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Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement accomplishes nothing

Even the president's own stated goals would have been better served by staying in.

President Trump has decided to pull the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement. Here's what you need to know. (Video: Daron Taylor/The Washington Post)
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President Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate agreement serves no practical purpose. It has no benefit other than pandering to the conservative movement’s ideological opposition to multilateralism and environmental regulation. Even Trump’s own stated policy goals would be better served by staying in the agreement.

Set aside the argument that walking out of the 2015 global deal to mitigate climate change is immoral. However compelling, that point rests on assumptions Trump plainly does not share: that climate science is real and that rich countries should not ruin the lives of the world’s poorest people. Trump ran on rejecting climate science and putting “America First.” Although most Americans actually accept climate science and support action to mitigate climate change, Trump won on that platform, and he can’t realistically be expected to suddenly start caring about the planet.

But he also ran on promises that were not so much about a coherent policy program as a set of results: faster economic growth, a stronger manufacturing sector and enhanced American power and prestige on the global stage.

And leaving Paris impedes, rather than achieves, those goals.

Trump didn’t have to exit the climate agreement to live up to his promise to end the “War on Coal.” He could just have removed President Barack Obama’s domestic climate regulations such as the Clean Power Plan, which he is doing anyway. Contrary to White House claims, nothing in the Paris agreement requires any specific climate regulation in the U.S.

The deal is, after all, entirely voluntary, because Republican intransigence meant it could never be ratified by the Senate. Each country’s emissions targets are called “Nationally Determined Contributions” because they are nationally determined. There is no penalty for signatory countries weakening their emissions reduction pledges or simply failing to meet them.

Trump wants to roll back progress against climate change. He’s going to fail.

Trump’s reasoning for pulling out rests on one demonstrably false premise — that climate change isn’t happening — and one premise that is, at best, very questionable: that burning more fossil fuels would be better for growing GDP, employment and wages in the near and medium term. But even if you accepted Trump’s premises, the nonbinding nature of the agreement means that we could have stayed in it without doing any harm to our economy. In his announcement of the decision Thursday afternoon, Trump referred to “the draconian economic burdens imposed on our country” and “onerous energy restrictions.” Both of those are simply imaginary.

But our withdrawal will cause real harm to U.S. interests, including those that Trump claims to care about. Pulling out tells the rest of the world that there will be wild oscillations in global diplomatic policy between administrations, which reduces Trump’s own ability as president to influence other countries. It also means that other countries are even more discouraged from meeting, increasing or exceeding their own Paris targets for emissions reductions and transitioning to clean energy. For the United States to fail to hit our targets is one thing; walking away from the whole endeavor altogether sends a much worse signal about the long-term prospects of successful global cooperation in averting catastrophic climate change.

And by any metric, the United States would benefit from other nations transitioning to clean energy. Even if you buy Trump’s view of the world, less competition for a finite supply of fossil fuels would help American businesses by restraining prices and aiding Trump’s “energy independence” goals.

And, as Secretary of State and former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson kept pointing out internally, we can’t promote the interests of U.S. fossil fuel companies within the agreement’s future negotiations and implementation if we’re no longer part of it. So even from the vantage point of protecting the interests of domestic fossil-fuel corporations, Trump’s action doesn’t make sense.

Meet the people clouding the climate change debate

This decision amounts to arbitrarily siding with coal over other domestic energy sources. The primary beneficiaries of moving away from coal to provide electricity are its competitors: natural gas, wind, solar and hydropower. All of those are abundantly available on U.S. soil. The natural gas boom is benefiting oil and gas companies such as Exxon, which may be one reason that Tillerson favored staying in the agreement. Renewable energy sources produce far more jobs per kilowatt hour of electricity than coal, because the wind and sunshine are free to acquire but manufacturing and installing the technology to capture them is more labor-intensive than operating a few machines to conduct mountaintop-removal mining. Solar and natural gas each employ more than twice as many Americans as coal. Energy efficiency programs, which are part of the Clean Power Plan that Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency is scrapping and are on the chopping block in Trump’s budget, save money for U.S.  energy consumers — including the heavy manufacturing sector that Trump says he wants to revive.

Trump himself used to believe in what the Paris accord is doing, so Thursday’s announcement can’t be justified as a reflection of his deeply held convictions. In 2009, during the previous round of climate negotiations in Copenhagen, Trump signed a public letter to Obama endorsing a strong global climate agreement.

It only makes sense as a political statement: a middle finger to the scientific, environmental and  international communities. It is a sop to his base voters, ideological elements of the GOP donor class and the right-wing media, for whom infuriating liberals and foreigners is its own reward. Unfortunately, the price for doing that is straining our relations with allies and unleashing catastrophic climate change.