Fact-checking Trump's speech on Paris climate agreement

In announcing that the U.S. would withdraw from the Paris Agreement, a global accord aimed at addressing climate change, President Trump made more than a few false and misleading claims:

  • Trump said the U.S. would be exposed to “massive legal liability if we stay in” the Paris Agreement. But there is no liability mechanism in the Paris Agreement. International environmental law experts tell us that pulling out of the agreement won’t reduce U.S. exposure to liability claims and, in fact, may increase it.
  • Trump called China and India the “world’s leading polluters,” referring to carbon emissions. That’s not accurate. China and the U.S. were the top emitters per kiloton in 2015.
  • Trump falsely claimed the “United States has already handed over $1 billion” to the Green Climate Fund. The U.S. has contributed $500 million to the fund so far.
  • The president also falsely said “nobody even knows where the money [in the Green Climate Fund] is going to.” The fund’s website outlines all of the projects that have been funded.
  • Trump said the agreement would cost “close to $3 trillion in lost GDP.” That’s one estimate from a report for a business-funded group that found a much smaller impact under a different scenario. Yet another analysis said the impact of meeting the emissions targets would be “modest.”
  • Trump again took credit for job gains, saying the economy has added more than a million private sector jobs since his election. That’s true, but only 493,000 of them were added since he took office.

The Paris Agreement was reached on Dec. 12, 2015. It builds on the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and it was accepted by all but two of the 197 countries that were party to the convention.

Trump made his announcement on the Paris Agreement in a speech in the Rose Garden at the White House. The president, who promised during the campaign to withdraw from the climate agreement, said “the United States will withdraw from the Paris climate accord, but begin negotiations to reenter either the Paris accord” or another “entirely new transaction, on terms that are fair to the United States.”

The process for withdrawal isn’t easy. It will take nearly four years to complete the process, meaning that the final decision would not happen until after the 2020 presidential election.

‘Massive Legal Liability’?

In listing his reasons why the U.S. should pull out of the Paris climate agreement, Trump claimed that the U.S. would be exposed to “massive legal liability if we stay in.” But international environmental law experts say that that is not true.

Trump, June 1: "The risks grow as historically these agreements only tend to become more and more ambitious over time. In other words, the Paris framework is just a starting point, as bad as it is, not an end point. And exiting the agreement protects the United States from future intrusions on the United States sovereignty and massive future legal liability. Believe me, we have massive legal liability if we stay in."

Michael Burger, executive director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, told us Trump is wrong. He said the U.S. actually may be more exposed to lawsuits if it withdraws from the agreement.

“Withdrawal may actually create a greater likelihood of success in lawsuits challenging government inaction,” Burger told us. “So not only is he wrong, he actually has it backwards.”

We also asked James Salzman, a professor of environmental law at the UCLA School of Law and at UC Santa Barbara, if it is true that the U.S. would be exposed to “massive legal liability” if it remained in the Paris Agreement.

“No. It is not true,” Salzman told us in an email. “There is no liability mechanism under the Paris Agreement. There was language in the agreement about loss and damage from climate change but the accompanying decision text stated clearly that this does not provide a basis of liability and compensation for claims. Ironically, this text had been added to address U.S. concerns.”

Liability and compensation were key issues in negotiating the Paris Agreement. Poor developing countries wanted the agreement to address compensation for losses and damages resulting from climate change. But wealthier countries “feared setting a precedent that might create legal liability for harms attributable to climate change,” the World Resources Institute wrote in a Dec. 24, 2015, blog post after the contentious issue was settled.

At a press conference in Paris on Dec. 2, 2015, Todd Stern, the U.S. special envoy for climate change, said that the United States acknowledged the need to address the issue of losses and damages, but it would not accept an agreement that would expose it to future liability claims.

“On loss and damage there are ongoing negotiations on this. We have made it clear that we are supportive of the concept broadly speaking,” Stern said. “We’ve also made it clear that we are not at all supportive of and would not accept the notion of liability and compensation being part of that.”The final agreement, which was reached on Dec. 12, 2015, contained a compromise. There was a separate article in the agreement “recognizing the importance of ‘averting, minimizing and addressing loss and damage,'” but it also included “language clarifying that the article on loss and damage does not provide a basis for liability or compensation,” as explained by the World Resources Institute.

The final agreement, which was reached on Dec. 12, 2015, contained a compromise. There was a separate article in the agreement “recognizing the importance of ‘averting, minimizing and addressing loss and damage,'” but it also included “language clarifying that the article on loss and damage does not provide a basis for liability or compensation,” as explained by the World Resources Institute.

