Walking Away from Paris: Trump’s Choice Between Impulsive versus Savvy Climate Sabotage

Will the Trump administration stay in or walk away from the Paris Climate Agreement?

At the upcoming G7 meeting in Italy, controversy surrounding the Trump administration will likely shift (at least temporarily) from links with Russia and his firing of FBI Director James Comey to the Paris Climate Agreement, and his waffling over whether the United States will stay in or leave the accord.

As noted recently by Elizabeth Kolbert at The New Yorker, the Trump administration has been hemming and hawing for several months over how to handle the Paris climate agreement. The choices are roughly: 1) follow through on Trump’s campaign promise to “cancel” U.S. involvement; and 2) remain in the agreement but walk back commitments made by President Obama to cut greenhouse gas emissions and provide aid to developing countries.

Kolbert argues that whatever the administration decides, “it will make the wrong choice” because it has already “passed up” the opportunity to keep the promises the country has already made. From the perspective of responding in a responsible matter to the threat of climate change, Kolbert is certainly correct: both of the options being contemplated are simply “different shades of wrong.”

But Trump’s final decision on Paris will still tell us a great deal about how the administration plans to go about the business of undermining climate progress, and how successful it is ultimately likely to be.

Why Leave Paris ?

There is a surprisingly diverse contingent urging Trump to stay in Paris (figuratively). This includes not only green groups, but also companies like @exxonmobil that are not exactly known for being proactive on climate.

There is a much smaller group on the other side, but it apparently includes some of the President’s inner circle (hat tip David Roberts). Presumably, their hope is that, by walking away, the U.S. could destabilize the agreement, causing other countries and businesses to lose faith in any sustained global policy focus. These same voices may also fear that staying in the agreement would legitimize the scientific consensus on climate change and the need for action to cut emissions. Withdrawing from the agreement may also make it more difficult for a future President to reintegrate the U.S. back into the international climate regime — presumably the anti-Paris crowd sees this as an advantage of walking away.

A downside of staying in the regime, for opponents of climate change policy, is that doing so would require the administration to periodically announce its continued unwillingness to keep the country’s prior commitments. But these are hardly matters Trump or his administration have been shy about. And consistently noting U.S. intransigence in international forums may undermine cooperation even more than simply walking away.

There is no question that if Trump leaves the Paris Agreement, it will mark the U.S. as a climate pariah. At least with respect to federal climate policy, that impression would accurately reflect reality. There would be something honest about Trump refusing to pay lip service to prior U.S. commitments while aggressively undermining any effort to actually live up to them.

Staying in the Deal: A Savvier Form of Sabotage?

Perhaps the most relevant question is whether the Paris Agreement can act as any restraint whatsoever on Trump’s agenda of aggressively dismantling federal climate policy.

To state the question is to answer it. Via brad plumer, the Paris Agreement is meant to be flexible. It is essentially a voluntary system that relies on reputation and peer pressure — two forms of influence that the Trump administration appears immune to.

For someone attempting to maximally undercut climate policy, the smarter move would probably be to stay in Paris and maintain an illusion of participation at the international level. Then it would be possible to work behind the scenes to damage the global regime from the inside. In addition, efforts to tear down climate policy at home might seem less extreme if the Trump administration can claim that they are consistent with the Obama-negotiated agreement.

The Triumph of the Id?

There is a strong case that staying in the agreement is the more strategically savvy move for Trump. Doing so would allow the administration to claim that it has made concessions to climate interests while maintaining the ability to undercut the regime at every turn. Staying in the agreement also reduces some of the downside risks that face the administration’s policy in the longer term. If the seemingly reasonable voices on climate in Trump’s inner circle win out on Paris, it may sap some of the energy from the growing resistance to Trump’s anti-environmental agenda. If so, a less extreme pendulum swing post-Trump might be anticipated.

So Trump faces a choice in his efforts to derail recent progress on climate change: a strategically savvy and cautious long-term play or an impulsive move that blurts out an uncomfortable truth and gets a roar of approval from his most fervent supporters. Any guesses on which way he’ll go?