Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord, and his visceral unpopularity, may actually lift efforts to halt climate change. By Mike Seccombe.

Donald Trump’s own goal on climate action

President Donald Trump at a meeting in the White House on Tuesday.
President Donald Trump at a meeting in the White House on Tuesday.

On Friday last week, the day after President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the Paris climate agreement, a vastly wealthier, smarter and more diplomatic representative of the US met with the French president.

Unlike Emmanuel Macron’s meeting with Trump, there was no bone-crunching handshake between the new French leader and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg. Nor was there any other sign of hostility. Quite the reverse. This was a meeting of two leaders of the resistance.

Macron had earlier responded to Trump’s announcement with a speech, partly in English, in which he decried the move and invited “responsible citizens” of the US who were disappointed by Trump to come work in France. He asserted that the Paris Agreement was “irreversible” and would be implemented not just by France but also by the rest of the world. He commandeered and globalised Trump’s nativist campaign slogan, ending his speech with “Make our planet great again”.

The French foreign ministry took the video of Trump announcing the pullout, and overlaid commentary on it, refuting point by point his inaccurate claims, then reposted it with the hashtag #MakeThePlanetGreatAgain. The video got 11 million views within a day.

Macron was not just being cheeky, he was being smart. All over the world, from China to India, France, Germany, Canada and many other places besides, political leaders have lined up in opposition to Trump. In part, it is a matter of principle: rational people the world over appreciate the need to address climate change. But it is also in part a political judgement: Trump is so globally unpopular that other leaders have realised that by taking a contrary position they can boost their own electoral stocks.

In a perverse way, the great divider has become the great uniter. It’s like everyone against stupid.

Michael Bloomberg was in Paris to offer reassurance that America still was committed to meeting its greenhouse gas reduction commitment under the Paris accord, even if the president and US federal government were not.

After meeting with Macron and Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo to discuss the US’s commitment to the Paris Agreement, Bloomberg issued an unequivocal statement:

“The American government may have pulled out of the Agreement, but the American people remain committed to it – and we will meet our targets.

“Through my role as the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Cities and Climate Change I will notify the Secretary-General and Climate Change secretariat that US cities, states, businesses and others will meet the US commitment to reduce our emissions 26 per cent below 2005 levels by 2025.”

Indeed, Bloomberg said America would accelerate its progress, “even without any support from Washington”.

His foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, would co-ordinate the national effort, and provide $US15 million to the climate change secretariat to make up for what the body would lose as a result of Trump’s decision.

That funding is small change for a man worth towards $US50 billion. But still, it seemed like a big call to claim the country could circumvent its climate change denialist president.

Or maybe not. 

The US is already almost halfway to meeting the target set by the Obama administration in Paris. Emissions are down about 12 per cent compared with 2005. Within a couple of days of Trump’s abrogation of the US commitment, more than 1200 state governors, city mayors and business leaders signed a letter: “We are still in.”

Even before that, 29 US states and the District of Columbia, comprising well over half the population of the country, had set their own greenhouse gas reduction targets. They vary in their commitments, but some were already more ambitious than the national goal set by the Obama administration.

Seven western states have joined four Canadian provinces in a regional cap and trade scheme, and 10 north-eastern and mid-Atlantic states also have a similar, market-based carbon-trading agreement.

California, whose $US2.5 trillion economy is by far the largest of US states and the sixth largest in the world, is the standout example. Its goal is far more ambitious than the nation as a whole – a reduction 40 per cent below 1990 levels by 2030 and 80 per cent by 2050, through a comprehensive suite of legally enforceable initiatives including not only a cap and trade scheme but also vehicle emissions and energy efficiency standards. What’s more, it is on track to achieve its target.

Nor is it just the states that will take the fight up to the president.

“Because of the federalism and decentralisation of power in the American system, city governments are pretty powerful,” says Dr David Smith, academic director of the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.

“They can regulate all kinds of things – make their own laws around gun control, have fairly extensive welfare systems, and choose the degree to which they co-operate with the federal government on things like immigration. And they can make their own environmental laws.

“And almost every major city in the United States – that’s everything from New York to Dallas – is controlled by the Democratic Party.”

The data shows that, worldwide, about 70 per cent of greenhouse emissions emanate from cities. The US system devolves a similar proportion of the responsibility for reining in those emissions to cities and states.

