But for an embattled president, it does do one thing: It fulfills a campaign promise popular with his base.
If Trump does indeed pull the U.S. from the deal, the country will join Syria and Nicaragua as the only nations not to ratify the historic accord. The U.S. took a lead role in brokering the agreement, and leaving it would be a deeply isolationist move that could weaken the nation’s bargaining power in other agreements.
As the U.S. retreats, China is primed to become the new moral leader on this issue. Earlier this month, President Xi Jinping announced a $900 billion fund to invest in infrastructure and clean energy projects abroad.
The economic consequences could be worse. The United Nations estimates that the U.S. stands to lose jobs in the rapidly growing clean energy industry ― estimated to be worth $6 trillion by 2030 ― to Europe, India and China. Countries that tax emissions may put tariffs on American-made imports. And big companies that expect the U.S. to eventually regulate carbon are likely to see ditching the deal as delaying the inevitable, while also sowing the sort of instability that investors don’t like.
The decision would also defy the desires of many major corporate and fossil fuel interests. Oil giants including Exxon Mobil Corp. and Royal Dutch Shell have pleaded with the administration to stay in the deal, as have coal producers and corporate behemoths such as Walmart, General Mills and DuPont, all of which operate internationally.
The deal is popular with the public. Sixty-one percent of Americans say the U.S. should stay in the deal while just 17 percent support backing out, according to a HuffPost/YouGov poll taken this month. Even ousted Fox News pundit Bill O’Reilly urged Trump to keep the U.S. in the pact last November.
But by canceling the deal, Trump will make good on a 2016 pledge, appeasing ardent supporters and a small group of donors. He’d also win the approval of a handful of congressmen who made their names railing against widely accepted science.
“What we’re seeing is Trump being true to what got him elected, which is playing to a particular segment of the population,” said former Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.), the executive director of the conservative environmental advocate RepublicEN. “He’s dancing with those who brung him. That’s the one thing that I think he understands.”
It’s unclear whether, or when, Trump will announce plans to withdraw. The country cannot officially begin the process of pulling out until November 2019 under the terms of the deal.
Taking the U.S. out of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change would be the fastest and most drastic way to scrap the Paris Agreement, as it would completely withdraw the country from international talks on global warming. Trump instructed the Environmental Protection Agency to draft plans to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, but said nothing of the UNFCCC, according to a report Wednesday from the London-based nonprofit Responding to Climate Change.
Trump has already axed policies that are key to meeting the U.S. targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions under the Paris Agreement, and outlined plans for an aggressive increase in fossil fuel production over the coming years. The voluntary accord obliges its signatories to come together every five years to set new, more ambitious goals in hopes of capping global warming at no more than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial temperatures. Withdrawing cements the fact that the U.S. will go it alone, come what may.
“I see this as mostly an exercise in honesty,” said Josiah Neeley, director of energy policy at the conservative think tank R Street Institute. “It would have been inauthentic for the administration to stay in. It’s not true to them, it’s an honest assessment of where they want to go and what the country is going to do regardless.”
Deciding whether the nation should leave the accord split the White House into two camps.
In a twist, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reportedly acted as one of the “adults” in the Cabinet, advocating for pragmatic market incentives to reduce emissions, such as a tax on carbon. Tillerson is an authority on climate policy from his nearly four decades at Exxon Mobil, and the company is a top funder of climate science denial.
Behind Tillerson was Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who had seen the success of wind energy during his time as Texas governor; Defense Secretary James Mattis, who understood the security concerns unfettered global warming pose to the military; United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, who as South Carolina governor courted wind energy giant General Electric to her state; National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn, a former Goldman Sachs executive who knew the value of hedging bets on climate science; and Ivanka Trump, the president’s eldest daughter who Politico named the “climate czar” last year because of her plans to champion the science behind global warming.
The side that opposed the climate deal took a more radical, ideological approach fueled by the belief that the overwhelming consensus among climatologists that the Earth is warming due to human activity is a conspiracy.
One of the foremost advocates for withdrawal appeared to be chief strategist Steve Bannon, a doctrinaire nationalist skeptical of global alliances like the United Nations and the European Union. The withdrawal camp also included EPA chief Scott Pruitt, who in his previous post as Oklahoma’s attorney general sued the agency more than a dozen times and cultivated such close ties to a gas company that he once allowed its lawyers to send a complaint to the EPA under his letterhead.
They were joined by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has said it is unfair for the U.S. to fund renewable energy development in poor countries based on a theory; a handful of House Republicans; and 22 GOP senators who said staying in the Paris Agreement made the administration vulnerable to lawsuits by environmentalists.
Asked to ascribe motivations to that group, George Frampton, co-founder of the Partnership for Responsible Growth, a D.C.-based conservative group advocating for a carbon tax, chortled: “You want me to psychoanalyze Steve Bannon?”
“It’s a refusal to engage in the fact that we are in a global economy and a set of global relationships,” Frampton said. “Working together with other countries on climate change is actually a tremendous economic and competitiveness opportunity. But in the same way that they don’t see working with allies on a lot of other things is in our best interest and represents leadership, they don’t see applying the same lesson to climate change.”
By leaving the Paris Agreement, Trump plays to a handful of “thought leaders on the right,” said Joseph Majkut, director of climate policy at the libertarian think tank Niskanen Center.
“The America-first, nationalistic narrative is satisfied by pulling out of the Paris Agreement, which is a non-binding, cooperative agreement,” Majkut said. “There’s no real policy win that comes of this. It’s purely a political symbol.”
Early in any administration, the narrative of achieving campaign promises can be a grounding force, particularly for a White House faced with the high-profile failures. The House bill to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act has paltry public support and could be difficult to pass in the Senate. And Trump’s temporary ban on travelers from several Muslim-majority countries has been struck down by every judge it has come before.
“It’s easy to see him viewing this as a victory,” Majkut said. “He stumbled in achieving a lot of campaign promises, this is one that doesn’t require congressional consent, and a judge can’t get in the way.”
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