Once again, U.S. President Donald Trump has shown his readiness to defy both international opinion and common sense to make a political point. His decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement on climate change, while generating dismay and outrage, was expected nevertheless. This move will not generate the economic benefits that Trump promised — but it will (and already has) damaged U.S. credibility and standing in the international community as it now joins Nicaragua and Syria as the only countries to remain outside the agreement’s purview.
In a June 1 speech in the White House Rose Garden that was littered with falsehoods, the president announced that the U.S. would immediately cease all implementation of the climate accord and “the draconian financial and economic burdens the agreement imposes on our country.” Trump claimed that compliance “could cost America as much as 2.7 million lost jobs by 2025” and by 2040 would “cost close to $3 trillion in lost GDP and 6.5 million industrial jobs.” Meanwhile, Trump said, the accord imposes “no meaningful obligations on the world’s leading polluters,” such as China and India. In fact, the president claimed, the rest of the world “applauded” when Washington signed on “for the simple reason” that it put the U.S. at “a very, very big economic disadvantage.” Finally, Trump asserted that full implementation of the deal would only yield reductions in global temperature of two-tenths of 1 degree Celsius by 2100.
Every one of the U.S. president’s claims is false or misleading. The first set of numbers reflects economic modeling based on draconian policies, nothing that is called for in the Paris Agreement. That study also explicitly excludes any potential benefits from avoided emissions or innovation in the energy field. Claims that other countries are exempt and that their support for the deal stemmed from restraints imposed on the U.S. are also false. All signatories have made their commitments, and the U.S. was instrumental in pushing for the accord, so to imply that the U.S. was singularly punished is wrong. Applause for the agreement reflected a sense of accomplishment for protecting the planet. Finally, the scientists behind the study Trump cited to minimize its impact have disavowed his use of their work, noting that the baselines it and he uses are different and that even if cuts in emissions are less than hoped for, they are better than nothing.
Why is Trump so opposed to the Paris deal? His opposition reflects three sets of considerations. The first is the fact that he pledged as a candidate that he would kill the agreement and, given the difficulties his administration has encountered, it is important to get a win. Because the Paris accord is an agreement rather than a treaty, the president can take the U.S. out with a simple declaration. He gets all the credit.
Second, opposition to the idea of climate change and the regulatory framework it creates is a staple of Republican politics. As proponents of big business and often tied to extractive industries such as oil, gas and mining, the Republican Party has fought government programs that seek to address climate change, claiming that the science upon which they are based is imprecise or exaggerated, and that those efforts impose excessive burdens on companies and pass costs to the U.S. consumers.
While that mentality may animate many GOP donors, increasing numbers of business executives are demanding action to combat climate change. They recognize the reality of climate change even if the science is not exact, they recognize market pressures and they grasp the economic opportunities being created by the effort to combat climate change. The future lies in alternative energy technologies, as Japan and other leading industrialized economies know well.
While the U.S. president has vowed to protect the jobs of coal miners, they represent a small and shrinking part of America’s labor pool, and the forces that threaten their future will not be reduced by pulling out of the Paris accord. Even energy industry executives know that the U.S. is better off in global agreements and that they must work with the environmental movement, not against it.
The third and final factor is perhaps the most important. In pulling out of the international agreement to tackle climate change, Trump is rejecting the “global elite consensus” and siding with “the forgotten man.” The populist perception of a job killing, economy-destroying accord that disadvantages the U.S. relative to other countries is red meat for Trump supporters. Yet this view, in addition to the flaws already identified, fundamentally misrepresents the Paris Agreement: The accord imposes no obligations on signatories. Countries made voluntary nonbinding commitments, and if a pledge proves too onerous, a government could simply change it.
It is telling that Trump justified his action last week by declaring, “I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.” That contrast, coming off a contentious visit to Europe the previous week, is telling. This is the president reminding Europeans that he is committed to his own path and vision, not theirs. But it is equally telling that Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto rejected the move, noting that his city has been a great beneficiary of green-economy innovation and that most of its residents backed Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. He summed up the view of a great many Americans when he stated, “What you did was not only bad for the economy of this country, but also weakened America in this world.” But in this, as in so much else, Trump is indifferent to the facts.