During a Rose Garden speech on Thursday, President Trump announced that the United States would “withdraw from the Paris climate accord, but begin negotiations to re-enter either the Paris accord or an entirely new transaction on terms that are fair to the United States.”
This was greeted with predictable scorn. Supporters of the Paris climate deal present a false choice. You either (a) believe in the scientific consensus about climate change (in which case, you support Paris), or (b) you are a denier. But they are missing a third option, which is that (c) this is simply a bad deal in terms of the cost-benefit analysis.
Why is it a bad deal? There are no consistent standards for participation. Countries unilaterally decided what voluntary and non-binding commitment they wanted to pledge. The United States will cut emissions 26-28 percent by 2025—a pledge that is much more rigorous than other nations. “They can do whatever they want for 13 years,” Trump said of China. “Not us.” (Note: Technically, China has obligations that must be fulfilled by 2030.)
Calling the agreement a “massive redistribution of United States wealth to other countries,” Trump said, “The rest of the world applauded when we signed the Paris agreement [because] it put the United States in a very big economic disadvantage.”
According to one report commissioned by the American Council for Capital Formation with support from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Institute for 21st Century Energy, “the Paris climate accord could cost the U.S. economy $3 trillion and 6.5 million industrial sector jobs by 2040…”
One might argue that this is a matter of life or death, so the sacrifice is justified if it saves humanity. Here’s where the deal really falls apart. According to another study, the Paris deal would shave about 0.2 degrees off warming by 2100. You heard me right. Assuming everything works perfectly according to plan, we could plausibly be trading 6.5 million jobs for a 0.2-degree payoff.
But remember, there is no enforcement mechanism. These pledges are not binding. So even if you assume the best case scenario regarding predictive models, there’s no guarantee other countries will follow through.
“Tiny, tiny, amount,” Trump said—speaking of the amount of warming that would be mitigated. He has a point: Even if we assume global warming is a serious problem, is the payoff worth the tradeoff in terms of lost jobs and higher energy costs? This is a legitimate public policy debate.
Of course, there are always political considerations. For a president who promised to put America first—and who won election on the support of working-class Americans in the Rust Belt—this was perfectly on-message and on-brand. The issue transcends the environment, extending to jobs and the economy—and even to national identity. As Trump said, “our withdrawal from the agreement represents a reassertion of America's sovereignty.”
American liberals are up in arms, claiming this signals the end of American leadership. Some are going so far as to suggest what he is doing is “traitorous” (Tom Steyer) and a “crime against humanity” (Michael Moore). This sounds like harsh rhetoric aimed at a president who is pulling out of a non-binding and voluntary agreement—and keeping the door open to renegotiating entry.
Just as this issue divides a nation, the Trump administration was divided over this decision, with Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and Energy Secretary Rick Perry all in the stay camp. EPA Director Scott Pruitt and Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon were reportedly in the withdraw camp. These individuals represent different interests. This issue pits cosmopolitan interests against more populist and nationalist sympathies.
But maybe there is a third way? The notion that Trump had to either abide by President Obama’s bad deal or withdraw was yet another false choice. If we are to take him at his word, he is leaving open the possibility of negotiating a new deal, making it more favorable.
This won’t be easy. Already, France and Germany are saying they “firmly believe that the Paris Agreement cannot be renegotiated.” But the goal should be to find a solution that would allow America to maintain a leadership position in the world—both morally, and in terms of clean energy—that would simultaneously limit the jobs losses.
Elections have consequences. Donald Trump would never have cut this lopsided deal, and there shouldn’t be any expectation he will abide by it today. “I cannot in good conscience support a deal that punishes the United States,” he said. "I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris."
In other words, America comes first. Paris can wait.