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The climate fix you’ve been waiting for: Rock dust?

Scientists have been trying to figure out how to make use of one of nature’s tricks for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere with rock and rain. As rain washes away tiny particles of rock, newly exposed minerals bind with carbon, transforming carbon dioxide into new chemicals. It’s a simple combination of basic chemistry and erosion.

We can speed the process up by speeding up erosion, crushing tons and tons of rock and spreading it across the earth’s surface, if we had the money to do it and a vast area where inhabitants don’t mind trucks covering everything with a layer of rock dust once a year. Farms are the most likely candidate for such a massive undertaking, because farmers already do some incidental advanced weathering as a byproduct of “liming”, where they apply crushed limestone to fields when their soils become too acidic.

A paper just published in Nature provides the most detailed calculation to date of just how much carbon this technique, known as enhanced weathering, could capture and how much it would cost. Deploying the practice worldwide could remove 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide from the air every year — about a third of what the United States emits each year — and would run between $60 and $200 per ton of carbon to apply all that rock dust on fields, varying by country. It would be cheaper in places like Indonesia and India that have better conditions for weathering (warm, seasonally wet weather), and low labor and energy costs. The countries with the greatest potential to deploy enhanced weathering are, the researchers note, “coincidentally the highest CO2 fossil fuel emitters (China, USA, and India).”

One of the scientists involved in the study, James Hanson, the climate Cassandra and Columbia University climatologist, said in an email that he became interested in weathering because it can trap carbon for thousands of years. Hansen said other approaches, “such as reforestation, are important, but require management to assure that the carbon sink is maintained.”

The researchers estimate that if the United States spread rock dust on half the country’s farmland it could capture 420 million tons of carbon dioxide, at an annual cost of $225 for every American, or $176 for every ton of carbon. That’s a higher price tag than some other solutions. Building solar farms, for instance, currently cuts emissions at a rate of less than $40 per ton. But because the world is failing to slash emissions, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has determined that we will need to use “negative emissions,” expensive techniques to suck carbon out of the atmosphere, to avoid the most dangerous consequences of climate change.

Farmers stand to benefit, too. In theory, spreading much more rock dust on fields could improve soil health and crop yields. And that could help farmers get out of poverty and increase world food production at the same time they’re soaking up carbon. And, as with any major attempt at geoengineering our atmosphere, there’s likely to unforeseen pitfalls, and unexpected benefits, along the way.

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The climate fix you’ve been waiting for: Rock dust?

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Coronavirus fallout could be the ‘nail in the coffin’ for smaller oil companies

At the State of the Union in February, President Trump boasted that his administration’s deregulatory agenda had made the U.S. “energy independent.” It was a dubious claim at the time, but recent events stemming from the outbreak of the novel coronavirus have shown it to be even more of a ruse.

This month oil prices plummeted about 25 percent and settled around $35 per barrel — the biggest slide in nearly 30 years. The slip started with reduced demand for oil in China and elsewhere due to the economic fallout of COVID-19. Then it accelerated dramatically this week, after Russia refused to sign onto a proposal from Saudi Arabia and other major oil producers to cut production in response to lower overall energy demand. With demand sagging and a sustained glut in the supply, the stage was set for prices to plummet.

The crash demonstrates the interconnected nature of the global oil market. The U.S. is now the largest oil producer in the world, but it still imports roughly 9 million barrels of petroleum per day. The cost and availability of oil is therefore still very much dependent on market activity elsewhere. In a globalized world, the U.S. economy cannot escape the effects of a global pandemic, geopolitical upheaval, and the subsequent plunge in oil prices.

With prices cratering, oil and gas market analysts expect a slate of bankruptcies, job cuts, and slashes in expenditures across the globe — and especially in the supposedly “independent” U.S. This could well result in operators idling or abandoning wells, which can have detrimental effects on the environment. Unplugged wells leak methane, a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change, and can contaminate groundwater.

