Why the U.S. is falling behind Europe in the Paris Agreement on Climate Change

There is something a bit unseemly about the United States, a country with rapidly warming waters and shrinking Arctic land, playing a central role in a Paris agreement designed to help avert climate disaster. When is the world going to learn that the U.S. is falling behind other countries in combating global warming?

The U.S. government agreed to cuts in greenhouse gas emissions in 2015 and 2015 alone, but seems to be making little progress against the seven-fold increase in the U.S. carbon dioxide emissions since the late 1970s. Oilmen — and big oil companies — were not good negotiators in Paris.

“We don’t have a lead here,” said Jake Schmidt, the deputy director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s international program. And now here the lead is.

“The oil industry will continue to feel no real pressure,” he said.

Oil executives are escaping international censure when they pull out of the Paris Agreement, an accord developed by the overwhelming majority of the world’s governments. This is partly because the U.S. government, which spends few hours any year talking about climate change, is reluctant to reduce American influence on the world stage.

It is also partly because some of the signatories have been filling the void with coal, natural gas and other fossil fuels. But ExxonMobil, the world’s largest publicly traded oil company, has long called for urgent action on climate change. So have other big oil companies — BP, Royal Dutch Shell, France’s Total, Australia’s Woodside and Norway’s Statoil.

But their leadership has been largely forgotten. BP has yet to join other major companies that plan to shut down coal-fired power plants. The CEO of Shell has called climate change a “huge challenge,” and called renewable energy “the growth industry of the 21st century.”

Some American companies — including the oil giant Chevron — have reduced greenhouse gas emissions, in part because they might face worse regulation if emissions were no longer a top priority for regulators.

“If you think about a well-known public company in a major emerging market, like South America, or Asia, where many people don’t believe in climate change and are more focused on consumption, those priorities tend to dovetail with fossil fuels,” said Julian Samuelson, who directs the climate and energy programs at the University of California, Berkeley.

Big Oil is complicating — if not negating — the work of climate scientists. The recent failure of American oil companies to agree on how much oil the U.S. should import from Venezuela was partially blamed on the conflicting political agendas at play. Oil executives have steadfastly refused to acknowledge that the global oil market has become more competitive as oil supplies have become more plentiful in the U.S.

“Some people do see their political clients sitting on their hands on climate change,” Mr. Schmidt said. “But a good many oil companies have at least talked to their governments about their obligations in terms of climate change.”

It may take a while for Americans to catch on that the U.S. has fallen behind others. Environmentalists in other countries, experts say, are more likely to blame American inaction for the continued problem of global warming. There is a danger that the U.S. will encourage other nations to do less on climate change in future. In Paris, after all, the world may end up with less to fight than it started with.

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