WIRED reporter gushes over Paris agreement, but misses key facts

Wired science reporter Nick Stockton recently wrote an article praising John Kerry for his leadership on the Paris climate agreement. Stockton begins his article with a rather dramatic take on the Secretary of State’s role:

The Secretary of State is the frontal lobe of US foreign policy—managing the country’s diplomatic nervous system and its relationships with every other nation in the world. The vast majority of that work is slow and subtle: chipping away at a humanitarian crisis here, greasing the wheels of progress there. Occasionally a big one comes along, something that deals with the whole world, forcing the whole diplomatic brain to work to produce a universal agreement.

Of course the U.S. Secretary of State plays a crucial role on the global stage, but the “universal agreement” Stockton is referring to isn’t a plan to fight terrorism or bring affordable energy to impoverished people around the world. No, Stockton is referencing the Paris Climate Agreement. He continues:

The Paris Climate Agreement was perhaps the biggest of all biggies. The UN treaty [sic], drafted last December and set to go into full force this November, seeks to limit the most devastating effects of global warming through a combination of drastic emissions cuts and socio-structural adaptations. This Earth Day, John Kerry signed the treaty [sic], the first time in history the US has officially begun thinking, and therefore acting, in concert with the rest of the world on climate change.

Stockton’s first misstep comes in this paragraph when he refers to the agreement as a treaty. While other countries may be sending this agreement through the proper channels to be ratified as a treaty, the U.S. is not. For the agreement to become a binding treaty for the U.S., it must be ratified by two-thirds of the Senate (Article II, Section 2, U.S. Constitution). Even though President Obama has traveled the globe to implore countries to ratify the agreement and has stressed in the U.S. he has stressed to the American people how the U.S. must “lead on climate,” he has yet to send the agreement to the Senate.

Another misstep Stockton makes is when he writes that this is “the first time in history the US has officially begun thinking, and therefore acting, in concert with the rest of the world on climate change.” In 1992, the U.S. Senate ratified the United National Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The UNFCCC did not give the President independent authority to act on climate change, but neither does the Paris Agreement. The Paris Agreement is non-binding and there are no penalties for non-compliance.

Stockton then lays out what the Obama administration’s plan for meeting the agreement:

Here’s what the US is in for: cutting between 26 and 28 percent of its greenhouse gas emissions (based on 2005 emissions levels) by 2025. This is going to require a massive restructuring of the country’s energy infrastructure. Nobody is quite sure exactly how it will look, but in broad strokes coal, oil, and natural gas have got to go. Meeting the Paris goals is also going to require industry-wide changes in agriculture, automotive, commercial air travel, marine shipping, construction, manufacturing, and pretty much every other way people make a living in this country.

It’s true that the Obama administration agreed to cutting between 26 and 28 percent of GHG emissions (even if it is a non-binding commitment), but Stockton fails to address the negative implications of such a plan. In fact, he casually glosses over it by simply saying “coal, oil, and natural gas have got to go.”

Stockton’s flippant remarks overlook the fact that coal, oil, and natural gas make up over 81 percent of the energy consumed in the U.S., as the following chart shows:

Source: http://instituteforenergyresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/energy-consumption-by-source-march-2016.png

Moving away from these three resources anytime soon is completely unattainable. And even working towards such a goal would prove costly for Americans. For example, let’s take a look at the electricity sector.

A recent study from the Institute for Energy Research shows the cost of shutting down existing electricity resources like coal and natural gas in favor of wind and solar power. The study found that on average, electricity from new solar is 3.5 times as expensive as electricity from existing coal and four times as expensive as electricity from existing natural gas.

Even if we compare the costs of electricity from new generation sources, new solar is still 2.5 times as expensive as new natural gas. Of course, cost is just one factor. Solar power’s intermittency issues (the sun isn’t always shining) also poses a problem for Stockton’s idea that “coal, natural gas, and oil have got to go.”

Another study by NERA Economic Consulting found that the Obama administration’s so-called “Clean Power Plan”—the centerpiece of their climate agenda—could cost nearly $300 billion.

Restructuring our country’s energy infrastructure, as Stockton suggests, means Americans would pay much more for the energy they use. This would have the harshest impact on lower-income Americans, as they spend a higher percentage of their income on energy costs. Of course, Stockton fails to address this at all.

Advocates for the “Clean Power Plan” and the Paris Climate Agreement will point to the alleged health benefits of their plan. You can find AEA’s rebuttal to these claims here.

Another mistake comes in Stockton’s closing paragraph. He writes:

With the Paris Agreement in effect, the US is obligated to uphold its end of the bargain. Climate change is now a front-line global issue, affecting everything from trade to geopolitics. If the US reneges now, it loses the world’s trust—and possibly the world’s business. That should be enough to make any future president stop and think.

Stockton incorrectly claims that the U.S. is “obligated” to honor the Paris agreement. The agreement itself is non-binding and it contains no mechanism to deal with non-compliance. Furthermore, without the advice and consent of the Senate, a future administration could simply ignore the non-binding agreement—undoing President Obama’s commitments. Lastly, the world knows that this is a non-binding agreement and therefore other countries understand that any country, including the United States, can pull out at any time.

To truly lead on climate, the President needs to get the American people on board and the way to do that is to follow the Constitution and submit the treaty to Senate for its advice and consent.

Since the agreement hasn’t been sent to and approved by the Senate, the next administration could simply withdraw from the current administration’s commitments. Donald Trump has already promised that if elected he would cancel the agreement. He could do this by simply not following through with the promises made by President Obama. Of course, if Hillary Clinton is elected president she will likely try to follow through with President Obama’s commitments. But as Stockton points out, the “Clean Power Plan” is in legal limbo meaning that an important vehicle for achieving President Obama’s commitments is far from a done deal.

Regardless, it is dishonest for the media to portray the Paris agreement as a binding treaty for the U.S. because that’s simply not the case.


Stockton, along with many others in the media, have misrepresented the Paris Climate Agreement and have painted a rosy picture of the impacts of such a plan. The media’s job isn’t to champion a certain policy or carry water for an administration, but rather to report the facts and the full story to their audience. Unfortunately, Wired’s latest piece on the Paris Climate Agreement fails to do this.

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