“If this price war continues for a year or more, it can really be the nail in the coffin for many companies,” said Audun Martinsen, head of oilfield service research at Rystad Energy, an energy consulting group based in Norway. Martinsen projected that oil and gas companies worldwide will scale back capital and operational expenses by $100 billion in 2020 and that the shale industry in the U.S. would bear the brunt of the economic effects. About half of the 10,900 wells planned for 2020 might not be dug at all, he said.

While there are climate benefits that come with decreased fossil fuel extraction, environmental groups fear that oil and gas producers will also respond to this week’s crash by simply pausing production at many wells for months or years until it becomes profitable to pump again — or abandoning them altogether, leaving taxpayers to pay for cleanup costs.

A recent investigation by the Los Angeles Times and the Center for Public Integrity found that in California alone about 35,000 wells are already in “idle” status. About half of them have not produced oil and gas in more than a decade. Companies are required to post bonds to ensure the state has money to plug disused wells and clean up abandoned oilfields, but the investigation found that operators had only posted $110 million in bonds — even though it would cost about $6 billion to fully remediate the sites.

A similar analysis by the Center for Western Priorities, a Colorado-based environmental group, found that it would cost about $6.1 billion to clean up all producible oil and gas wells on federal lands, but companies had only ponied up $162 million — less than 2 percent of the projected cost. The more operators that close up shop during this price shock, the higher the risk that they will walk away from their cleanup responsibilities and leave the federal government holding the bag.

That shortfall might ultimately become the responsibility of state and federal governments. At the same time, lower oil prices could also affect state budgets. For instance, in Wyoming, a $5 per barrel drop in oil prices results in a $70 million decrease in revenue for the state annually. State lawmakers there are already dealing with a $150 million deficit over the next two years, and that’s without taking this week’s price drop into consideration.

Major oil and gas companies like Exxon and Chevron are likely to weather prolonged low prices without serious consequence. So will midsize operators with private equity backing. But small, family-owned businesses will struggle to stay afloat, Martinsen said.

That’s because the coronavirus-fueled price decline this week comes on the heels of sustained low prices over the last few years. In 2014, crude oil prices dropped from about $110 per barrel to less than $60 per barrel. In an attempt to force the U.S. to decrease production, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) — a cartel of 13 oil exporters including Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Venezuela — refused to cut production, pushing prices down further. By the time OPEC agreed to scale back production in 2016, prices had dropped below $40 per barrel.

But the damage was already done. The low prices between 2014 and 2016 put dozens of shale drillers out of business.

“That was basically a bloodbath,” said Martinsen. “Big service companies were laying off big time and many remaining [companies] went under Chapter 11 [bankruptcy].”

U.S. oil production has continued to balloon since 2016, pushing prices down further. According to Haynes and Boone, a corporate law firm, nearly 200 oil and gas producers have filed for bankruptcies since 2015. As a result, many shale drillers facing this week’s drop in prices are already in a financially precarious situation.

Whether prices rebound again largely depends on whether OPEC and Russia can reach an agreement on cutting production, Martinsen said. Those efforts are further complicated by the spread of COVID-19. The two parties are scheduled to meet again in June, but Martinsen said “it is likely that they will not come to an agreement” then.

“It seems to be a challenging time ahead,” said Martinsen. “It’s all about trying to seek shelter — and trying to recover some of that potential loss that we’ll see in the future.”

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Coronavirus fallout could be the ‘nail in the coffin’ for smaller oil companies

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Dam it all: More than half of the world’s long rivers are blocked by infrastucture

It hasn’t even been a week since the U.N. released a depressing report on biodiversity, and now, a new study in Nature shows that 63 percent of the world’s longest (at least 620 miles) rivers are impeded by human-built infrastructures such as dams and reservoirs. Dam(n).

Rivers are a key source of food and water for agriculture, energy, and humanity. They’re critical to many cultures and communities and home to a plethora of species like salmon and trout. They also bolster ecosystems by restoring groundwater and serve as a buffer against drought.

But with the increasing demand for more water, energy generation, and flood management, the construction of dams, levees, reservoirs, and other river-obstructive infrastructures is becoming ubiquitous.

