President Trump Dumps Paris Climate Agreement

Leadership on climate change, EVs, and energy innovation? Don't look to Washington.

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When President Donald Trump went abroad, a tag team of global-minded leaders—including Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron—tried to wrestle Trump into honoring America's commitment to the Paris Agreement on climate change.

Today, Trump said “nein” and “non” to all that, only in the braying, me-first tone of a classic Ugly American. He vowed that the United States, the world's second-largest polluter, would withdraw from the Paris accords, designed to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and slow the catastrophic advance of climate change and rising temperatures around the globe.

Trump invoked a familiar, fearful specter, arguing that moving forward on clean energy would hamstring the American economy and destroy up to 2.7 million jobs. With shout-outs to Detroit and Pittsburgh, he said that working people would see a boom in manufacturing jobs after giving Paris the shaft. Trump, once again, seems to have missed the automotive memo that industry sales have peaked and Ford intends to shed 10 percent of its salaried workforce, perhaps 10,000 jobs in America.

Trump added that the U.S. will immediately stop contributing to the Green Climate Fund. He sounded a bit like Dr. Evil when he paused, dramatically, to cite the mountain of money we’ve already handed to these ostensible environmental thieves: “One…billion…dollars.”

Countries that back the Agreement, Trump claimed—including China and India—are merely looking to sabotage American competitiveness, redistribute our wealth and give themselves an edge.

“It’s not going to happen while I’m president,” Trump vowed, calling the Accord “a bad deal for America.”

Trump’s premature withdrawal, of course, is spectacularly misguided, a craven abdication of America's role as leader of the free world.  It’s a victory parade for scientific and economic ignorance, for ceding the tech jobs of the future—in green cars and energy industries—to overseas competitors. It’s an argument for burying America’s head so deep in the sand that it pops out in China, to name one of 194 countries that is sticking with the Paris deal.

As with Trump’s bid to gut 2025 EPA emissions rules, it’s all based on the notion that people who want clean air and a livable planet are actually out to destroy our economy. Energy and environmental experts see it differently. To them, clean cars and energy can spark another industrial revolution, no less than the Internet spawned America’s world-beating tech giants—Microsoft, Apple, Google, Facebook—and transformed global business and the way we live.

As executive director of the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), Drew Kodjak was instrumental in uncovering the Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal, which resulted in a $14.7 billion legal judgment against VW. He’s spent more than a decade helping companies around the world set standards and boost the emissions performance of motor vehicles.

“What I’ve seen, over and over, is that motor vehicle regulations are some of the best ways that countries encourage their domestic industries to be more internationally competitive,” Kodjak says. “It’s what China is doing, and Brazil.”

That link between ambitious standards and competitiveness was driven home at an ICCT workshop in Washington, D.C. last week. Speakers included a representative of Corning, the company that invented the cellular ceramic substrates that are standard in automobile catalytic converters.  That pioneering work, Kodjak says—driven by the original Clean Air Act—has helped Corning dominate the catalytic converter market, including roughly 50 percent market shares in China and Europe.

“Stalling out policies in the U.S., when there’s a race for the future of transportation, both for electric cars and the most efficient internal combustion vehicles, is just contrary to where international trends are going,” he says.

Daniel Gatti, a policy analyst in the Clean Vehicles Program  at the Union of Concerned Scientists, doesn't foresee an immediate policy impact of withdrawing from the non-binding Paris Agreement, in part because it may take years to unwind, Brexit-style. Gatti also expects American automakers to stay the course and develop more-efficient cars and EVs, since they must design for Europe and other global markets that have no intention of rejecting the Paris deal. Ford and General Motors quickly released statements affirming the reality of climate change, and their commitment to building cars that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. As he'd promised, Tesla's Elon Musk resigned from a pair of business councils created by Trump. 

"Climate change is real. Leaving Paris is not good for America or the world," Musk tweeted. 

Even Rex Tillerson, the Secretary of State and former Exxon Mobil chief executive, had strongly opposed walking away from the climate-change accords; as did Gary Cohn, the former investment banker and Trump's chief economic advisor. In an impressive feat of corporate fence-straddling, GM CEO Mary Barra released a statement affirming her continued role on the president's Strategy and Policy Forum, giving GM "an important seat at the table to contribute to a constructive dialogue about key policy issues." 

