The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Nine reasons Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement doesn’t make sense

President Trump points to the crowd after speaking in the Rose Garden about his decision to pull the United States from the Paris climate accord. (Andrew Harnik/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

On Thursday, President Trump announced that the United States would step away from the historic climate change agreement signed in 2015 in Paris. For a variety of reasons, that decision makes little sense.

1. Climate change is a real threat.

We’ll start at the beginning.

There’s no serious debate in the scientific community that the world is warming as a result of human activity. Emissions of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels has led to buildups of carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere, preventing heat from escaping into space. The process of warming is a slow one, but we can expect those atmospheric gases to lead to increased global temperatures (for which there’s already evidence), rising sea levels (as polar ice melts and water expands as it warms), increased ocean acidification (as the ocean absorbs carbon dioxide), more extreme precipitation events (including flooding) and more severe droughts.

The unanswered question is not whether negative effects will be felt from that buildup of greenhouse gases, it is how bad the effects will be. The agreement signed in Paris aimed at controlling the global temperature increase by slowing atmospheric emissions. Without slowing those emissions, the greenhouse effect will grow stronger — and the effects will grow worse.

During his announcement, Trump argued that the Paris agreement’s effect on global temperatures would be tiny. Scientists argue that even a small change could significantly reduce the negative effects of a warmer climate. For each degree Celsius of global warming, for example, sea levels are predicted to rise by 2.3 meters. A small increase has big effects.

2. It’s a threat to Trump personally.

Should nothing else compel him to act, he has a number of properties that lie near the ocean. His resort at Mar-a-Lago, for example, is in Palm Beach, Fla. Southern Florida is one of the places in the United States at the forefront of the threat of rising sea levels. By 2100, Mar-a-Lago could be mostly underwater.

3. Trump never displayed a real understanding of the issue.

Over the course of his dabbling in politics, Trump has held nearly every possible position on climate change. He signed a letter in late 2009 supporting stronger action on renewable energy. A few months later, Trump cited the cold weather outside as evidence against global warming (it was January) and then argued that climate change legislation was “putting this country at a competitive disadvantage.” When an offshore wind farm was proposed near one of his golf courses in Scotland, Trump developed a fervent (and often clumsy) opposition to wind energy. But when a woman in Iowa asked whether he supported subsidizing wind energy before that state’s 2016 caucus, he agreed.

He was asked about climate change twice during interviews with The Washington Post and the New York Times during the 2016 election. He told the Times that he was keeping an “open mind” on the subject but that he was skeptical. After all, “we’ve had storms always” and “the hottest day ever was in 1890-something.”

To The Post, he played down the idea of human-caused climate change.

“I think there’s a change in weather,” he said. “I am not a great believer in man-made climate change. I’m not a great believer.” He echoed typical (and debunked) arguments against addressing climate change, such as the untrue claim that there was a scientific consensus a century ago that the world was cooling.

“I think our biggest form of climate change we should worry about is nuclear weapons,” he added.

At no point does Trump appear to have grappled with any sort of nuanced understanding of the effects of climate change. Not in the way that, say, the military has.

4. The economy has already begun to shift toward reduced emissions.

As we noted earlier, huge swaths of the U.S. economy have already shifted to embrace less-polluting energy generation systems. The prices for solar panels are plunging, and the massive boom in natural gas that resulted from fracking led to power-generation facilities switching away from coal.

For the first time in 40 years, the main source of carbon dioxide emissions is transportation. Yet even oil companies such as ExxonMobil and Conoco back the Paris agreement.

Over the next 10 years, U.S. carbon dioxide emissions are projected to fall regardless of the Paris agreement.

5. The effect of that transition on U.S. jobs is debatable.

During his announcement on Thursday, Trump argued that remaining in the Paris agreement would have cost the United States 2.7 million jobs by 2025. That would be about a third of the jobs lost during the 2008 recession. The conservative Heritage Foundation developed its own estimates for those effects.

But there’s robust debate about the effect of regulations like those necessitated under the Paris agreement. Regulation itself can often create jobs in compliance, for example. What’s more, the energy industry itself offers an example of the mixed results of environmentally friendly changes. Coal jobs have declined — but the fracking boom that powered the transition to natural gas meant that the number of jobs in that industry more than doubled from 2005 to 2015. (That increase has since receded a bit.) The job growth in solar and wind energy in recent years has been dramatic; there are far more people working in the solar industry in the United States than in coal.

There’s also a question of the economic effects of the negative aspects of a warmer climate. One estimate figures that the world will take a hit to the tune of trillions of dollars over the next two decades because of the warming economy. Analysis from a group led by former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg estimates that by 2030, coastal storms and rising sea levels alone will have cost about $35 billion.

6. The threat to Americans’ health is real.

There exists a real threat to Americans’ health from global warming. Warmer temperatures mean more mosquito-borne diseases, for example, as warmer winter temperatures mean fewer mosquitoes die off. Climate change may worsen asthma. Higher temperatures mean more heat-related deaths, including from heatstroke and heat exhaustion. More extreme precipitation events will probably lead to more flooding — and more deaths.

7. Americans understand the issue better than Trump.

Interestingly, there has been a sharp recent shift toward taking action on climate change.

In March, we noted new polling showing that Americans accept the scientific consensus on climate change and see the effects of it as having already begun.

While the issue isn’t a motivating one for his base, the Pew Research Center found in July that climate change was very important to his opposition, with 69 percent of Democrats saying that the environment was very important to their 2016 vote. Last June, Gallup put that figure at 69 percent — with 44 percent of independents agreeing.

In fact, even among conservative Republicans, more people supported staying in the Paris agreement than exiting it, according to a November poll.

8. The decision continues to show Trump’s misunderstanding of the U.S. role in the world.

One of the long-standing arguments about the need to address climate change was that it was a global problem that demanded a global solution. Republicans opposed unilateral action on climate change, arguing that it put the country at a disadvantage. The Paris agreement was meant to address that, adding new constraints on other nations as well as the United States.

During his time in office, Trump has consistently viewed international agreements solely through the lens of economic benefits to the United States. He sees NATO’s mutual-protection agreement as unfair because the United States invests more in our military than our NATO partners do in theirs. During the campaign, he suggested that South Korea and Japan should pay the United States more money for our involvement in that region. In both cases, the ancillary benefits to the United States of a stable Europe or a contained North Korea were downplayed or ignored.

Likewise with the Paris agreement. In his remarks on Thursday, Trump framed our inclusion in it not as part of an effort to address a global problem that will affect Americans’ lives and livelihoods but as though the rest of the world had somehow duped us into weakening ourselves. A less-warm Earth has obvious benefits to America, but Trump views it more simply than that, as the rest of the world “laughing” at us. Stepping away from the Paris accord would be “a reassertion of America’s sovereignty,” he said. The argument has all of the nuance of a petulant teenager saying that he didn’t want to go to that concert, anyway.

An international race is on to lead the effort to build robust renewable energy systems and negotiate support for addressing the threat of climate change. Trump essentially just announced that the United States was stepping away from that competition.

His claim that perhaps the agreement could be renegotiated was obviously hollow: The Paris agreement was one of the few times consensus on the contentious issue had been reached — and key nations have already said that renegotiation is out of the question.

9. The agreement was nonbinding anyway.

The Paris agreement did not carry the force of law in the United States. Making the day’s announcement somewhat less dramatic.