World Resources Institute, Dec. 24, 2015: "The loss and damage article of the agreement calls on countries to cooperate to enhance understanding, action and support in areas such as early warning systems, disaster preparedness, risk assessment and management, and insurance. It also states the need for greater cooperation in building the resilience of communities, livelihoods and ecosystems, and in understanding non-economic losses associated with climate change, such as damage to sites with cultural or historic importance. The COP decision text accompanying the Agreement establishes a task force for addressing human displacement associated with climate change. It also includes language clarifying that the article on loss and damage does not provide a basis for liability or compensation."

Dan Bodansky, co-director of the Center for Law and Global Affairs at Arizona State University, said Trump’s claim is “completely untrue.”

“To the extent large emitters like the US are liable for climate change damages, the liability arises under general international law (and, in particular, the customary duty to use due diligence to prevent significant transboundary harms), not the Paris Agreement, so pulling out wouldn’t affect US exposure to claims for climate damages,” Bodansky told us in an email. “Conversely, pulling out in violation of international law or staying in the agreement but violating its terms actually opens up the United States to ‘counter-measures’ by other countries.”

Who Emits the Most?

Speaking about carbon emissions, Trump called China and India the “world’s leading polluters” and the U.S. the “world’s leader in environmental protection.” That’s not entirely accurate.

China and the U.S. were the top emitters per kiloton in 2015. In fact, Americans emitted more than twice as much as the Chinese and over eight times as much as Indians per capita in 2015.

Trump, June 1: "As someone who cares deeply about the environment, which I do, I cannot in good conscious support a deal that punishes the United States, which is what it does. The world’s leader in environmental protection, while imposing no meaningful obligations on the world’s leading polluters. For example, under the agreement, China will be able to increase these emissions by a staggering number of years, 13. They can do whatever they want for 13 years. Not us. India makes its participation contingent on receiving billions and billions and billions of dollars in foreign aid from developed countries. There are many other examples. But the bottom line is that the Paris Accord is very unfair at the highest level to the United States."

We’ve written about this claim before. In March, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt claimed China and India are “the largest producers of CO2 internationally.”

According to the European Commission’s Emissions Database for Global Atmospheric Research, in 2015 China came in first for total kilotons of carbon dioxide emitted. The U.S., the European Union and India trailed China in that order (see table here).

Per capita, however, the U.S. pumped out more CO2 than China and India combined in 2015. On average, each individual living in the United States contributed 16.07 tons to the country’s total. But each individual living in China and India contributed 7.73 and 1.87 tons on average, respectively.

China still emits the most overall because its population is almost 1.4 billion people, while nearly 325 million live in the U.S. More than 1.3 billion people live in India.

Economic Impact

Trump claimed that the “cost to the economy at this time would be close to $3 trillion in lost GDP” under the Paris Agreement. That figure is for the year 2040 and for one scenario in a report that found a smaller impact under a different scenario. Another analysis estimated the potential economic impact of meeting the Paris Agreement emissions targets would be “modest” and the cost of delaying action would be “high.”

We looked at the potential impact of the Paris Agreement on GDP in May, after Trump claimed that “full compliance with the agreement could ultimately shrink America’s GDP by $2.5 trillion over a 10-year period.” That was actually an estimate for a 20-year period, and it came from researchers for the conservative Heritage Foundation. They concluded that the Paris Agreement “will result in over $2.5 trillion in lost GDP by 2035,” according to the April 2016 report, by using a carbon tax rate from the Environmental Protection Agency for the social cost of carbon. (For context, the total U.S. GDP was $18.6 trillion in 2016.)

But a November 2016 report by the economic analysis group Resources for the Future used a carbon tax rate that would be needed for the U.S. to meet its pledged emissions target under the Paris Agreement by 2025. That analysis concluded that “the size of the 2025 carbon taxes and their corresponding economic costs are modest.” And the researchers said that “the cost of delaying the implementation of a carbon tax is high.” Delaying implementation of the agreement would raise the cost of a carbon tax needed to meet the 2025 emissions target.

In his June 1 speech, Trump cites an estimate from the National Economic Research Associates Economic Consulting. NERA prepared a March 2017 report for the American Council for Capital Formation Center for Policy Research, part of a group that acts “as a liaison between Washington’s leading policymakers, the press, and representatives of the business community,” according to its website. The Institute for 21st Century Energy at the U.S. Chambers of Commerce also sponsored the report.

