Both President Obama’s 2016 signing of the Paris Agreement on climate change and President Trump’s withdrawal from that agreement today fit into a category I will label as QTIIPS.

QTIIPS stands for Quantitatively Trivial Impact + Intense Political Symbolism.

QTIIPS policy changes provoke fierce political battles over trivially small policy impacts. Passionate advocates on both sides ignore numbers and policy details while fighting endlessly about symbols.

A policy change is QTIIPS if:

  • its direct measurable effects are quite small relative to the underlying policy problem to be solved;
  • it is viewed both by supporters and opponents as a first step toward an end state that all agree would be quite a large change;
  • supporters and opponents alike attach great significance to the direction of the change, as a precursor to possible future movement toward that quantitatively significant end goal; and
  • a fierce political battle erupts over the symbolism of this directional shift. This political battle is often zero-sum, unresolvable, and endless.

Advocates on either side of a QTIIPS policy change have desired end states that represent fundamentally different policy outcomes. But while the policy gap between their desired end states is measured in miles, on a QTIIPS policy, actual changes are measured in inches. The battle rages over which end state is the right one, but when policy shifts back and forth it changes direction often but moves only a tiny bit each time. Political constraints make the theoretical debate about miles-apart differences irrelevant because neither end state will ever occur, but that does not deter the theoretical war from raging during the real-world battles over a tiny actual change in direction.

If you listened to President Trump’s remarks today you would think staying in the Paris Agreement would destroy the U.S. economy. If you listen to many advocates who support the agreement, you would think you need to start building an ark, soon.

I therefore read the text of the agreement to see for myself. Doing so reinforced the view I developed when the agreement was concluded. Relative to the scope of the problem it is trying to solve, the Paris Agreement is quantitatively trivial. It is a set of weak process agreements, with many areas of ambiguous language and “flexibility” for countries to reinterpret their only loosely binding quantitative commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions many years from now.

The national leaders who supported Paris, including President Obama, had a political interest in overselling their policy accomplishment. Similarly, President Trump has a political interest in selling today’s move to his base as an enormous policy win, when to me it appears he is nullifying American participation in an agreement that on policy grounds was insignificant to begin with.

QTIIPS policy changes rest on the assumption that the first step is likely to lead to that theoretical quantitatively significant outcome. Most supporters of the Paris Agreement would privately concede that it is only a modest first step, and would then express hope that it could/will/might/should lead to further progress in the future. Opponents of the agreement would share their fears that this first step could/will/might lead to an eventual outcome they fear.

But this shared assumption, of a first step or slippery slope, could easily be wrong. If the Paris Agreement were never to have led to a more significant next step, then a key premise of the fight is wrong. The intense political symbolism and the fierce battles waged over both President Obama’s and President Trump’s relatively small policy moves would then be unsupported by strong policy arguments.

I think that’s the case here. I think Paris was not just the first step, I think it was likely the last step, that those who hoped it would lead to “deepening future commitments” were fooling themselves and others. I think Paris was agreed to only because national leaders realized it was impossible to get a numerically meaningful set of binding national commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by specific large amounts. They therefore grabbed the best agreement they could, however weak, kicking the can down the road in the hope that somehow their successors might have more luck. Because I am so skeptical about the first step claim, and because I care far more about the policy impact than about the symbolism, my reaction is mild both to President Obama’s signing in 2016 and to President Trump’s withdrawal announcement today. I think neither agreeing to Paris nor withdrawing from it would have changed future global temperatures by any meaningful amount. Even before today I was skeptical that it would lead to any significant next steps, so I conclude that these symbolic battles about the Paris Agreement are almost meaningless.

A surprising dynamic often surrounds QTIPS policy changes—the most passionate supporters and opponents have a common interest in arguing that this particular policy change is enormously important, while downplaying the reality that its direct impact is barely measurable. These mortal opponents have a shared goal of hyping the issue and the battle. Issue advocates on both sides can generate political and financial support by convincing you this fight is important, even when it’s not. If you hear advocates arguing fiercely about “what this policy change means more broadly” or “the precedent it sets for future action” or “what it says about us/America/society” rather than about “what it does” and “what effect it has,” there is a good chance it is QTIIPS.

QTIIPS issues are unfortunately great fits for our modern advocacy, political, and communications structures. Everyone can virtue signal to their heart’s content. No one has to read the text of the policy change, look at the numbers, or ask hard questions of a relevant policy expert. Political tribes can inhabit their comfort zones and preach to the converted while heaping scorn and derision on the other tribe. Passion abounds while everyone ignores the policy nerds saying “Um… I think the actual effect here is too small to matter.”

I’ll end with two questions for the reader.

Q: Do you agree with me that agreeing to and withdrawing from the Paris Agreement are QTIIPS?

Q: What other hotly debated policy changes are QTIIPS?

How about the 2014 debate about banning immigration of refugees from Ebola-infected West African countries? Or the debate about incremental changes to gun laws? Or other hot-button social issues that dominate news cycles? Are they QTIIPS? Can you think of others?