Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement was not really about the climate. And despite his overheated rhetoric about the “tremendous” and “draconian” burdens the deal would impose on the U.S. economy, Trump’s decision wasn’t really about that, either. America’s commitments under the Paris deal, like those of the other 194 cooperating nations, were voluntary. So those burdens were imaginary.
No, Trump’s abrupt withdrawal from this carefully crafted multilateral compromise was a diplomatic and political slap: it was about extending a middle finger to the world, while reminding his base that he shares its resentments of fancy-pants elites and smarty-pants scientists and tree-hugging squishes who look down on real Americans who drill for oil and dig for coal. He was thrusting the United States into the role of global renegade, rejecting not only the scientific consensus about climate but the international consensus for action, joining only Syria and Nicaragua (which wanted an even greener deal) in refusing to help the community of nations address a planetary problem. Congress doesn’t seem willing to pay for Trump’s border wall—and Mexico certainly isn’t—so rejecting the Paris deal was an easier way to express his Fortress America themes without having to pass legislation.
Trump was keeping a campaign promise, and his Rose Garden announcement was essentially a campaign speech; it was not by accident that he name-dropped the cities of Youngstown, Ohio, Detroit, Michigan, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, factory towns in the three Rust Belt states that carried him to victory. Trump’s move won’t have much impact on emissions in the short term, and probably not even in the long term. His claims that the Paris agreement would force businesses to lay off workers and consumers to pay higher energy prices were transparently bogus, because a non-binding agreement wouldn’t force anything. But Trump’s move to abandon it will have a huge impact on the global community’s view of America, and of a president who would rather troll the free world than lead it.
Of course, trolling the world is the essence of Trump’s America First political brand, and Thursday’s announcement reinforced his persona as an unapologetic rebel who won’t let foreigners try to tell America what to do, even when major corporations, his Secretary of State, and his daughter Ivanka want him to do it. He was also leaning into his political identity as Barack Obama’s photographic negative, dismantling Obama’s progressive legacy, kicking sand in the wimpy cosmopolitan faces of Obama’s froufrou citizen-of-the-world pals.
But it’s important to recall what Obama did and didn’t do when he led the community of nations to a deal in Paris. He didn’t let the world dictate U.S. energy policy, because Paris is only a mechanism for announcing national commitments to cut emissions, not for enforcing those commitments. He didn’t commit America to unrealistically ambitious emissions goals, either, just a 27 percent reduction from 2005 levels by 2025, not that drastic considering that the U.S. led the world in emissions before Obama and led the world in emissions reductions under Obama. Our electricity sector has already achieved that 27 percent goal, thanks to the continuing decline of coal power, and while our transportation sector has a long way to go, Obama’s strict fuel-efficiency standards and the expansion of electric vehicles has it heading in the right direction. The real triumph of Paris wasn’t America’s promises; it was the serious commitments from China, India and other developing nations that had previously insisted on their right to burn unlimited carbon until their economies caught up to the developed world.
Similarly, it’s important not to exaggerate the substantive impact of Trump’s decision to bail on Paris, which will officially remove the United States from the agreement in late 2020 at the earliest. It’s a signal that the U.S. government no longer cares about the climate, but that’s been abundantly clear ever since Trump won the election and appointed an energetic fossil-fuel advocate named Scott Pruitt to run the EPA. Leaving Paris won’t reverse the rapid decline of coal or the boom of cleaner energy in America, because the economics of coal have fallen apart while the cost of wind and solar have plummeted, and it won’t stop that same trend in China, India and the rest of the world. By the same token, if Trump had announced today that he was staying in the Paris deal, that wouldn’t have meant that Trump was abandoning his efforts to gut Obama’s climate regulations (like the Clean Power Plan for the electricity sector) and other climate policies (like those fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks). Really, it would have been pretty weird for Trump to remain in the deal while trying to undermine everything the U.S. was doing to live up to its commitments.
Meanwhile, the earth is still warming, the polar ice caps are still melting, and the seas are still rising, heedless of the inspiring words committed to paper in Paris, and just as heedless of a noisy American politician’s decision to reject them. Trump may believe climate change is a hoax manufactured in China, and congressional Republicans may continue to oppose any action to address it, but that won’t make the physical realities of climate-driven droughts, floods, pandemics and refugee migrations any less brutal. It’s reminiscent of the old riddle: If you call a tail a leg, how many legs does a horse have? Four, because a tail is not a leg. Trump can call global warming a hoax, but 2014 was nevertheless the hottest year on record, until it was displaced by 2015, which was overtaken by 2016. That tail is not a leg.
Still, it matters that the president of the United States seems to think it is, and no matter what he thinks, it matters more that he’s announcing to the nations of the world that he intends to ignore an issue they consider vital to the planet. He is creating an intentional leadership vacuum, dispensing with the longstanding notion of the United States as the indispensable nation—just as he did when he withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal in Asia, with his tepid commitments to NATO on his trip to Europe, and with his proposal for drastic budget cuts in foreign aid and international diplomacy. He is making it clear that America First means the problems of the world are not America’s problems. He’s opening the door for China and Europe to take over the role of global leaders on climate change, and maybe the world’s other major problems.
The thing is, climate change is absolutely America’s problem, not just in the long run but now; scientists believe it has already exacerbated the human and economic losses from California’s drought, Superstorm Sandy, and the Zika virus. At the same time, the battle against climate change is an American opportunity; the U.S. solar industry already employs twice as many workers as the U.S. coal industry, and climate solutions in general—not just renewables but energy-efficient products and materials, batteries and other storage, sustainable forestry, carbon capture, and much more—will be one of the biggest growth sectors of the 21st century. Trump is basically telling clean-energy innovators they should go create jobs somewhere else.
The entire debate over Paris has twisted Republicans in knots. They used to argue against climate action in the U.S. by pointing out that it wouldn’t bind China and other developing-world emitters; then they argued that Paris wouldn’t really bind the developing world, either, but somehow would bind the United States. In fact, China is doing its part, dramatically winding down a coal boom that could have doomed the planet, frenetically investing in zero-carbon energy. And it will probably continue to do its part even though the president of the United States is volunteering for the role of climate pariah. It’s quite likely that the United States will continue to do its part as well, because no matter what climate policies he thinks will make America great again, Trump can’t make renewables expensive again or coal economical again or electric vehicles nonexistent again. California just set a target of 100 percent renewable energy by 2045, and many U.S. cities and corporations have set even more ambitious goals for shrinking their carbon footprints. Trump can’t do much about that, either.
What Trump can do is remind his supporters—and everyone else on the planet—which side he’s on, and, more to the point, which side he’s fighting. He’s taking a shirts-and-skins stand against liberals, against goo-goos, against condescending scolds in Birkenstocks who don’t like Styrofoam or hulking SUVs or real Americans, against naïve globalists who want the U.S. to suck up to the French and the Chinese and the United Nations. Climate change will affect the entire earth, from drought-ravaged farm villages in Africa to floodprone condo towers in Miami, but for Trump it’s just a symbol of the stuff that people who don’t like Trump care about. Paris is just an Obama legacy that he can kill, when he doesn’t have the votes to kill Obama’s health reforms or Wall Street regulations or tax hikes on the wealthy. Whatever damage Trump’s climate policies cause to the planet will be collateral damage, shrapnel from his political war on elites and the left and Obama.
But that won’t make the damage any less real. The United States happens to be located on that planet, and it’s the only known planet with pizza, whether the president wants to protect it or not. The United States is also part of the community of nations, and it’s a community with many common interests, whether the president wants to lead it or not.