I don’t often write blog articles with the sole purpose of commenting on news items, but as a decision today by President Donald Trump deeply implicates climate change–without a doubt the most serious problem facing every American and every person on earth right now–I felt I couldn’t let it go by without at least a few words. My academic expertise is in the history of climate change, I’ve taught courses on the history of climate change (and wrote about them, here and here), and most post-academic career involves climate change, so I believe I’m qualified to speak on the subject.
Trump’s decision to abrogate the Paris climate change accord, at least where the United States is concerned, is not merely a strategic misstep (though it is), a betrayal of American trust and power in the world (which it is), and an immoral surrender to fossil fuel economic interests that seek to destroy their own children’s future for short-term gain (which is beyond all doubt). It is also abysmally stupid: uninformed, a decision born of ignorance and deliberate misunderstanding, and yet another hallmark of the total incompetence with which Trump approaches a job that’s simply far too complex for him to understand or to do well.
John Kerry, seen here arriving in Paris in November 2015 to negotiate the climate accord, pledged the United States’s trust and goodwill to the world by signing the treaty. Trump has destroyed that trust.
Fighting climate change is not about choosing “helping the Earth” over job security or economic prosperity for Americans. Fighting climate change is job security and economic prosperity for Americans. The private sector has already decided that fossil fuels are on their way out and the future is renewable energy. Trump’s decision means that America is jumping off this train, and it will be all the more difficult–and expensive–to try to jump back on it once Trump is out of power, which is inevitable. Why would he want to make American business less competitive? That’s exactly what this decision does.
Furthermore, the decision to back out of Paris utterly destroys any influence or power that the United States has in the world to foster international cooperation on climate change, and much else. Trump has willingly ceded that influence to China. When the United States returns to the Paris Accords after Trump is removed from power–note I say when, not if–we will have to do so upon terms of China’s choosing, not ours. Add to this the possibility that other countries will seek to punish us economically for Trump’s decision, and we have a decision that carries a host of bad consequences, and exactly zero good ones.
Meet the world’s new leader on fighting climate change–and probably almost everything else. Retreating from Paris puts China in the driver’s seat on almost every major economic and political issue today.
Because climate change has such disastrous long-term consequences, Trump’s decision today will probably go down as the single worst move of his already failed presidency. It’s probably the decision he’ll be remembered for more than any other, and for longer than any other. It’s how he will go down in history: a clueless denier, willfully blind to proven scientific reality, incapable of understanding the consequences of his actions, and who probably doesn’t care about them anyway. As a historian, I predict that few decisions of this century will ever, whether in hindsight or in the moment, look as bad as this one.
This is, however, hardly the end of America’s efforts to fight climate change. In fact, it’s the beginning. As meaningful efforts to fight climate change now shift to the state, local, private sector and international fronts, Trump has ensured mainly that the freight train of unstoppable progress toward a decarbonized world will run right over him without a millisecond’s pause. All of us who actually understand the issues surrounding climate change are riding on that train.