Following a Familiar Script, U.S. Officially Withdraws From a Global Climate Pact

The United States remains the world’s largest economy and strongest military power. It is also, as of this week, the only country in the world that has begun the process of withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement.

On Monday, the Trump administration formally notified the United Nations that the United States would leave the landmark 2015 agreement in one year, the earliest date when, under the terms of the agreement, it’s possible for the U.S. to withdraw.

The Paris Agreement, signed by nearly 200 countries, pushes each signatory to set clear emission reduction targets. Under the deal, the United States had committed to cut its overall greenhouse gas emissions to somewhere between 26 percent and 28 percent below what they were in 2005.

In a brief statement, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the Paris Agreement placed “an unfair economic burden” on American workers and businesses, and that “innovation and open markets lead to greater prosperity, fewer emissions, and more secure sources of energy.” In the statement, Pompeo also implied that United States greenhouse gas emissions are dropping steadily. (In fact, they rose last year.)

To be clear, the withdrawal is mostly symbolic. President Donald J. Trump has been promising to leave the Paris deal since at least June 2017. The deal’s provisions are also voluntary, and according to some analyses, few major carbon emitting nations, including the United States, are on track to meet critical benchmarks anyway.

And more than anything else, the withdrawal seemed to highlight the limited power of the executive branch to bring about meaningful, long-term climate action — even if it wanted to. After all, while international agreements can offer some hope that a sympathetic administration will combat the looming climate threat, treaties typically provide little political leverage in Washington. Even the initial signing of the Paris deal by Trump’s predecessor, President Barack Obama, was fraught with political baggage, with some critics calling the pact a treaty requiring approval of the Senate, and supporters calling it a mere agreement — fully voluntary in its details — that the president could enter into by simple executive order, as Obama did formally in 2016.

Of course, just as one administration could make a unilateral decision to enter the deal, another could unilaterally withdraw from it. This is the second time that an American commitment to a global climate compact has languished amid partisan politics in the U.S. In 1998, the administration of President Bill Clinton signed onto the Kyoto Protocol. But it was never ratified by the Senate, and by 2001, Clinton’s Republican successor, George W. Bush, announced that his administration would not implement the agreement.

After Monday’s announcement regarding the Paris agreement, state governors, big-city mayors, and large corporations (including Walmart) reiterated their commitment to reducing carbon emissions. And polls indicate that most Americans — and especially young Americans — want more action on climate change. Whether those desires will translate to legislative results, however, remains to be seen.

As it stands, the U.S. is now scheduled to exit the Paris Agreement on November 4 of next year — one day after the 2020 elections.

Also in the News:

• A New York Times investigation published on Sunday raised concerns about the reliability of breathalyzer tests used by police officers across the country to determine whether a driver’s blood alcohol content is over the legal limit. Although manufacturers market their testing products as highly precise, outside reviews have indicated alarming rates of skewed and inaccurate results. In 2007, experts found that one such machine, the Alcotest 7110, had “thousands of programming errors,” while a Vermont state toxicology lab found in 2005 that the Intoxilyzer 8000 produced an inaccurate result “on almost every test.” States continued to use these or similar devices even after such findings came out. What’s more, local police departments often fail to maintain the machines properly, leading to further problems. In the past 12 months alone, the Times reports, judges in the states of New Jersey and Massachusetts have thrown out more than 30,000 breath tests due to questions about the validity of their results. (The New York Times)

• Even as the e-cigarette company Juul downplayed the uniquely addictive properties of its vaping products in marketing campaigns, it emphasized those properties to potential retailers, reports Chris Kirkham in an investigative piece published in Reuters this week. Interviewing former Juul employees and diving deep into patent records, Kirkham pieced together the story of how Juul’s cofounders, Adam Bowen and James Monsees, drew from decades of tobacco-industry research to build an e-cigarette juggernaut — one that has come under fire for its roles in the teen vaping epidemic and recent vaping-related illnesses. Among Kirkham’s findings: Juul executives saw warning signs of teen addiction shortly after the e-cigarette debuted in 2015, but for three years did little to address the issue; scientists who developed Juul’s liquid nicotine formula focused on hooking users with the “first hit,” adding organic chemicals that could efficiently deliver the drug to the bloodstream; and the company ditched early design features that would have limited users’ nicotine dosages. Juul told Reuters that it “never intended to attract underage customers” but acknowledged that it needs to “earn back the trust of regulators, policymakers, and society at large.” (Reuters)

• The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s administrator – former coal company lobbyist Andrew Wheeler – announced this week that the EPA will begin rolling back Obama-era rules that restrict waste disposal from coal-fired power plants. The 2015 rules, which limit the use of unlined waste ponds for toxic coal ash and restrict discharge from those ponds into local waterways – were established in response to severe contamination incidents in Tennessee and North Carolina. While the Obama regulations mandated the closure of leaking waste ponds this year, the Trump administration extended that deadline until next year. It also put in place new options to request extensions on waste pond improvements, some of which will allow the old disposal methods to continue for another eight years. Wheeler said that the 2015 rules “placed heavy burdens on electricity producers” that needed to be lightened – and industry spokespeople expressed appreciation for the changes. But environmental critics, who have already threatened to sue the agency, say the changes increase the risks to communities near disposal sites, which are often low-income, and raise the likelihood of increased metal pollution – from arsenic to mercury – in waterways and, potentially, drinking water. (The Washington Post)

