisions in which we’ve given money to other countries. But of the nearly $3 billion that is committed to aid, only $1 billion has been spent. Of that money, $1 billion went to other poorer countries to help them develop cleaner energy so that by improving their conditions they could do it without terrible pollution.

Speaking of that, we continue to hear Republicans cheer because exiting Paris will mean a coal renaissance. But ask most coal industry experts and they’ll tell you what continues to kill coal is natural gas, which has a much smaller carbon footprint. Coal is also impacted by a host of other newer technologies, some less reliable, like solar and wind.

The economic viability of large-scale “clean coal” technology hasn’t quite panned out, either. Looking through the pages of just The Billings Gazette, you can see decades of reporting about clean coal technology or techniques to make it better, but innovations have lagged far behind the hopeful talk.

As much as conservatives love to tout the benefits and strengths of a free market, they must also be chagrined because that is exactly what has happened to coal. The free market has determined that coal cannot currently compete with other cheaper forms of energy nor can innovation be done cheap enough to make it economically viable.

What’s equally shocking is that those same conservatives can’t get on board with Paris.

Many business leaders have been shocked by Trump’s exit, despite calls from some Republicans to stay in. That’s because businesses know that thriving and prospering is difficult in a times of uncertainly and catastrophe.

Paris was important because it set standards and goals, and those gave the U.S. some modicum of certainty about the future. That, in turn, led to some stability. In other words, businesses could plan, budget and predict.

The exit has thrown the situation back into disarray. Who knows what the worldwide impact on American businesses will be?

For those who point out that other developing nations like India or China have it easier than we do in the climate agreement, go take a deep breath in one of India’s hyperpolluted cities and then breath ours in Montana. And don’t forget, China is ahead of meeting its goals set out by Paris.

The best kind of leadership the United States can display is the quiet strength of doing something for the right reasons, not just the profitable ones.