“Free-flowing rivers are important for humans and the environment alike, yet economic development around the world is making them increasingly rare,” lead author Günther Grill of McGill University said in a statement. Here are a few gloomy statistics from the study.

  1. There are 60,000 large dams and more than 3,7000 hydropower dams currently planned or are under construction worldwide.
  2. The longest uninterrupted rivers are restricted to remote regions in the Arctic, the Amazon and Congo basins.
  3. The last two uninterrupted long rivers in Southeast Asia are critical sources of food for fisheries that provide over 1.2 million tonnes of catch each year.
  4. While Asia is flowing with dam installations, the Amazon, Balkans, China, and the Himalayas are facing a huge increase in hydropower construction. Other countries such as India, Brazil and China are also planning and building infrastructure that will harm rivers through dredging and building dams.

Rivers are vital to our ecosystems. But hydropower is a difficult balancing act in a planet where there’s a desperate need for more clean energy.

There’s one bit of good news. Carmel River in California is seeing a big recovery of fish populations after a centuries-old dam was removed. The demolition is considered the largest dam removal in California history. And four years later the dam went down, species such as trout and lampreys are rebounding and other tributaries are reviving.

“We don’t want to do the touchdown dance yet, but so far things are looking good,” Tommy Williams, a biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told the Mercury News. “It’s just amazing how fast these systems come back. Everything is playing out like we thought.”

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Dam it all: More than half of the world’s long rivers are blocked by infrastucture

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This GIF captures just how gigantic the U.S. carbon footprint is

President Trump likes to say that fighting climate change would give China and India an upper hand over the U.S. The three countries top the world’s biggest annual emitters list, sure, but that doesn’t take historical contributions into account. And now, we have a mindblowing visualization of nations’ cumulative carbon footprints.

Simon Evans, deputy editor at the U.K.-based Carbon Brief, put together a gif that ranks the countries with the greatest output of CO2 since 1750 — right before the Industrial Revolution began. Using code published by the Financial Times, the graph shows the startling and unyielding rate at which the U.S. has contributed to rising temperatures:

As you can see, in 1850, the U.S.’ mounting emissions made it the fourth largest emitter of CO2. In 1859, we outpaced Germany. A decade later, we surpassed France. And between 1877 and 1912 we managed to outflank the U.K. by emitting 18 billion tons of CO2. At present day, we are still ahead of China when you look at the big emissions picture. While China is currently the world’s largest annual emitter of pollution, it still ranks second cumulatively. And the U.S. still takes the cake on per capita emissions, too.

When it comes to setting a bad example for the rest of the world, America is No. 1. Go, team.

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This GIF captures just how gigantic the U.S. carbon footprint is

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U.N. climate report card: When it comes to cutting emissions, a dog ate the world’s homework

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On Tuesday, the U.N. released its annual report card on climate change. The bad news is we’re failing to address the biggest problem facing humanity. The good news? There’s so much room to improve! — and cities and businesses could help pick up the slack.

First, our failing marks: After a three-year plateau, global emissions are rising again “with no signs of peaking,” according to the report. Countries aren’t hitting their Paris goals. In fact, we’re failing at those goals to such a degree that we are making the climate problem worse at an accelerating rate.

And, even if we hit our current targets, it wouldn’t be enough. Factoring in the most ambitious stated climate goals of every nation on Earth, we are still on track for emissions to keep rising beyond 2030. If you’ll recall, the recent IPCC report found that global emissions need to be half their current levels by that year for a shot at keeping warming below catastrophic levels. The U.N. report found that the countries of the world would need to increase the carbon-cutting power of climate policies five-fold in order to meet that goal of 1.5 degrees C warming.

So yeah, the gap between what we’re actually doing and what we need to be doing is at its widest point in history (the report includes a truly stunning interactive visualization of this problem).

The report is sure to be on leaders’ minds as they gather in Katowice, Poland, next week for the 24th annual U.N. climate meeting. The U.N.’s chief climate official, Patricia Espinosa, called the crucial meetings “Paris 2.0” to emphasize the agenda of finalizing the rulebook that will govern commitments made three years ago in the French capital.

