Reports that the Trump Administration is readying to pull out of the Paris Agreement are disappointing, but unsurprising. The Administration has demonstrated little interest in addressing climate change and great interest in achieving its campaign promises. As such, while pulling out of the Paris Agreement is indeed fulfilling a promise, it will be a purely symbolic victory.
Pulling out of the Agreement will have none of its intended effects. It will not unleash an economic renaissance for coal, or make climate change any less of a pressing issue at home. Neither the laws of physics or economics can be wiped away by executive order. Climate change will continue to march on, just as basic economics are increasingly pushing markets toward low-carbon energy. Meanwhile, the Clean Air Act still demands that the U.S. government regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. President Trump and his administration can slow-walk that process, but not reverse it entirely.
What we stand to lose, however, is a seat at the table and trust in America’s ability to deal with big problems. Despite its shortcomings, the Paris Agreement was a positive symbol of international cooperation. To see it undone for the purpose of satisfying craven nationalism is distressing, and an overt abdication of our responsibility. American credibility on climate will be sacrificed, and we will forfeit our ability to spur other countries toward climate action. The climate, national security, and economic implications of turning our backs on the world are hard to fathom, but they may run very deep.
For those of us concerned about climate action, this decision shows that success hinges on capturing Republican support. The President didn’t make this decision in a vacuum. There were formidable voices opposing the exit, from business and political leaders, to Republicans in Congress, to members of the Administration. But there were equally strong voices calling for the pull-out as well (including the 22 Senators whose letter appears to have tipped the balance in these last days). All advocates of climate action should redouble their efforts to make the case for smart and effective policies that conservatives and Republicans can back. Without them, we’ll get nowhere.