President Donald Trump's speech Thursday may have been about the Paris climate agreement on the surface, but scratch a little deeper and you quickly get into darker territory. Careful students of history will note that much of the rhetoric Trump used to justify his withdrawal echoed the language used by dangerous nationalist leaders in the 1920s and '30s.
In those years, with post-World War I trauma and a global economic depression as a backdrop, fascist strongmen claimed that their countries were being victimized by global conspiracies, and used these claims to rally their followers in support of economic nationalism, protectionism, military build-ups, and the persecution of minorities. Such leaders declared they would never again leave their people at the mercy of other nations. These are all themes that Trump raised when he claimed he had made his decision on the Paris climate accord on behalf of "the forgotten people of America."
According to many experts, and by his own admission, Trump wants to pursue American primacy at the expense of global governance. As two Trump advisors outlined in a Wall Street Journal op-ed last week, his administration seeks to re-establish American supremacy by asserting military and economic strength. He wants to strong-arm the world, and not just on climate.
In that context, it's easy to see the Paris Agreement as a 21st-century version of the League of Nations: a nascent attempt to establish mechanisms for international collaboration. In 1933, Adolf Hitler withdrew from that organization, charging that the rest of the world was working to prevent Germany from achieving military might.
In the 1930s, the world community allowed Hitler's bullying to proceed unchecked until it was too late, and, immersed in their own problems, left Germany isolated, which gave Hitler the space he needed to build up his nationalist power base. If Trump succeeds in breaking up the international consensus on global warming, what's his next target?
"We are convinced that yesterday's decision ... to leave the Paris Agreement is a big mistake, bigger than not ratifying the Kyoto Protocol."
That's why the global response to Trump's announcement on Paris has critical implications that go beyond climate policy, and, at this point, the reaction of the world community is encouraging: Leaders of other nations firmly rejected Trump's America first approach, pointing out that climate change is a global issue that requires a global response.
French President Emmanuel Macron seemed determined not to ostracize the citizens of the U.S.; Macron said he respected Trump's decision and then reached out directly to American people in a short speech in English, drawing a distinction between citizens and the U.S. government.
"Tonight I wish to tell the United States, France believes in you, the world believes in you," he said. "I know that you are a great nation. I know your history, our common history. To all … responsible citizens who were disappointed by the decision by the president of the United States … I call on you remain confident. We will succeed, because we remain completely committed … we all share the same responsibility. Make our planet great again."
Martin Schulz, leader of the German Social Democratic Party, was blunt: "You can withdraw from a climate agreement but not from climate change, Mr. Trump. Reality isn't just another statesman you shove away," he tweeted, referring to Trump's rude shove of Montenegro Prime Minister Dusko Markovic at a summit meeting in Brussels last week.
European leaders rejected Trump's suggestion that the agreement could be revised with terms more favorable to the U.S.
"We deem the momentum generated in Paris in December 2015 irreversible, and we firmly believe that the Paris agreement cannot be renegotiated, since it is a vital instrument for our planet, societies and economies," Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and Macron wrote in a joint statement.
United Nations Secretary General António Guterres pointed out that the global transformation initiated by the 2015 agreement is already in progress and that world community will engage "with the American government and all actors in the United States and around the world to build the sustainable future on which our grandchildren depend."
Leading European climate researchers say there's no scientific basis for Trump's decision.
"It will not substantially hamper global climate progress if the U.S. quits the Paris Agreement, but it will hurt the American economy and society alike," says Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. "The Washington people around Trump hide in the trenches of the past instead of building the future. They fail to recognize that the climate wars are over, while the race for sustainable prosperity is on."
Schellnhuber said China and Europe will lead on the path toward green development and strengthen their position if the U.S. slips back, a point that was underscored during a European Union-China meeting Friday.
E.U. Council President Donald Tusk said the new axis will step up cooperation on climate policy and warned that the U.S. will suffer the most from Trump's decision.
"We are convinced that yesterday's decision by the United States to leave the Paris Agreement is a big mistake, bigger than not ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, because Paris is fairer," Tusk said. "But the fight against climate change, and all the research, innovation, and technological progress it will bring, will continue, with or without the U.S."