Trump vs. Planet Earth
“Did everyone yell ‘Fuck Trump!’ today?” a friend emailed shortly after hearing that the president intends to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate agreement. The answer to my friend’s question is: Yes, pretty much. The disappointment and outrage at Trump’s decision came from all directions, from the prime minister of Fiji to Elon Musk. Even former President Obama, who has thus far kept his distance from the political fray, slammed Trump. The response was particularly scathing from Europe. Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland who has become an outspoken advocate for climate change action, called the U.S. a “rogue state.”
The outrage over Trump’s move runs deep because the Paris climate deal was never about just the climate. It was also about unity, equality, trust, sympathy – in short, all the qualities that make it possible for seven billion human beings to live together peacefully on the planet. These ideals are the not-so-hidden subtext of every word in the climate accord. They were also palpable in the air at Le Bourget, the old airport on the outskirts of Paris where the climate deal was hammered out in December of 2015.
The Paris deal was the result of years of frightfully complex negotiations and political maneuvering. Believe me, you do not know tedium until you’ve sat through a UN climate negotiation where a room full of deputy assistant undersecretaries are arguing in bad English over procedural footnotes to an addendum about agricultural carbon sequestration credits.
But in Paris, it all came together. The deal that finally emerged was a complex agreement, imperfect, full of nuance about voluntary emissions targets and how rich nations would help finance clean energy in poor nations. But the gist of the deal was that the head of virtually every nation in the world vowed to reduce greenhouse gases in the coming decades as to limit the warming of the climate to 2 degrees Celsius, the well-established threshold that might allow us to escape the worst impacts of climate change.
On the final night of the talks in Paris, when then-French President Francois Hollande slammed the gavel down, marking formal acceptance of the accord, it was an emotional moment. The cavernous general assembly room at Le Bourget was packed with people from virtually every nation in the world, a sea of black and brown and white faces, some dressed in business attire, some in ceremonial robes and gowns. Everyone cheered. A man standing next to me, a delegate from the Maldives whom I had never spoken to, grabbed me and hugged me. His eyes were wet with tears.
On Thursday, Trump strolled out into the Rose Garden and flipped his middle finger at the deal. Why? He claimed that the cuts in emissions wouldn’t matter, that the deal was unfair to the U.S. because it would hurt the nation’s economy while transferring wealth and power to other nations (“I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” he said). It was all transparently false. Far from hurting the economy, clean energy is the economic engine of the future. Even the mayor of Pittsburgh hit back at him on this, telling CNN, “What [Trump] did was not only bad for the economy of this country, but also weakened America in this world.” As for the impact on the earth’s temperatures, if all the nations of the world fulfilled their commitments, it wouldn’t in itself reduce carbon pollution enough to eliminate the risk of climate catastrophe, but it would be a damn good start.
Trump’s real motivations for pulling out of the deal are obvious: Mired in scandal and stalled with incompetency, this was an easy way to look tough to his fossil-fuel-loving base. But the larger truth is that Trump ditched Paris because it is a profound threat to his greedy, isolationist America First vision of the world. In fact, the climate accord may be the clearest articulation we have yet of an anti-Trump ideology. The fundamental basis of the deal is global, not nationalistic; it is not about grabbing all you can, but about establishing basic rights of equity and fairness. It stipulates that rich polluters owe something to the poor who suffer most (and will do so increasingly) from the ravages of the West’s 200-year-long fossil-fuel party. Most of all, it says that we live on one planet, and if we screw it up, we are all in trouble.
It will take four years before the U.S. can formally exit the deal, but already the damage is done. Now what? Both China and the European Union have reaffirmed commitments to the agreement. German Chancellor Angela Merkel says her nation and others “will combine our forces more resolutely than ever … to address and tackle big challenges for humanity such as climate change.” She adds that “we need this Paris agreement to preserve creation. Nothing can and will stop us from doing so.” In the U.S., states like California and New York – which, combined, are the fourth largest economy in the world – have already taken strong actions to cut carbon pollution, and are not going to slow down now. Ditto with many cities and corporations like Apple and Nike and Disney and General Electric. It could well be that the backlash against Trump is so strong that it inspires more action, and the U.S. more or less hits the goals it committed to in Paris anyway.
But there’s no question that when the world’s biggest carbon polluter pulls out of a deal to cut carbon pollution, it is likely to have a corrosive effect on the ambition of other nations. “The biggest obstacle to strong climate action has always been fear of competitive disadvantage,” Elliot Diringer, who tracks climate negotiations closely at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, told me in an email Thursday. “Countries will only put forward their best effort when they’re confident others, especially their major competitors, are too. That’s the gist of Paris – strengthening confidence that everyone’s doing their part. When the world’s largest economy walks away, other countries, especially those whose economies are closely tied to the U.S. or whose companies compete with U.S. firms, will have a harder time being ambitious. They may be less zealous in meeting their current targets and less ambitious in the next ones due in 2020. This won’t reverse the strong momentum we built in Paris. Countries will keep acting because they know it’s in their interest. But it will slow the momentum when what we need is to accelerate it.”
Trump, of course, welcomes this. Standing in the Rose Garden Thursday, he did the only thing he knows how to do: sow instability, chaos and fear. He demonstrated to the world that America has become not just a rogue state, but a clear and present danger to civilization itself.
To this, there is only one sensible response: Fuck you, Mr. President.
Watch President Donald Trump announce that the United States will pull out of the historic Paris Climate Agreement.