Making Sense of Trump's Climate Surprise
The decision by U.S. President Donald Trump to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change is regrettable - a diplomatic own-goal that needlessly undercuts perceptions of U.S. good faith with many friends and allies. The decision was ultimately Trump's alone, but he was moved by deeper forces. The U.S. has struggled with the tension between nationalism and globalism for at least a century, with the world often wanting America to lead and Americans frequently wanting to be left alone. Critics are right that managing climate change today requires U.S. leadership. But some of the international hysteria around the U.S. abdication of responsibility on climate change is overwrought.
First, in a world in which power is increasingly fragmented, among states and within them, climate leadership will not come from national governments and their bureaucracies but from cities and states that are at the pioneering edge of championing green technologies and industries. Already, a number of mayors and governors in America have pledged to continue their programs to reduce carbon emissions in the spirit of the Paris accords. Most of America's carbon emissions come from the heavily populated east and west coasts where these leaders predominate - not the empty and pristine rural hinterlands that are home to the majority of Trump voters.
Second, as Jeff Immelt of General Electric, Elon Musk of Tesla, and other corporate titans have argued, the U.S. private sector will lead on developing energy and climate solutions for America and the world - a task unsuited to the cumbersome and lumbering U.S. government. Already, thanks to the ingenuity of its private sector, the U.S. is leading an energy revolution that will make North America energy independent and reduce carbon emissions. Many U.S. energy, chemical, and industrial executives have expressed support for such efforts in part because their companies are pioneers in green technologies, or because they want to factor the cost of carbon emissions into their business models so as not to erode their long-term competitive advantage. At least for the globalized companies that sit at the top of the American corporate hierarchy, those dynamics will still hold even if the U.S. withdraws from the Paris Agreement.
Third, the U.S. will hold Congressional elections next year which will be a referendum on the Trump administration. There will then be a presidential election in 2020. American voters will have multiple opportunities to signal displeasure with Trump's course, on climate and other issues, within the four-year timeframe that would be required to unwind or renegotiate U.S. commitments made in Paris during the Obama administration. Of course, should Democrats prevail, the burden will fall to them to actually deliver climate solutions rather than the far simpler task of lambasting the Republican president and Congress. At the same time, Republican leaders should note that climate change is a generational issue - young Americans of both political parties care about the environment and are more conscious of the global dimensions of climate-change than are older voters.