A single, devastating California fire season wiped out years of efforts to cut emissions of greenhouse gases from the planet’s air. This past summer was not exactly catastrophic, but it was still hard to swallow: California’s worst fire in a decade burned more than 18,000 structures, killed four people and devastated the state’s agricultural heartland. The smoke of the fires lingered in the air and it wouldn’t be until October of 2017—after a series of California wildfires burned more than 40,000 acres—that the air quality in the state returned to normal.
But the summer’s fires showed how dramatically emissions of carbon dioxide would shift if more than half of Americans met the targets of the Paris climate agreement. Even the slowest possible rate—in other words, an economy-wide commitment to limiting emissions by 2050—wouldn’t just keep the number of people in poverty low; it would also cut emissions by 30 percent just by the year 2050, bringing those reductions to the United States by 2030.
To the extent that the current economy is responsible for emissions of greenhouse gases in the U.S., we can expect to see at least a 30 percent decline, if not a complete elimination, in the emissions level of greenhouse gases by the year 2050—a drop in emissions that would be bigger than in the 1980s recession, when emissions fell by more than 5 percent over five years because the U.S. economy shrank by nearly 40 percent and emissions plunged by 23 percent because the recession cut demand for energy and the economy slowed.
The climate targets of the Paris accord represent one of the great hopes for action by the world’s governments and populations. This is a goal we can all agree is crucial for the future of the planet. Unfortunately, that goal won’t come close to being met, and the pace of emissions that have been projected by the U.S. government for decades and by a broad range of other groups is