Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris accord shows that he thinks climate change is trivial enough to be used for short-term political positioning
Listening to Trump’s speech announcing the US withdrawal from the Paris agreement on climate change, you get the 'through the looking glass' feeling we’re beginning to get used to from presidential pronouncements. Things in Trumpworld are not the same as in our reality. In Trumpworld, the US is not the world’s only superpower and the largest per capita emitter of greenhouse gases, but the impoverished victim of a “draconian” agreement cooked up by the wily Indians and Chinese. US jobs in manufacturing have not been lost as US corporations relocate production to more easily exploitable workforces, they have been stolen by foreign powers who are now coming for US natural resources. The US is already “the most environmentally-friendly country on Earth.”
Trump famously tweeted in 2012 that ‘the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive’. The US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, was at pains in the wake of the Paris announcement to stress that Trump “believes the climate is changing”, but there is little real sign that he has in fact changed his mind over the last five years. The Trump administration indeed sometimes shows the breathtaking ignorance on climate change-related issues that you might expect from old white blokes on Question Time, but not so much from the leaders of the free world. If you can bear it, check out Rick Santorum arguing that solar power is unreliable because sometimes it’s night.
If they were a little more informed, they might appreciate that embracing new technology can be a stimulus rather than a drag on the economy. Trump talked for some length about how many new coal-fired power stations the Indians and Chinese would be allowed to build under the Paris agreement, apparently ignorant of the fact that both countries are making decisive moves away from coal. India plans to get 60% of its electricity from renewables by 2027, while China has cornered the market in production of renewable generation technology. While Trump may genuinely think that renewables are just a con to trick Americans out of making money out of coal, presumably someone in the White House knows better. This is not just about ignorance, it’s also about how the Trump administration appeals to its base.
Trump in his election campaign positioned himself as the champion of the little guy ignored by the liberal, metropolitan elites, promising to restore manufacturing jobs, reduce unemployment and concentrate on Americans at home rather than adventures abroad. It often sounded like a return to the isolationist US of the 1930s, and the New Deal-esque overtones and the promises they implied were undoubtedly a factor in his victory. They were not promises that Trump had any intention of keeping. In fact, in foreign policy he is clearly following the national security strategy we were expecting to see from Hillary Clinton, of further disastrous military intervention in the Middle East. If as a politician you are going to renege on your election promises, however, if helps if you can give your electorate a sop to make them think that you haven’t forgotten them. For the Trump regime this, unfortunately for anyone who has to live on the warming planet, seems to be climate change.
Trump advisers were already signalling that climate change was ‘politically correct’ and a waste of Americans' money early in the presidential election campaign, and Trump followed this up with campaign promises to stop spending funds on climate change which could go to opening coal mines. His statement that he was elected to represent Pittsburgh rather than Paris continues this positioning of a leader taking up arms against liberals wherever they might be found. The fact that the US is the only functioning country prepared to admit that they don’t want to be bound by the Paris agreement is not an unfortunate consequence, but part of the point (three countries are not signed up to Paris - the US, Syria and Nicaragua - and Nicaragua refused to sign because they said, correctly, that the agreement is not strong enough and plan to get 90% of their electricity from renewables by 2020).
It is possible that Trump’s tough action on attempts to deal with climate change won’t go down as well as intended. The Mayor of Pittsburgh responded to Trump’s use of his city to justify pulling out of Paris with a commitment to follow through on carbon reduction, and pointed out that the city of Pittsburgh voted 80% for Clinton. The truth is that a real Green New Deal could create new decent jobs, as well as a functioning green-energy infrastructure, but nothing could be further from what Trump is actually proposing. Fewer and laxer environmental regulations, encouragement for companies to mine and frack without paying for the consequences, will create not jobs but continuing environmental disaster for the poor communities for whom Trump is pretending to be concerned.
Towards the end of his speech on withdrawing from Paris, Trump promised that the US would have the cleanest air and the cleanest water in the world. That would certainly come as a welcome change to communities like those in Pennsylvania left with flammable tap water because of fracking, towns in Texas and Kansas whose tap water became corrosive after chemical spills, or indeed the long-suffering residents of Flint, Michigan, whose tap water hasn’t been safe to drink since 2014. The Republicans, of course, care deeply for the plight of the majority black people of Flint. So much so that in February, the Republican governor signed an order to compel residents to start paying full bills for their still-undrinkable water.
Trump’s posturing on climate change shows not so much that he is a climate change denier, but that he thinks the issue is trivial enough to be used for short-term political positioning. He also clearly thinks that American working-class people are as ignorant about the issue as the average Trump administration spokesperson. On that, he may well be wrong.
Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and her latest book, Marx and the Climate Crisis is out now.
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