In recent days at the G-7 conference in Taormina, Italy, President Trump heard an earful from leaders of the world’s preeminent democracies, including Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron, about the importance of staying in the Paris Agreement, the landmark 2015 climate change treaty. The president was noncommittal, saying he is still reviewing his options. He is being pressured from all sides: 200 large corporations, including the likes of oil and gas giant ExxonMobil, want him to stay in, but 22 Republican senators and many in the coal and mining industries want him to make good on a campaign pledge to quit the accord. He has announced that he will make his decision about the Paris Agreement this week.
Most press coverage of Trump and the Paris Agreement has breathlessly traced the president’s utterances for evidence of the direction he is leaning. Trump, as with his Supreme Court nomination, has teased his decision. But in practice, his decision matters little for the world’s ability to rise to the climate challenge.
The real moral outrage is not that Trump will likely exit the climate treaty. Whether he stays in or exits the Paris Agreement pales in comparison to what Trump is, and is not, doing domestically in the U.S. on climate change. In buying entirely into the program of the coal industry, anti-regulation conservatives and climate denialists, Trump has already left his indelible mark on U.S. climate policy. That legacy—one of inaction, backsliding, and sabotage of the existential mission of protecting humankind from devastating social, economic and ecological disruptions—will only grow with time.
What is he doing? Let’s briefly take stock (this is only a partial list). Trump has placed a climate change denialist, Scott Pruitt, at the helm of the EPA. Pruitt has removed all mention of climate change from the agency’s website and begun scrubbing it of climate science repositories. He has nominated a renewable energy skeptic to head the Department of Energy’s office of energy efficiency and renewable energy and a recent coal industry lobbyist to a senior position at EPA. He has vowed repeatedly to revive coal power, by far the worst carbon emitter and an egregious polluter of air, water and soil. He is seeking to reverse fuel-efficiency (so-called “CAFE”) standards meant to reduce oil consumption in passenger vehicles. He is seeking to kill the Clean Power Plan, Obama-era power sector regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as mandated by the Clean Air Act.
Perhaps worst of all, Trump’s newly proposed 2018 budget has eviscerated not only climate change and energy programs that save energy and money and reduce emissions, but it has also zeroed out funding for vital programs that lie at the heart of the spirit and letter of the Paris Agreement. Reporting on greenhouse gas emissions, as mandated by Paris? The national Greenhouse Gas Reporting program, necessary for preparing national reporting to the U.N. on our emissions, was believed to be zeroed out in the budget proposal (newer reports suggest it has been spared, for now, only because eliminating it requires congressional approval). Foreign assistance to help developing countries adapt to climate change, invest in clean energy, and reduce deforestation—a linchpin of the Paris Agreement? Eliminated. Plans to reduce our national greenhouse gas emissions—a universal obligation of all Paris signatories—not even to Obama administration targets, but at all? Abandoned and reversed. Even programs that reduce energy bills for the poor, such as the Low-Income Heating Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, and low-cost efforts to help consumers save money by picking energy-efficient products (EnergyStar), are on the chopping block. He has also forfeited American clean energy leadership by proposing to slash funding for clean energy research and development. This is not remotely an America First energy policy; it’s a Maximize Fossil Fuel Use energy policy.
Collectively, these actions speak much louder than Trump’s words or diplomatic niceties such as nominally remaining in the Paris Agreement. It would be hard for the president to do more to increase greenhouse gas emissions with his policies if he tried or to more flagrantly thumb his nose at the global scientific, political, and policy consensus on climate change.
So while, as many have argued, it may not technically be an abrogation of the Paris Agreement to fail to meet or to scale back the greenhouse gas emissions reduction target submitted by the Obama administration, Trump’s actions have violated the spirit of the agreement in every way. Consequently, whether he stays in or leaves matters little. Even in matters of precedent and image, which some argue U.S. participation in Paris protects, Trump has already abandoned any semblance of American leadership on this issue and trashed the country’s reputation for environmental stewardship and good faith diplomacy. Surely any country inspired by the Trump example to spitefully undermine climate action would hardly need the U.S.’ departure from the Paris Agreement to be so emboldened. (Tellingly, evidence shows there are very few countries in that category, as today awareness of the fundamental self-interest of climate action is virtually universal, regardless of what our president says or does.)
Rather, it is actually better for the world if the U.S. exits Paris because, right now, the U.S.’ fig-leaf participation makes a mockery of the agreement and thereby weakens it. If the U.S. leaves, freeing us all from the collective eggshell-walking routine to humor Trump, the world community could then enforce the Paris Agreement’s mandate to take climate change seriously and be good global citizens. The Paris treaty can become a forum of action and leadership rather than a cesspool of least-common-denominator bromides, counterproductive brinksmanship, foot-dragging, and milquetoast accommodation of the worst actors by the rest. This sad vision is how many UN forums packed with cynical saboteur-states operate.
The consequences of Trump’s actions would then be painfully clear to the U.S. and the world, as would the truly extreme and self-defeating nature of his policies and ideology. Why put lipstick on this pig? Let it wallow in its sty and spread its stink; all the better for the rest of us to understand its true nature and awaken to the need to reverse course.
Andrew Eil is an independent consultant with expertise in climate change and clean energy policy, international development and sustainable investing. As former Coordinator of Climate Change Programs at the State Department, he managed a $75 million portfolio of clean energy programs. Prior to the State Department, Andrew worked for the World Bank. Andrew has an MPA from the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University and a BA in Russian history and literature from Harvard University.