By Robert Hart
Earlier this month, after President Donald Trump announced that he was pulling the United States out of the 2015 Paris Agreement on combating climate change, a crowd of some 200 supporters demonstrated outside the White House waving placards proclaiming “Thank you, Mr. President” and chanting “Jobs, Jobs, Jobs.”
A few hours later, a much bigger, rival crowd staged a “March for Truth,” one of several anti-Trump rallies across the country, denouncing the decision and brandishing banners urging: “Make the Planet Great Again.”
That essentially encapsulated reactions in the United States and worldwide to a decision that meant the world’s most powerful nation, and one of its biggest polluters, was quitting the first global agreement to try to slow the rate of man-made global warming by curbing emissions of carbon dioxide.
It saw a hard core of the anti-establishment, mid-American voters who put Trump into the White House, plus significant support within Republican Party ranks, facing a deluge of disappointment, dismay and outrage from countries of every stripe in all corners of the world — and also significant protest from city and state politicians and businesses inside the United States.
The withdrawal left the United States as one of only three countries outside the agreement adopted by 196 parties at the United Nations climate change conference in Paris in November 2015. The other two are Nicaragua and Syria.
The Central American state of Nicaragua rejected the agreement because it said it did not go far enough towards limiting harmful carbon emissions from fossil fuels. Nicaragua already gets more than half of its energy from renewable sources and plans to ramp this up to 90 percent by 2020. Syria has its desperate, ongoing civil war to deal with and was never able to take any meaningful part in the deliberations.
The president needed a success.
So why did the unpredictable, sometimes unintelligible, Twitter-obsessed President Trump take the exit door?
Before running for president, he had many times branded the idea of man-made climate change as a hoax invented by China to disadvantage American industry and business. He followed up in his bid for the White House by making withdrawal from the Paris agreement one of his key campaign pledges.
A flurry of executive orders issued during his first weeks in the Oval Office met limited success. He has not yet built the promised wall along the border with Mexico, and his proposed travel ban on people from mainly Muslim countries has hit legal buffers and is awaiting review by the Supreme Court.
So he needed a success.
Trump is keenly aware that people in the inland American “rust belt” states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Indiana, where heavy industries such as coal mining and steel are in severe decline, are the people whose votes played a major part in helping him to the presidency and are those likely to be least bothered by reports of rising sea levels.
Recent data released by the Yale Climate Communication Program indicated that while more than 60 percent of Americans believe global warming is real and could cause harm, fewer than half fear it will hurt them personally.
Trump said the Paris accord would hobble the United States.
The U.S. president would certainly have come under pressure from his hard-line chief strategist Steve Bannon, founder of the far-right Breitbart news and opinion website, who has repeatedly attacked the climate agreement. Breitbart is home to many of the most vociferous climate deniers who decry scientific evidence of man-made global warming as a myth, or “cartoon science.”
However, some officials say Trump now does accept that the climate is changing and that pollutants may be part of the cause. And his decision to quit the Paris deal alienated White House moderates including his daughter Ivanka, now a senior adviser, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
In his withdrawal speech in the White House Rose Garden, Trump characterized the Paris agreement as a deal that aimed to hobble and and impoverish the United States. He declared that the agreement would cost the United States $3 trillion in lost economic output and 6.5 million jobs, while rival economies like China and India were treated more favorably.
“In order to fulfill my solemn duty to protect America and its citizens, the United States will withdraw from the Paris climate accord … but begin negotiations to re-enter either the Paris accord or a really entirely new transaction on terms that are fair to the United States,” Trump said.
“I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris. I promised I would exit or re-negotiate any deal which fails to serve America’s interests.”
Paris does mean sacrifices.
Political and media commentators in the United States and abroad immediately leapt to pick holes in the speech, taking issue with many of the figures the president quoted on finance, business and jobs as being exaggerated, outdated or simply wrong.
And critics emphasized that the Paris agreement is not a legally binding treaty, all countries make their own commitments on reducing emissions and the United States could not be forced to do anything it did not agree to.
The Paris agreement does involve nations making sacrifices for the good of future generations. It means richer countries commit to help poorer countries. And President Trump’s action reflects a wider, historical tendency for the United States to steer clear of supranational agreements.
The United States is not a member of the International Criminal Court, and it has not ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Trump himself, in one of his first executive orders as president, took the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a nascent free trade deal between 11 American and Asian countries.
But there has been widespread resistance in U.S. states and cities to the president’s rejection of the climate accord. New York, California and 11 other states representing nearly 40 percent of the U.S. economy, mayors of about 200 cities and leaders of business giants including Amazon, Apple and Target have signed pledges to keep reducing their fossil-fuel emissions.
Abroad, the most strident criticism came from the European Union, with EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker saying the U.S. withdrawal was effectively rewriting the global order and forcing Europe into closer relations with China at the expense of the transatlantic alliance.
U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis, attending a defense meeting in Singapore, sought a reassuring tone. President Trump’s “America First” policy would not mean a retreat from engagement with the world at large, he said, adding: “What a crummy world if we all retreat inside our own borders.”
Robert Hart was a correspondent and regional editor for Reuters for more than 35 years, reporting on the Vietnam war, West Germany during Chancellor Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik and as bureau chief in Spain for five years in the 1990s. In between he was Asian News Editor based in Singapore and Latin America Editor, based in Buenos Aires during the military “dirty war” of the late 1970s. Since retiring he has worked as a consultant in journalism and media trainer for the Thomson Reuters Foundation.