Gatti sees the move as of a piece with Trump’s other climate-change machinations, all easily filed under “denial.” That includes the 2025 EPA rules, now under assault, that would nearly double the fuel economy of the average new car to around 52 mpg. Trump and his EPA hatchet man, Scott Pruitt, may yet attempt to deny California and other states the right to set their own air-quality and emissions standards.

“As the federal government abdicates environmental responsibility, it puts more pressure on states to step up,” Gatti says.

Equally worrisome to Gatti, “Trump can still do a fair amount of damage to the burgeoning market for electric vehicles," and undo its current momentum, which includes Ford’s $4.5 billion investment in electrification to Tesla’s upcoming Model 3. 

Gatti also rejects the argument that tougher pollution rules will cause jobs to wither. He cites a report by the BlueGreen Alliance, a coalition of environmental and labor groups, that the stricter EPA standards would create 570,000 new jobs by 2030. That includes 50,000 jobs in light-vehicle and parts manufacturing, and a a $75 billion rise in Gross Domestic Product.

“There are direct jobs from manufacturing batteries and new-vehicle technologies, great jobs in engineering and tech,” Gatti said. “Undermining vehicle standards also increases our dependence on oil, and that’s consistently a big negative in terms of jobs. And for all Trump’s talk about trade deficits, a lot of our deficit involves our consumption of oil.”

For decades, the effort to stem America's thirst for oil and break the Middle East’s economic and political stranglehold seemed like a pipe dream, or maybe a pipeline dream. Now, more-efficient cars and heavy-duty vehicles –- and, yes, the energy revolution of natural-gas fracking -- is making it a reality. American and global gasoline consumption is falling for the first time in a century, putting relentless downward pressure on oil prices.

Speaking of the Middle East, Trump’s move rejects the civilized company of Paris signatories such as France, Germany, and England. Instead, America joins a two-member Club of Shame with Syria. That Middle East dictatorship is the only nation that refused to sign onto Paris deal, alone among 194 global signatories. OK, Nicaragua failed to sign. But that was largely because it felt the agreement wasn’t tough enough to mitigate climate change. 

The Trump administration doesn’t see it that way. For decades, the world has looked to America for political courage and leadership that can better the lives of all global citizens, through shared democratic ideals. That's been our shtik, right?  But the message the world heard from Washington today is that global warming is a global fiction. Naked, brutal self-interest took the place of selflessness and shared sacrifice; an insistence that we’ll get ours, and screw everyone else. As he touted America's massive reserves of fossil fuels, Trump virtually declared our intent to burn oil until the very last drop, and again insulted and impugned our allies -- perhaps soon-to-be-former-allies -- that suggest there’s a better way. 

French President Macron offered perhaps the most stinging rebuke: "Make our planet great again," he wrote, paraphrasing Trump's own slogan in a way that makes clear that Europe is on to the con, an American president who seems to revel in tearing up carefully wrought diplomacy and reneging on past agreements; and who seems intent on smashing President Obama's legacies and a NATO alliance that took decades and millions of lost lives to build, just because he can.  

Trump and his retrograde, fossil-funded crew say it’s about putting America first, and American competitiveness. But as even Barack Obama was spurred to say, America's economic rivals will be the ones seizing competitive advantage, stealing jobs and building new industries as America fiddles and the world burns. Germany just set another record, now obtaining 85 percent of its electricity from renewable sources. They’re not talking smack about lost jobs, and they’re not whining about China. They’re just moving forward.

The good news? A mutiny is already afoot. The New York Times reported that an unnamed group led by Michael Bloomberg -- already including three governors, 30 mayors and more than 100 businesses and 80 universities -- is in talks with the United Nations to submit its own climate-change plan that might rank alongside those of nations signed to the Paris deal. California isn’t about to walk away from its ambitious carbon-dioxide and renewable energy targets, or return to the the days of choking smog. Automakers know they won't be selling coal-powered cars anytime soon, whether in West Virginia or Western Europe. It's still a global economy; a blue, beautiful, interconnected ball that's too big for one spoiled, vengeful child to wreck.