The question now is whether President-Elect Donald Trump will govern less divisively than he campaigned.
On climate change, there’s every reason for deep concern. Candidate Trump said he wants to “cancel” the historic Paris Climate Agreement; his transition team features a fanatical climate denier and energy lobbyists, and the transition website quickly recycled verbatim a campaign speech pledging to scrap the Clean Power Plan and the entire Climate Action Plan.
Is there hope that Trump could take a fresh look before executing his climate campaign agenda? I would not put much faith in appeals over the fate of the earth. But there are two quite self-interested political reasons that members of his inner circle, seasoned hands he’s interviewing for top jobs, or cooler heads in Congress, might urge him to pause before pushing that button.
1) Being the world’s climate pariah will not be good for Trump’s broader foreign policy and economic agenda
Becoming the international climate pariah will have serious consequences for Trump’s ability to accomplish his other foreign policy goals. Trump wants to negotiate changes in trade agreements, currency rules, security arrangements, and more. He wants many things from many countries, and he needs their cooperation or forbearance on many fronts.
Abandoning the Paris Agreement will cost Trump dearly with other world leaders and their publics, and that will weaken his hand on all these other issues.
We know this because it happened to President George W. Bush in 2001. Bush abandoned the Kyoto Protocol in March 2001. His global standing plummeted, falling to historic low levels across Europe according to the Pew Research Center. Kyoto also contributed to his declining domestic approval and increasing political troubles through the first eight months of 2001, as shown in the Gallup poll.
It was only the shock of 9/11 that brought other countries back to Bush’s side. Another shock like that is not something anyone could wish for or count on.
The blowback if Trump abandons Paris will be much greater than for Kyoto. Unlike 16 years ago, nearly every nation has joined. Then, Bush could complain that China, unfairly, was not on board. Not this time. China is acting aggressively to curb its climate pollution, as an integral part of restructuring its economy and meeting domestic demands to cut pollution, as my colleague Barbara Finamore shows here.
Reuters reports: “Beijing is poised to cash in on the goodwill it could earn by taking on leadership in dealing with what for many other governments is one of the most urgent issues on their agenda.” A senior Chinese official observed: “China's influence and voice are likely to increase in global climate governance, which will then spill over into other areas of global governance and increase China's global standing, power and leadership.”
The U.S. and China compete for influence in Africa, for example. African nations are suffering from climate-driven droughts, desertification, and extreme weather, impacts that stress economies and fuel civil wars and terrorism. African leaders need the largest countries to curb their emissions, and they need help coping with climate impacts. If Trump abandons Paris, Africa will turn away from us and towards China. Reuters quotes an African climate negotiator: “China is surprising us daily. Whatever they've promised they're delivering.”
By leaving Paris, Trump will endanger African cooperation on terrorism, and jeopardize American companies’ access to the continent’s growing markets. The same story will play out in Asia, Latin America, and the Arab world as well.
One has to hope that someone in Trump’s foreign policy and defense circle—perhaps among the experienced hands he is said to be considering for top jobs—will urge him to pull back.
2) Being the world’s climate pariah will not be a winner at home either
The second reason to think twice is that climate denial and rolling back pollution protections are highly unpopular at home. A solid majority of the American people—including a big slice of Trump’s electorate—want action on climate and clean energy.
Unlike election polls, public opinion on this question is not even close. Gallup, for example, this year found public concern at an eight-year high, with nearly two-thirds of all Americans, including 40 percent of Republicans, concerned and convinced that carbon pollution is driving record global temperatures. In poll after poll after poll, between 60 and 70 percent of Americans support the Clean Power Plan. That includes 61 percent of people living in the 26 states suing against it!
To be sure, people are hurting in coal country. Trump can’t bring the coal industry back by trashing climate safeguards. The marketplace has already moved on. But starting with his infrastructure package, he could really help rural America with investments in clean energy and other high-tech industries that have a bright future.
There are history lessons to learn here too. Ronald Reagan’s assault on our air and water pollution laws and public lands protections backfired big time. Republicans and Democrats both balked—this isn’t what we voted for. Reagan’s political support took a big hit, and he had to can Interior Secretary James Watt and EPA Administrator Anne Gorsuch in a couple of years.
The same thing happened to Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America. The American people smelled overreach, and he had to back off.
And it happened again to George W. Bush. Rolling back our air and water protections isn’t something he could do on day one. It took long, drawn-out rulemakings, during which public opposition grew and grew. And many of his efforts were rejected by our courts. The Supreme Court, for example, ruled in the landmark climate case, Massachusetts v. EPA, that EPA has the authority and responsibility to act under the Clean Air Act.
There’s legal and political peril, for Trump and for the Republicans in Congress, in fighting this battle one more time. Especially for a new President entering office without reserves of popularity or good will.
One hopes there’s someone in his inner circle and new appointees with the courage and pragmatism to tell Trump this history. He has the opportunity to govern differently than he campaigned. He still has a chance to take a fresh look at climate.
It actually would not be that fresh a look. In 2009, Trump and three of his children signed an open letter to President Obama and Congress, published in the New York Times, supporting a global climate treaty and U.S. climate legislation: “If we fail to act now, it is scientifically irrefutable that there will be catastrophic and irreversible consequences for humanity and our planet.”
Let’s hope President-Elect Trump takes one more look, from his own global and domestic political self-interest if not more, before plunging ahead.