Taking a closer look at the report offers a few glimmers of hope. Cities and states could be the driving force to close the “ambition gap,” and there are clear signs that’s already underway, at least here in the United States. The report found that “non-state actors” — anyone besides national governments — could play an extremely important role, especially in countries with obstructionist national governments (cough, cough the U.S.).

An impressive 7,000 cities from 133 countries and 6,000 companies with at least $36 trillion in revenue have now vowed to take action on climate. But there’s so much more that could happen. Those impressive numbers represent just 20 percent of global population and only about 1 percent of all publicly traded companies.

“If international cooperative initiatives are scaled up to their fullest potential, the impact could be considerable” — and may alone be enough to prevent climate change beyond 2 degrees Celsius, according to one study the report cites.

“This year has seen some outstanding progress in the fight to protect the climate, with impressive commitments from cities, countries, and companies around the world,” the report concludes, “but the truth is, we need so much more.”

The report is the latest in a flurry of high-profile climate reports over the past several weeks which have helped re-establish the core message from scientists on our shared civilization-threatening challenge: We have no time to lose. This is a crucial time in history, and we only have one shot to get it right.


U.N. climate report card: When it comes to cutting emissions, a dog ate the world’s homework

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Carbon prices could save us … if we actually start using them

Ahh, carbon prices. Those pesky, politically fraught penalties governments slap on pollution and the polluters who emit it. Carbon taxes and pricing schemes could be our golden ticket out of climate change, but a new report shows just how far we have to go to put an effective price on carbon.

Welcome to the carbon price gap, the distance between a country’s current CO2 price and the low-end benchmark of an effective carbon tax (around $35). Earth is on track to warm more than 2 degrees C, a threshold at which ice sheets collapse at breakneck speeds, small island nations drown, and natural disasters pummel coastal regions.

At their current rate, carbon prices won’t overlap with the actual cost of carbon pollution until 2095. We simply don’t have that kind of time. The report, titled Effective Carbon Rates 2018, shows that the carbon price gap is closing at a “snail’s pace.” The carbon pricing gap for a group of 42 countries surveyed in the study dropped from 83 percent in 2012 to an estimated 76.5 percent this year. We’re talkin’ 6.5 percentage points in six years.

This is how much more each country needs to tax emissions to meet their Paris goals and keep warming under 2 degrees C (the numbers are based off data from 2015, but the authors point out that, unfortunately, nothing has changed too much in the years since):

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development

See? Pretty dismal. The countries that have the most work to do — Russia, Indonesia, Brazil — pollute a lot and have made virtually zero effort to price carbon. The countries with the smallest carbon gap — Switzerland, Luxembourg, and Norway — are nearly there. As you can see, most countries assessed in this report have a long way to go.

Here’s the good news: There are ways to close the gaps faster. China’s new emissions plan could reduce the country’s gap from 90 to 63 percent in the next few years. A handful of countries including the U.K., India, and South Korea implemented a variety of tactics to make some real headway on pricing emissions between 2012 and 2015.

And let’s not get bogged down with the percentages, says Jesse Jenkins, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School with a decade of experience in the energy sector. “How do we make the most impact in the least costly way within the political constraints that we face in each country?” Jenkins says. In other words, closing the gap requires a custom-built approach.

And there are even more reasons to be optimistic that carbon pricing, in addition to other sustainability initiatives, could help us stave off the worst effects of global warming. California has one of the only economy-wide carbon pricing policies in the U.S. The Golden State appears to have a paltry carbon price — about $20 per ton — but its other green initiatives actually make it pretty competitive compared to other global winners in sustainability.

“The magnitude of the carbon price itself is not a sufficient proxy for how effective climate policy is across the whole context,” Jenkins says. “It’s one piece of the overall effort.”

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Carbon prices could save us … if we actually start using them

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It’s World Oceans Day! Let’s Say Sayonara to Single-Use Plastic

In July 2017, a study tallied up all the plastic ever made, arriving at the jaw-dropping figure of 8.3 billion metric tons. That was 11 months ago. How much more do you think has been added since then?

