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2 June 2017updated 09 Sep 2021 4:57pm

Donald Trump is sacrificing the future of the planet on the altar of his own ego – but it could backfire

If this is populism, it doesn’t seem very popular.

By Thomas Hale

Donald Trump’s decision to exit the Paris Agreement was more about his own political difficulties than about climate change. And while the impact of the decision will slow global efforts to address the largest threat of the 21st century, it may be Trump himself who ultimately loses most from this short-sighted move.

With his decision to join Nicaragua and Syria as the only countries outside the Accord, Trump publically defied the 71 percent of Americans who wanted to remain within it. Hardly a coastal phenomenon, that figure includes over half of respondents in each of the 50 states. He also defied the more than 1,000 major American corporations that signed a public letter asking him to remain in the agreement, including the CEO of ExxonMobil. And he defied the Pentagon, which sees climate change as a “threat multiplier” for terrorism, migration, and war. He even defied, reports suggest, his own daughter (plus half his cabinet). If this is populism, it doesn’t seem very popular.

So why exit an agreement that the United States worked so hard to create? Anyone looking for a rationale in the meandering event at the White House yesterday would have been hard pressed to find an explanation. Trump did not so much justify his decision as serve a word salad of confusion (in one sentence he called the Paris Agreement both “draconian” and “non-binding”).

The deceit was intentional. There really is no good reason for the US to abandon this commitment, but there is a clear, albeit short-term, political rationale. From healthcare, to tax reform, to trade, to immigration, Trump has struggled to accomplish what he promised in his campaign. Policymaking, it turns out, is complicated, and laws cannot be thumbed out 140 characters at a time.

But unlike most policy areas, the decision to stay within the Paris Agreement depends, ultimately, on just one man. And just over 100 days into his term, that man really needs a win. If that win happens to be massively controversial, and happens to draw media attention away from investigations into collusion with a foreign power by both houses of Congress and the FBI, so much the better. If you don’t think Donald Trump is capable of sacrificing the future of the planet on the altar of his own ego, you haven’t really been paying attention.

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The good news, though, is that the US exit from Paris can at most slow, not prevent, efforts to address climate change in the States and around the world. This week, every other major emitter—including China, the EU, India, and even Russia—has said it will follow through on its commitments regardless of what happens in America. Today, China and the EU have put out their strongest joint statement yet.

These commitments are credible precisely because they have little to do with Washington. The beauty of the Paris Agreement, unlike previous climate treaties, is its “bottom up” structure. Paris requires each country to put forward a pledge, but leaves the nature of that pledge to be “nationally determined.” Despite Trump’s claims, this is not a globally negotiated deal imposed from without, but a platform for countries to address climate change in a way that serves their national interests. China, India, Europe, and most others have decided that climate action is a way to build new industries, improve air quality and public health, reduce their dependence on energy imports, and otherwise advance their interests. If Trump wants the United States to miss out on these benefits, others can hardly be faulted for racing to seize them.

And the same forces driving climate action around the world are also at work in the United States, at least outside the Oval Office. Over half of US emissions are covered by a state- or city-level emissions target. The biggest US corporations, including Wal-mart, Starbucks, Google, Bank of America, General Motors, and Goldman Sachs, have committed to get 100 percent of their energy from renewable sources. These choices matter for everyday people. 770,000 Americans work in clean energy, compared to 86,035 in coal power generation, 180,000 in oil and gas extraction, and just 50,000 in coal mining.

Bottom-up climate leadership in the US is not a sideshow; it shapes global politics. California, in addition to committing itself to 100% renewable power by 2045, is leading a global coalition of sub-national governments that are pledging to reduce their emissions by 80% by 2050. That group, now 170 jurisdictions strong, represents 1.8 billion people and nearly $28 trillion of GDP (compared to $18 trillion for the US).

So Donald Trump can’t stop climate action at home or abroad. But can action on climate change stop him?

While most Americans believe climate change is real, and support staying in the Paris Agreement by a margin of 5-to-1, the issue has struggled to gain electoral salience compared to healthcare, immigration (or, if you follow certain news outlets, Hilary Clinton’s email habits). Most Americans are concerned about the climate, but not enough to vote on it, or so the research suggests.

Trump may have just changed that conventional wisdom. By associating climate change so viscerally with his polarising political brand, he has suddenly put it on the agenda for the 2018 midterm elections and, more fatefully, for his (presumed) re-election campaign in 2020. And while the issue may not sway his core voters, it has been shown to be a powerful mobiliser of certain elements of the Democratic base—like young people-who sometimes need a jolt to show up at the polls.

The lawyers who designed the Paris Agreement (many of them American) were highly aware of US electoral schedules. That’s why they made the process for exiting the Agreement take four years. Trump may have announced the US’s intention to leave yesterday, but it won’t take effect until 4 November, 2020. And he is up for election on 3 November, 2020.

In other words, the decision to leave Paris doesn’t belong to Donald Trump. It belongs to every American who votes in 2020.

Thomas Hale is Associate Professor of Global Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford, and an adviser to various governments and the United Nations on climate issues. 

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