President Trump may soon find himself behind a wall, but not the kind he may have imagined when running for office.
Speaking at the White House on Thursday, Trump announced he is pulling the United States out of the Paris Climate Agreement, a voluntary but historic international plan to curb carbon emissions enough to prevent the global temperature from rising 2 degrees Celsius over preindustrial levels during this century.
As one of the world’s top carbon polluters, the US took a leadership role in the agreement under President Obama, who pledged to cut the nation’s emissions by 26 to 28 percent by 2025. Trump’s move is expected to further isolate him in the beginning months of his unpopular and embattled presidency.
In a speech steeped in isolationist nationalism, Trump said he is “reasserting America’s sovereignty” by pulling out of the Paris deal, which weakens the US economy to the benefit of other countries by keeping domestic energy reserves under “lock and key.” He suggested that foreign lobbyists pushed for the deal in order to secure an economic advantage over the US.
“At what point do they start laughing at us as a country?” Trump said of other nations.
Trump did leave the door open to renegotiating the agreement or pursuing a new agreement under terms “that are fair” to the US. He invited Democrats in Congress to help with this effort, but he also called them “obstructionists.”
After exiting a popular global agreement and badmouthing potential political partners both foreign and domestic, it’s unclear who will be left to negotiate with.
Congressional Democrats and leaders of coastal states are seizing on a chance to fill a leadership vacuum and assure the international community that they remain committed to reducing emissions. Leaders of other industrialized nations have characterized Trump’s decision as a mistake with grave consequences and reasserted their commitment to the deal.
In the lead-up to the announcement, 18 members of the US House of Representatives from California, Washington and Oregon urged their state leaders to form a “green wall” in the West to “maintain climate leadership in the United States.”
“The Paris Agreement calls for significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and if Donald Trump’s administration won’t lead, our states must,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter urging their state governors to uphold clean energy commitments made under the framework of the Paris agreement.
California has set a goal of reducing its carbon emissions by 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, and Oregon is working to generate half of its electricity from renewable sources by 2040. Washington enacted a cap-and-trade system this year, effectively putting a price on industrial carbon dioxide emissions.
“Washington state is leading the way on climate issues where Washington, DC, is failing,” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, said in a statement on Wednesday, adding that Trump is putting the nation on “the wrong side of history.”
Environmentalists on the West Coast echoed the lawmakers, who say climate disruption threatens their coastlines with rising sea levels and their ecosystems with rising temperatures and increases in ecological pests and disease.
“Our coasts and our people are on the frontlines of sea level rise,” said Ann Notthoff, the Natural Resources Defense Council’s director of advocacy in California, in a statement. “We’ve seen the very recent impacts of prolonged drought, wildfires and flooding … all of which will become more frequent and severe as climate changes.”
However, Notthoff noted that California has been able to cut carbon pollution while growing its economy, even in the absence of federal leadership. On Wednesday, the California Senate approved a plan that would shift the state to 100 percent renewables by 2045. California and its West Coast neighbors are not alone.
State and local governments are challenging Trump’s anti-science, pro-fossil fuel agenda by pursuing their own climate goals, and hundreds of clean energy bills have been introduced in state legislatures across the country. Nine states in the Northeast are currently working to strengthen their Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a cap-and-trade system that the advocacy group Environment America calls “the best climate and clean air program” in the country.
Until now, US participation in the Paris agreement incentivized such initiatives. In a rare public statement issued in response to Trump’s announcement, President Obama defended the Paris agreement — a significant part of his climate legacy — as an economic boon that has driven technological investment in wind and solar energy and “contributed to the longest streak of job creation in our history.”
“But even in the absence of American leadership; even as this Administration joins a small handful of nations that reject the future; I’m confident that our states, cities, and businesses will step up and do even more to lead the way, and help protect for future generations the one planet we’ve got,” Obama said.
The US, it seems, is divided between those state and local governments willing to invest in a clean energy economy despite Trump’s decision on the Paris accord, and those who would rather side with the president as he attempts to reverse the nation’s progress in order to promote fossil fuel production. Support for Trump’s side is dwindling.
After the last election, a national survey found voters support the US staying in the agreement by a five-to-one margin, including 51 percent of Republicans. Even the Pentagon acknowledges the reality of climate disruption, along with its ability to destabilize developing countries by aggravating poverty and displacing populations.
The Trump administration will find few allies in the international scene, and not just because he accused other countries of attempting to undermine the US economy with the Paris agreement. World leaders expressed frustration as Trump refused to commit to the agreement during his recent travels abroad but have generally pledged to continue their efforts without him.
Of the 197 parties in the underlying United Nations Convention on Climate Change, 195 have signed and 147 have ratified the Paris agreement, signaling that most of the world sees climate disruption as a real threat that must be dealt with by reducing carbon pollution, particularly in industrialized nations that rely heavily on fossil fuels, like China and the US.
Trump, on the other hand, has surrounded himself with politicos who remain skeptical about climate disruption despite its intensifying impacts. For example, Trump’s pick to run the US Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, made a name for himself by challenging federal air pollution rules in court, and recently called to question his agency’s own scientific findings by casting doubt on the link between carbon pollution and climate change.
If Trump’s vague plans to “renegotiate” fail to take form, the next president may decide to rejoin the Paris pact. If they do, it probably won’t only be to pull the White House out of political isolation. It’s not just the nation’s political reputation that’s at stake, but also the very future of the planet we live on.