When he announced yesterday that the United States would withdraw from the Paris Agreement, President Donald Trump insisted he was saving the nation from a terrible catastrophe. Under the agreement, he said, "our country will be at grave risk of brownouts and blackouts, our businesses will come to a halt in many cases, and the American family will suffer the consequences in the form of lost jobs and a very diminished quality of life."
This is a bleak picture but not an honest one, and the very threats Trump describes—power outages, business grinding to a halt, fearful consequences to families—are far more likely in a world without the agreement that Trump just ripped up.
The Paris Agreement is a boring document, but it is also, by the standards of diplomatic literature, quite short: a mere 25 pages. Nonetheless, it seems unlikely that Trump has read it; he was swayed instead by advisors who chose to misrepresent it to him. Whether or not the president believes the hyperbole of the worst among his circle, he spouted it with evident pleasure. Meanwhile the rest of the world looked on and began to reconstitute a new global order, expressing themselves in terms that went way beyond any international censure of the George W. Bush administration after their bungling of the Kyoto Protocol. Even before his Rose Garden remarks, Trump was already the first U.S. president to be singled out by a G6 communiqué, and now German Chancellor Angela Merkel and newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron are openly discussing a future without American leadership.
By every reasonable measure, Trump's decision is a bad one. Remaining in the agreement would have cost the U.S. nothing. Pulling out while disparaging the agreement in meretricious terms will be costly to the U.S., in diplomatic credibility but also in public health and the ability to compete. It's embarrassing to the president for a lot of reasons, and the most charitable read of his strategy here is that he's using the symbolism to bank nationalist points ahead of breaking his campaign promises on the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Here are some other points.
TRUMP SAID THE PARIS AGREEMENT WOULD KILL 2.7 MILLION JOBS BY 2025, BUT HE'S USING BAD NUMBERS
The study from which Trump is drawing that 2.7 million number is the same one from which Senator Ted Cruz recently did the same. It was compiled by National Economic Research Associates and underwritten by the American Council for Capital Formation and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce—two very pro-fossil fuel outfits—and its dismal outlook is based on rather selective modeling. For one thing, the study omits any consideration of likely gains to the economy through a shift to renewable energy, which, by many estimates, would outstrip job losses in the carbon sector.
PARIS WILL NOW BE ON THE BALLOT IN 2020
The Paris Agreement entered into force on November 4th, 2016. Article 28 of the agreement states that parties can give a notification of withdrawal three years after entry into force. One year after that, the country will be officially withdrawn. That means Trump can't initiate withdrawal until November of 2019—and that the U.S. wouldn't exit the agreement until right around the 2020 presidential election. A Democratic president would almost certainly rejoin the agreement, and the prospect of reviving American climate policy in a single stroke could make climate a central campaign topic, which it was not in 2016. (The obvious counterpoint here is that the Paris Agreement already was on the ballot in 2016, but no one talked about it, and a lot of people chose not to care.)
THIS IS NOT POPULISM; IT IS TRIBALISM, PLAIN AND SIMPLE
A decisive majority of U.S. citizens favor staying in the Paris accord, as do nearly all major American corporations. This was not a decision about staying economically competitive, and it was not a decision that will benefit America's citizens. Rather, Trump used the Paris Agreement as a prop to rally a base that he keeps referring to as the "forgotten men and women of this country." Seven out of 10 Americans who favored staying in the agreement probably feel a bit forgotten right now.
TRUMP'S NUMBERS ON 0.2 DEGREES CELSIUS OVERLOOK THE RATCHET MECHANISM
The ratchet mechanism is a provision of the agreement that helps move national ambitions steadily higher with every passing year. When Trump said on Thursday that the Paris Agreement would only save us a paltry 0.2 degrees Celsius of warming by 2100, he was using cherry-picked numbers while craftily ignoring this important element in the talks. Just kidding! Trump likely has no idea what the ratchet mechanism is.
YES, TRUMP IS A TRANSACTIONALIST, BUT HE'S A BAD ONE
"We will all sit down and get back into the deal, and we will make it good," Trump said on Thursday, adding that his new kind of deal-making would put American interests first. The president is still under the extraordinary impression that America has ever done anything else.
THE BLOWBACK HERE WILL BE WORSE THAN KYOTO
AS Rebecca Leber writes at Mother Jones, George W. Bush's cabinet learned quickly to regret the administration's mishandling of the Kyoto withdrawal. Here's Colin Powell speaking in 2002:
"Kyoto—this is not talking out of school—was not handled as well as it should have been," Powell said. "And when the blowback came I think it was a sobering experience that everything the American president does has international repercussions."
Condoleeza Rice has a similar appraisal in her 2011 memoir:
Because of the way the administration handled the abrupt withdrawal, "we suffered through this issue over the years: drawing that early line in the sand helped to establish our reputation for 'unilateralism.' We handled it badly." Rice called it a "self-inflicted wound that could have been avoided."
Yesterday, Trump used similar language, calling the Paris Agreement itself a self-inflicted wound. The president is beginning to feel like a walking case of Munchausen syndrome.