The issue of climate change was a sharply partisan one long before Trump, of course, but the president made it all the more so by the way he framed the argument in his speech rejecting the Paris accord.

As Smith notes, the speech not only set out to appeal to climate sceptics but also to American nationalists.

“If you look at Trump’s speech, it was not just about attitudes towards the environment … but about the relationship of the US with the world. About US sovereignty,” Smith says.

“He was again using the language of ‘other countries taking advantage of America’, and suggesting the thing was a plot to weaken the United States.”

In fact, the climate agreement represents no threat to any nation’s sovereignty. It involves no externally imposed regulation but is, as Smith puts it, “essentially an agreed set of aspirations”.

No doubt, he says, the combination of hyper-nationalism and climate scepticism would appeal to Trump’s conservative base, but it has also inflamed those on the other side of the debate.

Democrats and liberals are not only strongly supportive of action on climate change, they are “ever more willing to see themselves as part of the international community, especially as they become increasingly embarrassed by Trump as president”.

As Smith puts it: “They look abroad for inspiration, and they want to tell the world, ‘This is not the whole of the United States.’ ”

As a result, the issue of climate change will become one of the big litmus tests of US politics during the next few years, up there with healthcare and immigration.

“If you want to be elected as a Democrat in a liberal place, you will have to be committed on this issue,” Smith says. “Politicians will increasingly look for votes in this area.” 

The indication is they will find those votes and find them in large numbers. The views of Americans on climate are changing fast.

According to a national Gallup poll published in March, a record 45 per cent of Americans now worry “a great deal” about global warming, up from 37 per cent only a year ago. Another 21 per cent said they worried “a fair amount”. 

Record numbers also believed that climate change was due to human activity (68 per cent), that it already was having an effect (62 per cent), and that it presented a serious “threat to their way of life” (42 per cent).

The sudden increase in concern about the climate, which is also evident in other recent polls, is significant. The US has tended to lag well behind most other developed countries in public concern about global warming.

To understand why this was the case, and why it might now be rapidly changing, we need to go briefly into the realm of psychology.

A few years back a team of researchers at Yale University, led by law professor Dan Kahan, conducted an experiment into the relevance of facts to political debate.

They assembled 1000 volunteers, surveyed their political views, then set them some exercises in mathematics. There is nothing subjective about maths. You either get the answer right or wrong.

They got the participants to do some moderately complicated analysis of data, relating to various made-up studies.

The results were fascinating. When the analytical task related to a neutral subject – whether the given data proved a new skin cream was effective or not in curing a skin rash – people got the answer right or wrong depending on their mathematical ability. Their political ideology made no difference.

But when the data related to a political subject – whether banning handguns was effective as a means of reducing crime rates – the analytical capacities of the participants declined dramatically. Progressive, anti-gun people tended to get the answer right when given data that supported their view. But when given another set of data that showed gun control was ineffective, they got it wrong. The same was true in reverse for conservative, pro-gun participants.

Being better at maths did not make people any less likely to come up with a partisan answer. Quite the reverse. Participants with low maths skills were 25 points more likely to get the answer right when it supported their ideology. Participants with high maths skills were 45 per cent more likely to get it right when it supported their view.

Kahan has subsequently done other work on other politically contentious areas, including climate change, demonstrating that people’s attitudes are less a function of what they know in a mathematical or scientific sense than who they are in a broader social sense.

He calls his theory Identity-Protective Cognition, arguing that “in order to avoid dissonance and estrangement from valued groups, individuals subconsciously resist factual information that threatens their defining values”.

It explains a lot. Like how it can be that highly educated, middle-class American men are among those most likely to oppose climate action. It is not that they are ignorant of the science; it’s that they choose not to accept it because it does not fit with their broader view of who they are.

So, how does this relate to the sharp increase in the number of people recently concerned about global warming?

Expressed in terms of Kahan’s theory, a large group of Americans no longer sees scepticism about climate change as an element of their “defining values”. Something has moved them to question their beliefs and become more receptive to the facts.

And why might that be? In two words: Donald Trump.

The upward track of that Gallup poll paralleled Trump’s political rise, and the pollsters recorded “anxiety about President Donald Trump’s environmental stance” as a likely factor driving that shift.

Bolstering that analysis is the way the numbers break down according to people’s politics. Among members of the Republican base, the number who worry “a great deal” about climate change has barely moved, and stands at 18 per cent. Among Democrats, it has gone up about 10 points, to 66 per cent. But among registered independents, it has zoomed up from about 29 per cent two years ago to 45 per cent in March this year.

