Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement was not really about the climate. And despite his overheated rhetoric about the “tremendous” and “draconian” burdens the deal would impose on the U.S. economy, Trump’s decision wasn’t really about that, either. America’s commitments under the Paris deal, like those of the other 194 cooperating nations, were voluntary. So those burdens were imaginary.
No, Trump’s abrupt withdrawal from this carefully crafted multilateral compromise was a diplomatic and political slap: It was about extending a middle finger to the world, while reminding his base that he shares its resentments of fancy-pants elites and smarty-pants scientists and tree-hugging squishes who look down on real Americans who drill for oil and dig for coal. He was thrusting the United States into the role of global renegade, rejecting not only the scientific consensus about climate but the international consensus for action, joining only Syria and Nicaragua (which wanted an even greener deal) in refusing to help the community of nations address a planetary problem. Congress doesn’t seem willing to pay for Trump’s border wall—and Mexico certainly isn’t—so rejecting the Paris deal was an easier way to express his Fortress America themes without having to pass legislation.
Trump was keeping a campaign promise, and his Rose Garden announcement was essentially a campaign speech; it was not by accident that he name-dropped the cities of Youngstown, Ohio, Detroit, Michigan, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, factory towns in the three Rust Belt states that carried him to victory. Trump’s move won’t have much impact on emissions in the short term, and probably not even in the long term. His claims that the Paris agreement would force businesses to lay off workers and consumers to pay higher energy prices were transparently bogus, because a nonbinding agreement wouldn’t force anything. But Trump’s move to abandon it will have a huge impact on the global community’s view of America, and of a president who would rather troll the free world than lead it.