Trump was never going to support the Paris climate agreement because a collective-action problem is one of the concepts he is unable to grasp. Paris is built around ameliorating a problem affecting the entire world. Trump only understands zero-sum logic. His speech announcing his decision to exit the agreement fell back on the nationalistic rhetoric of denouncing foreign plunder.
The deal is “a massive redistribution of wealth from the U.S. to other countries,” he insisted. China “can do whatever they want for 13 years,” he insisted. The agreement “doesn’t eliminate coal jobs, it ships them out of the country,” to developing countries, which will get an “economic edge” over America.
Trump’s description of the agreement is so wildly at odds with reality that one must begin by reestablishing some basic foundation of reality. The first attempt to create a transnational climate agreement, the Kyoto Accord, applied exclusively to industrialized countries, on the grounds that they accounted for most of the carbon dioxide emissions. Eventually, this approach proved unrealistic, in part because the rapid industrialization of developing countries — especially China, with India following along — meant that developing countries must be brought in. The industrialized world has to rapidly decarbonize, and emerging economies have to create greener paths to industrialization.
So any agreement to limit climate change has to be international. And any agreement by necessity is going to treat developing countries differently than developed countries. The United States emits several times more carbon dioxide per capita than India or China, and enjoys a dramatically higher standard of living.
It was never realistic to expect an agreement that would persuade those countries to reduce their carbon intensity from current levels, given that those levels are so much lower. Indeed, for many years this has been the conservative argument against doing anything about climate change. Getting developing countries to reduce emissions would “keep the poor in the dark,” consigning the starving masses of Asia and Africa to grinding poverty. (Conservatives care oh so much about Third World Poverty, as everybody knows.) Paris had to fail because it was too harsh on China and India.
These predictions have been nullified. They failed because they all denied the possibility of technological progress, instead assuming coal would remain the only affordable electricity source. Instead, green energy sources have actually grown competitive with fossil fuels. In places like India, solar is now considerably cheaper than coal.
Trump has reversed the only objection to Paris. It is no longer too harsh on India and China. Now it is too lax, allowing them to luxuriate in endless supplies of beautiful coal while our own people are denied the bounties of this wondrous fuel:
China will be allowed to build hundreds of additional coal plants. So, we can’t build the plants, but they can, according to this agreement. India will be allowed to double its coal production by 2020. Think of it. India can double their coal production.
China is canceling plans to build new coal plants, and its coal use has already begun to decline. Trump’s assertion that Paris does not impose any commitments upon China until 2030 is likewise false; the country has pledged a massive buildup of zero-emission energy and is following through. India is doing the same thing, and its coal industry is in free fall, in part because running existing coal plants there costs more money than building new solar ones. Meanwhile, coal plants have shut down in the United States not because of the Paris agreement but because other energy sources, especially but not exclusively natural gas, cost less to produce.
To call Trump’s speech a pack of lies is to grant him the probably undeserved compliment of assuming he knows better. The entire case was false — the facts, the logic, the understanding of what the agreement he opposes is even attempting to do.