Reactions to President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris accord on climate change are — forgive me — overheated.
The ACLU is calling it an “assault on communities of color,” for some reason, and environmental activist Tom Steyer says it’s a “traitorous act of war against the American people.” For his part, Trump says that staying in the agreement would have assured us a future of “lost jobs, lower wages, shuttered factories and vastly diminished economic production.”
Yet both Trump and his critics know that very little in the accord is binding on the parties to it. As a result, withdrawing from it can’t have major consequences by itself.
Listen carefully to the agreement’s supporters, and their real argument becomes clear: For them, staying in it increases the likelihood that the world’s governments will take future steps to avert what they believe will be a climate catastrophe.
The best argument for leaving, meanwhile, is that these steps would be costly overreactions to that threat — and reducing such consequences is a good thing. As I’ve argued before, the risk that climate change will have catastrophic effects justifies investing to predict, mitigate and adapt to those effects. It doesn’t justify restrictions on the use of energy.
The argument that leaving the Paris agreement will jeopardize America’s global leadership also seems overblown. The decision dismays many people around the world, to be sure, just as other American decisions have dismayed many of the same people over the years.
We are told that other governments will no longer trust America to keep its commitments. But it would not be a bad thing for other countries to learn that a president’s say-so can’t always bind future presidents.
It’s a mistake, too, to see Trump’s decision as a turn toward isolationism. It’s true that the step cheers those in his coalition who want the U.S. to weaken its alliances and enact tariffs. But it also has the support of conservatives and Republicans who oppose those policies. That breadth of support helps explain why Trump made this move while so far refraining from tearing up NAFTA and the like.
Trump has even talked, albeit very vaguely and implausibly, about renegotiating the Paris agreement. It would be better to take a different path altogether. But we are free to go in any number of directions, because we are essentially in the same place we were when we were in the agreement.