The scientific reality hasn’t changed in that time. What has changed is that, with Trump, the case against climate action is being led by someone seen as a bully and a liar.

To borrow from Groucho Marx, they don’t want to be part of a club that would have Trump as a member.

We have yet to see any polling on whether Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement will further elevate popular concern about climate change, but it is a fair bet it will. Ahead of the decision, almost 90 per cent of Democrats and more than 60 per cent of independent voters wanted America to stay in.

What we have seen polling on is Trump’s popularity, and Gallup’s daily tracking poll, which showed a small increase in his approval rating when he was out of the country for a week, reversed when he came back and made his Paris Agreement announcement. His disapproval rating went back to 57 per cent, and his approval rating back to 37. He remains the most unpopular president in the history of polling.

Now, let’s expand our focus to the world beyond the US.

We have already noted French President Macron’s meeting with Michael Bloomberg to assert their joint defiance of Trump. Perhaps even more significant, though, was another meeting Macron had last Saturday, with the prime minister of India, Narendra Modi.

Top of the agenda was closer co-operation on renewable energy. Macron announced he would travel to India later this year for an international summit on solar power.

A few days earlier, Modi had met with the German chancellor, Angela Merkel. Again, climate change was on the agenda. Afterwards, a joint statement was issued, emphasising “an overarching alliance between India and Germany with the objective to give recognition to ongoing collaboration of various stakeholders on energy and climate change as well as to enhance co-operation and synergies in these fields”.

The Chinese premier, Li Keqiang, also was doing the rounds. He met Merkel, as well as heads of the European Union. Climate change was again a focus and again there came statements afterwards that served to emphasise the isolation of the US.

This one, for example: “The EU and China consider the Paris Agreement as an historic achievement … The EU and China underline their highest political commitment to the effective implementation of the Paris Agreement in all its aspects.”

You get the picture. Just as other political leaders inside the US have moved to fill the space vacated by the Trump administration, world leaders have reactively moved to strengthen their co-operation.

They’ve done so because it’s popular with their people, but also because it is the economically sensible thing to do, says Tim Buckley, director of energy finance studies at the Institute of Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.

India has moved to being a world leader on renewables in the past few years. New wind and solar power are now cheaper sources of electricity there than fossil-fuel generation.

“The latest solar auctions in India were down at 2.44 rupees per kilowatt hour, compared with the average domestic thermal price last year of 3.2,” Buckley says.

“The Indians now talk about doing their ‘unfair share’ of global greenhouse reduction, because it’s in their economic interest to do so.

“And China is stepping up to become the biggest outward-bound generator of investment flows into renewables and energy efficiency around the world.

“They see an opportunity for global dominance in industries of the future like batteries, electric vehicles, wind, solar, hydro, rare earths.”

A lot of smart policy analysts in the US see it the same way.

On the day Trump made his announcement, Foreign Policy magazine featured a comment piece from 18 members of the Obama administration’s brains trust on international relations, declaring it a “disaster” for the nation.

Abrogating the climate agreement, they argued, weakened America’s influence not just in response to global warming but also in general.

“As a chief architect and moral leader of the post-World War II order, our own behaviour with respect to agreements and international law sets the example. If the most powerful country in the world has suddenly decided that signing and living up to an agreement no longer matters, why should it matter to other states?” they said.

By abdicating US leadership, they said, Trump had invited others – China in particular – to fill the void.

Roger Cohen despaired in a column in The New York Times about “the end of the American century in 2017, one hundred years after the Bolshevik Revolution”.

Cohen was referring not just to the withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, but to Trump’s broader antagonism towards traditional allies. “A boorish clown named Donald Trump brought down the curtain,” he wrote.

Trump’s climate change decision is the strongest example of this ending of prominence. America is now one of just three countries, the others being Nicaragua and Syria, not committed to action.

So, yes: Trump’s announcement last week is a disaster for America. But it might yet prove to be a great thing for the climate, if other leaders act in accord with their recent Trump-defying rhetoric and deepen their commitment to co-operative action. The American century may well be over, but it has not taken consensus on climate action with it. Quite the opposite, in fact.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 10, 2017 as "Trump’s own goal on climate action".

For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.

All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.

There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

Use your Google account to create your subscription