Most people get that plastic is a major problem, but the extent of?that problem eludes us. This is understandable, given that we generally don’t see the results of our own actions when it comes to plastic waste.

We’ll use a plastic straw in our smoothie, for example and excuse it as one small thing.

However, all those small things add up, until eventually what you?re left with is a garbage patch in the ocean that?s two time the size of Texas. That?s a heck of a lot of plastic.

According to Reuse This Bag, we use over 320 million metric tons of plastic annually. Do the math on that, and it?s easy to understand why the action focus for World Oceans Day 2018 is centered around?stopping?plastic pollution.

Single-Use Plastic is Destroying Our Oceans

It would be bad enough if our garbage ended up only in landfills, but around 2.41 million metric tons of plastic end up in the sea each year. The resulting impact of plastic on marine and bird life is disastrous.

Just recently, a whale was found in Thailand with eighty shopping bags and other plastic debris clogging its stomach. It literally starved to death. That?s just one story out of millions.

The number of countries and cities that have banned single-use plastics is growing. It?s time for all of us to step up and do our bit. Together, we can make single-use plastic obsolete.

By properly informing ourselves, we?ll be able to view our actions as part of the collective whole, rather than standalone indiscretions that don?t make all that much of a difference.

This infographic offers an in-depth look at plastic in the ocean. Along with dispelling myths around the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, it shows the impact of plastic pollution on?sea birds and marine life, including the harmful effects when these creatures eat plastic waste.

This video by National Geographic does a great job of explaining the history of plastic as well as the impact it’s had on the world and what we can do to make a difference. They, too, emphasize?the importance of eliminating single-use plastic.

What can you do to help?

If all we did was eliminate our use of single-use plastic, we?d make massive inroads into the problem. Avoiding plastic is a struggle, but it can be done. Here are some hacks to reduce your single-use plastic consumption:

  1. Carry your own travel mug.
  2. Carry your own eating utensils.
  3. Bring your own cloth shopping bags.
  4. Bring your own fresh produce bags, too.
  5. Don?t use plastic straws.
  6. Carry a reusable water bottle.
  7. Buy in bulk to reduce packaging waste.
  8. Buy laundry detergent that comes in a box.
  9. Opt for zero waste lunches.
  10. Refuse plastic at the dry cleaner. Or skip the dry cleaner all together!
  11. Use eco-friendly shaving supplies.
  12. Stop buying single-use coffee pods.
  13. Avoid processed food.
  14. Use bar shampoo and soap.
  15. Light your fire with matches.
  16. Use cloth diapers instead of disposable.
  17. Ladies, make your period waste-free.
  18. Shop at package-free stores.
  19. Rethink your food storage options.
  20. Make reusable bowl covers?(or bribe someone to make them for you)

We all know what we need to do, it’s time to do it. Let’s all commit to saying sayonara to single-use plastic for good.

Photo Credit: Thinkstock

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of Care2, Inc., its employees or advertisers.

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It’s World Oceans Day! Let’s Say Sayonara to Single-Use Plastic

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The GOP tax bill could cost us the next generation of climate scientists

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The GOP tax bill could cost us the next generation of climate scientists

By on Dec 8, 2017

Grad students around the country are protesting the so-called grad student tax. Of course they are! They stand to lose thousands of dollars. But even if you’re not an aspiring PhD, the tax is cause for concern: It could hurt scientific research, leaving us less capable of tackling climate change.

In the environmental sciences, like many STEM fields, universities offer graduate students a stipend and cover their tuition in return for teaching or conducting research. The House tax bill approved in November would start treating tuition as taxable income. The Senate version keeps tuition waivers tax-free, but it’s unclear whether the tax will be part of the the final bill that reconciles the two versions.

More than half of grad students make $20,000 or less a year, according to stats from the Department of Education. Paying an extra few thousand dollars in taxes could make grad school unaffordable for many, and economists say it would discourage people from seeking advanced degrees. Professors and grad students in the environmental sciences told me that the tax would decrease the diversity and number of students in their programs, and could ultimately devastate climate change research.

