Donald Trump and America’s Benighted Self-Interest on Climate Change

Donald Trump and America’s Benighted Self-Interest on Climate Change


One of the constants in Donald Trump’s worldview is the belief that for decades, under presidents of both major parties, the United States has persisted in a huge strategic error by attempting to follow policies that sought to advance what could be called the country’s enlightened self-interest.

There is no immediate benefit to people in Florida from providing food to victims of famine in Africa. You can’t draw a direct line between brokering peace agreements in Northern Ireland or the Balkans and improved living standards in Iowa. There is no obvious payback to a Texas oil-rig worker for the disproportionate share of the United Nations’ operating costs shouldered by US taxpayers.

Related: Trump Pulls Out of the Paris Climate Deal: How Much Damage Could It Do?

Nevertheless, presidents of both parties have, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, continued to support such efforts on the assumption that US “soft power” has benefits that, while not directly measurable, are nonetheless real.

In the Trump worldview, this is nonsense. When Trump looks as the relationships between world powers, great and small, he views every exchange as a zero-sum transaction. When the US gives without getting (preferably more) in return, whatever else the “deal” is, it is also a de facto failure.

It’s a philosophy that leaves no room for finesse in diplomacy or economic policy. In Trumpworld, accepting a short-term loss in the expectation of future gain -- or worse still, doing something because it’s the right thing to do -- isn’t the mark of a skilled diplomat or far-seeing visionary. It’s the mark of a sucker.

Announcing his intention to withdraw the United States from the Paris Accord on climate change Thursday afternoon, Trump further clarified that his administration’s actions on the global stage are rooted in something very different than the long-run strategy that has driven previous presidential decision-making. Call it benighted self-interest.

Related: Why Pulling Out of the Paris Climate Agreement Could Be Bad for Coal

Trump’s speech on Thursday explaining his rationale for withdrawing the US from the climate deal, riddled though it was with falsehoods and inaccuracies about very basic facts, boiled down to his belief that the US had been hoodwinked by...well...basically the entire planet.

“The rest of the world applauded when we signed the Paris Agreement -- they went wild,” Trump claimed. “They were so happy. For the simple reason that it put our country, the United States of America, which we all love, at a very, very big economic disadvantage.”

Never mind that a seemingly endless parade of major US businesses, trade groups, entrepreneurs and others have loudly denounced Trump’s move as damaging to US economic interests and have pledged to continue with their individual efforts to reduce carbon emissions and invest in renewable energy.

Never mind that Trump’s advisers with the most relevant experience on the global stage, including Secretary of State and former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, former Goldman Sachs President and COO and now chief White House Economic Adviser Gary Cohn, and Defense Secretary James Mattis all opposed the decision.

Related: As Trump Abdicates Global Leadership, Europe Moves to Fill the Vacuum

Never mind all these things. Trump sees a near-term advantage to leaving the climate accord, and that’s what he has decided to pursue.

There may be a temporary surge in employment in coal mining, boosting employment in what Cohn, in remarks to reporters just last week, admitted is a dying industry. Trump will, nevertheless, celebrate it as a major victory.

Share prices of companies involved in natural resources extraction may get a boost. And as he did Thursday, Trump will take credit for any surge in the stock market.

Most of all, Trump will bask in the approval of a small but very angry and very loud subset of the American electorate, which views efforts to roll back climate change as some sort of globalist conspiracy. The commentary Thursday, in certain corners of the Trump-supporting media at least, was remarkable in that much of the cheering of his move on climate had little to do with belief that the president had made the right policy choice. Far more prevalent was the simple joy that Trump’s decision made people they disagree with deeply unhappy.

Related: Environmentalists’ Worst Fears About Trump Are Coming True

Meanwhile, while the Trump administration remains mired in its pursuit of short-term gain, both economic and political, the world will move on.

Over the years, Trump has railed against trade arrangements he views as unfair. For example, when US manufacturers are forced to compete with imports from companies that don’t face the same rules and regulations they do.

Well, guess what? US manufacturers may try to take advantage of more lax environmental rules in coming years, allowing them a competitive advantage over foreign firms, but don’t expect foreign countries to sit still. Why would they allow US firms to increase market share by ignoring a problem that the remainder of the world has agreed to try to address?

Tariffs, like those Trump has often proposed on imports to the US, cut both ways, and US manufacturers could find themselves facing higher barriers to entry for their products in countries that stick with the Paris Accord.

Related: Trump’s Rollback on Clean Air and Water Rules Could Raise Health Care Costs

And that might not be the only loss the US suffers. That climate change is real and man-made is the overwhelming consensus of the scientific community. On Thursday, French President Emmanuel Macron made an unvarnished plea to US scientists who believe their work is no longer valued in their home country.

“To all scientists, engineers, engineers, entrepreneurs, responsible citizens who were disappointed by the decision of the United States, I want to say that they will find in France a second homeland,” Macron said in a statement rendered all the more extraordinary because he delivered it in English. “I call on them: Come and work here with us — to work together on concrete solutions for our climate, our environment. I can assure you, France will not give up the fight.”

While there seems little likelihood that the US will see a sudden exodus of scientists to France, Macron’s offer highlights another important truth about the Trump administration’s blinkered view of the climate change issue.

By all accounts, clean and renewable energy is the way of the future. But the Trump administration’s benighted insistence on pushing increased production of fossil fuels could stunt the growth of a robust renewables industry in the US, sacrificing the kind of long-term gain that policies of enlightened self-interest have sought to secure.