• Today’s solar panels can’t touch the towering sunflower when it comes to maximizing the absorption of sunlight. The plant gains its advantage from an ability called phototropism, meaning that it naturally shifts its face toward or away from the sun as it grows. But solar panel technology may be getting closer to adopting the sunflower’s more efficient strategy. A paper published Monday in Nature Nanotechnology announced the first man-made nanomaterial to mimic phototropism. Created by a research team at the University of California, Los Angeles, these SunBOTS are skinnier than a flower’s stem and rely on an embedded nanomaterial to catch 90 percent of available sunlight, compared to 24 percent captured, on average, by less agile technologies. Embedded in different materials, its self-regulated ability to sense sunlight could be used for broader applications, including building more efficient solar panels. (Science News)

• Two years ago, an investigation showed that the City of New Orleans had been failing to comply with federal regulations regarding lead testing of its water. But the 84-page-report produced by the investigator general’s office was never released to the public. Obtained by BuzzFeed News and published this week, the report suggests that while the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires lead testing to be conducted only in properties that have lead pipes, the city didn’t have a grasp on where those pipes might be, and its records haven’t been updated since the 1990s. And, indeed, there are indications that officials may have overlooked contamination: In nearly two decades of data collection, the Sewerage and Water Board never reported a lead value higher than 33 parts per billion (ppb), while independent testing by Louisiana State University found levels as high as 284 ppb. (The EPA’s threshold for lead in tap water is 15 ppb.) While current city officials say the report was not released because its findings weren’t sufficiently supported and because it had not passed legal review, many scientists and New Orleans residents are skeptical, drawing parallels to the coverups involved in the 2014 Flint water crisis in Michigan. (BuzzFeed News)

• Air pollution in India’s capital, Delhi, has reached such dangerous levels that a Supreme Court-appointed panel declared a public health emergency late last week. Authorities closed schools, grounded planes, and limited private car travel. On November 1, all 37 air quality monitoring stations across the city recorded the air quality index (AQI) entering “severe,” “severe plus,” and “emergency” categories, with some neighborhoods’ air quality sensors registering above 999, or “off the charts” levels, prompting Delhi’s chief minister Arvind Kejriwal to say the city had turned “into a gas chamber.” Conditions in Delhi are particularly dangerous because of the extremely high concentration of PM 2.5, tiny particulate matter that can cause permanent lung damage and other severe health effects. Currently, the peak levels of pollution in Delhi far surpass the WHO’s standards for PM 2.5 — on November 3, the levels were more than 23 times higher than World Health Organization air quality guidelines, according to data from the Indian Central Pollution Control Board. (BBC)

• Students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are calling on administrators to fire Seth Lloyd, a mechanical engineering professor who accepted donations from financier Jeffrey Epstein, and who admitted to visiting Epstein in prison after his conviction in 2008 on child prostitution charges. In August, an official letter admitted that the university had accepted some $800,000 from Epstein’s foundations, with the funds divided between research in Lloyd’s lab and at the MIT Media Lab. Both Lloyd and Media Lab director Joi Ito wrote statements apologizing for accepting the money, and Ito subsequently stepped down from his post. To the distress of some students, Lloyd is still teaching at MIT and serving as a freshman academic adviser. In an op-ed for MIT’s student newspaper, physics student Eleanor Graham wrote that she dropped Lloyd’s course after he launched into a half-hour-long monologue about his involvement with Epstein on the first day of classes. “As long as Seth Lloyd teaches at MIT, our institution suffers,” wrote Graham. On October 31, students protested outside Lloyd’s office with signs reading “Seth Lloyd Must Go.” According to Motherboard, Lloyd declined to comment on the situation, citing an ongoing MIT investigation into his case. (Motherboard)

• And finally: Nobody knew that the Voyager 2 space probe would make it this far, but, 42 years after its launch and more than 12 billion miles from earth, Voyager 2 has crossed the threshold of interstellar space and sent back measurements from the edge of our solar system. In five new papers, published this week in Nature Astronomy, NASA researchers decode those measurements, reporting a distinct boundary at the edge of the heliosphere where solar wind radiating out from the sun meets a cooler interstellar wind. These data support measurements taken by Voyager 1, which crossed the interstellar boundary six years ago. Voyager 1 left the solar system after a visit past Saturn, but Voyager 2 slowed its course at Saturn to meander past Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto. The two space probes now form two points of a rough triangle, with the sun as the third point, and their data suggest that the heliosphere may be symmetrical. There is still an ongoing debate as to the shape of the heliosphere, but in some current models, like NASA’s artistic rendition, the “back” end of the heliosphere looks wind-blown, somewhat mirroring models of the earth’s magnetosphere. (The Guardian)

“Also in the News” items are compiled and authored by Undark staff and interns.

Michael Schulson is a contributing editor for Undark. His work has also been published by Aeon, NPR, Pacific Standard, Scientific American, Slate, and Wired, among other publications.