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“The worry is that if this passes — and then the other attacks on funding within the federal government for climate science — then we’re going to lose a generation of climate scientists,” LuAnne Thompson, professor of oceanography at the University of Washington (UW), said in an interview with Grist.

Graduate students are the muscle behind the research force, often making up the majority of researchers in a lab. They plan experiments, acquire data, and publish articles about the results.

“I feel like people are underestimating what it would mean for there to be fewer grad students,” says Natalie Lowell, a PhD student at UW’s School of Aquatics and Fishery Sciences. “It really is a direct correlation with how much less research there’s going to be.”

Lowell, who researches native shellfish species, says that she has to live fairly frugally to get by on her stipend. She lives in a basement apartment where squirrels “come out of the wall” and pee everywhere. In Seattle, where the tech boom has caused rent to skyrocket, this “absolute steal” costs $500 a month. She’s been saving up a couple thousand dollars a year, but she wouldn’t be able to do so under the tax. It would knock about $3,600 out of her bank account each year she’s in school.

For in-state students at UW, taxes would increase from roughly $2,700 to $4,200 a year, according to Matt Munoz, a graduate student studying public administration and policy at UW. Out-of-state students would be charged nearly $5,800.

The tax provision would be bad timing, since it could sabotage the efforts in diversity, equity, and inclusion that were finally picking up speed at UW. Thompson, the oceanography professor, says that the extra cost could make it impossible for people with limited resources to participate in College of Environment graduate programs.

“The way we think about conservation science has really shifted” as it has become more inclusive, UW’s Lowell says. “[The tax] is the sort of thing that would just throw a wrench in that. Because who’s doing the research totally determines how you frame questions, how you make connections, how you treat your workers.”

By limiting who can participate in graduate research, the grad student tax could stifle scientific innovation, similar to Trump’s travel ban. It could also make education prohibitively expensive for many international students, potentially sending some of the world’s brightest minds to other countries.

Marysa Laguë, a student from Canada pursuing a PhD in atmospheric science at UW, pays taxes in both Canada and the United States. She told me that she always has the “fallback plan” of going back to her home country if staying in grad school in Seattle becomes too expensive. “I don’t want to have to do that,” she says. “I’m here for a reason. I wanted to be here.”

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The GOP tax bill could cost us the next generation of climate scientists

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Chart of the Day: Health Care Spending as a Percentage of GDP

Mother Jones

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This is apropos of nothing in particular. I was over at the World Bank site fiddling around with some stuff and happened to look at their chart for health care spending. There’s a good case to be made that as GDP rises, the share devoted to health care also rises. This is because richer countries have more “spare” income and health care is what they spend it on.

But Sweden and Switzerland have per-capita GDPs as high as ours, and they still spend a whole lot less. The sooner we start reining in the growth of health care spending the better.

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Chart of the Day: Health Care Spending as a Percentage of GDP

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Elon Musk just quit presidential councils over Paris climate treaty rejection.

Some highlights:

“I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.”

Pittsburgh’s votes went mostly to Hillary Clinton. She won 55.9 percent of votes in Allegheny County. Note that the Paris Agreement encompasses people from nearly 200 countries, not just the city where it was drafted.

“The bottom line is the Paris accord is very unfair at the highest level to the United States.”

Other countries think U.S. involvement is extremely fair. The United States blows every other country away in terms of per capita emissions.

“This agreement is less about the climate and more about other countries gaining an economic advantage over the United States.”

Actually, the economic advantages of combating climate change are well documented. Companies like Exxon, Google, and even Tiffany & Co. asked Trump to stay in the agreement.

And, just for fun, a comment from Scott Pruitt:

“America finally has a leader who answers only to the people.”

Nearly 70 percent of Americans were on board with the Paris Agreement. Only 45 percent voted for Trump.

This story has been updated.

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Elon Musk just quit presidential councils over Paris climate treaty rejection.

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