That report estimated an annual loss in GDP of “nearly $3 trillion by 2040.” That’s under one scenario that assumes emissions caps are set for four broad sectors in order to meet the U.S. emission targets under the Paris Agreement. The study created “different scenarios to reflect different ways in which reduction programs might be implemented or regulated.” The final, or fifth, scenario “layers regulatory measures on top of a cap-and-trade approach, a hybrid approach.” That scenario has a much lower impact on GDP, according to the study.

While the average yearly reduction in GDP was 6.8 percent under scenario 1 from 2034-2040, the average yearly reduction was 2.2% over that time period under scenario 5.

So the actual cost to the economy depends on how the U.S. would go about meeting its target emissions reduction. Trump’s claim that the cost “at this time would be close to $3 trillion in lost GDP” leaves out the fact that it’s an estimate for the year 2040 and that another scenario in that same study estimated a much lower impact.

The Green Climate Fund

Trump falsely claimed the “United States has already handed over $1 billion” to the Green Climate Fund. The U.S. has only contributed $500 million to the fund so far.

The Green Climate Fund is a United Nations program that uses funds collected from industrialized countries and other sources to back climate mitigation and adaptation projects in developing countries.

Trump also falsely said “nobody even knows where the money” contributed to the Green Climate Fund “is going to.” The fund’s website outlines all of the projects that have been funded.

This isn’t the first time Trump has made a questionable claim about funding related to the Paris Agreement. Back in April he made a similar claim.

Trump, April 29: "Our government rushed to join international agreements where the United States pays the costs and bears the burdens while other countries get the benefit and pay nothing. This includes deals like the one-sided Paris climate accord, where the United States pays billions of dollars while China, Russia and India have contributed and will contribute nothing."

As we wrote at the time, industrialized countries are expected to help fund climate change mitigation efforts in developing countries, which include China and India, under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The Paris Agreement builds upon the UNFCCC and follows the same logic when it comes to funding.

The Green Climate Fund is one funding mechanism set up by the UNFCCC to serve this purpose. The U.S. has promised to contribute $3 billion to this fund, but as of March 3 it has contributed only $500 million. The fund’s website states that the U.S. contribution is “[s]ubject to the availability of funds.”

So far, this fund has supported 43 projects that help developing countries mitigate and adapt to climate change, such as projects to improve their renewable energy sectors. That’s contrary to Trump’s claim that “nobody even knows where the money [in the Green Climate Fund] is going to.”

‘A Million Jobs’?

Trump again took credit for job gains, saying the economy has added more than a million private sector jobs since his election. That’s true, but only 493,000 of them were added since he took office.

Moreover, Trump suggests the economy is only now “starting to come back,” but jobs data show the U.S. has been steadily adding jobs every month since early 2010.

Trump, June 1: "I’d like to begin with an update on our tremendous, absolutely tremendous economic progress since Election Day on Nov. 8. The economy is starting to come back, and very, very rapidly. We have added $3.3 trillion in stock market value to our economy, and more than a million private sector jobs."

It’s true the U.S. has added just over a million private sector jobs since November, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But Barack Obama was the president — albeit a lame-duck president — until Jan. 20. In touting job gains, Trump has frequently, and inaccurately, counted January jobs in his total as president. But as we have noted, the January numbers were based on a survey that was concluded before Trump took office. Just counting the job gains in February, March and April — the only figures available from BLS when Trump made his speech — the total number of private sector jobs added since Trump took office is 493,000.

Although BLS had not yet announced its May job totals, the payroll processor ADP estimated employers added a better-than-projected 253,000 jobs that month.

“Job growth is rip-roaring,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, which helps produce the report. “The current pace of job growth is nearly three times the rate necessary to absorb growth in the labor force. Increasingly, businesses’ number one challenge will be a shortage of labor.”

But as the chart here from BLS shows, Trump is wrong to say the economy “is starting to come back” since his election. In fact, the economy has been steadily adding jobs for years. The nation has now experienced positive job growth for 78 straight months, with 75 of those under Trump’s predecessor.

“The job market is great and getting better,” Zandi told us via email. “But it is unfair to say the good economic news began with Trump’s election. The economy has been consistently creating jobs for about 7 years – a record length of time. And the pace of job growth has been very consistent; the same before and after the President’s inauguration. The economy was on fundamentally solid ground when Trump took office, and that hasn’t changed.”

Editor’s Note: SciCheck is made possible by a grant from the Stanton Foundation.

© 2017 USATODAY.COM


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