Yes, Trump has announced that he will formally pull the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement. With 136 days in office it has become abundantly clear that this kind of earth-shattering news is Trump’s par for the course. Since Day One of his presidency there has been speculation about how long Trump can last in office. But with or without Trump, there is a much more troubling phenomenon beneath the surface that the president merely represents (albeit with a rich set of special, personal touches).
The U.S. is a country in crisis over its foundational values—so lost within that it is no position to lead outside its borders.
Consider Greg Gianforte, a GOP candidate in Montana’s congressional race who body slammed a reporter for asking an inconvenient question right before an election. He was charged with a misdemeanor, and still won the election. Trump tweeted congratulations.
The security community uncovered Russian interference in U.S. elections and revealed its influence on the final outcome. Russia—a country that in the U.S. occupies an almost mystical place of evil—and the reaction was just a dip in the new president’s popularity rating, and life moved on for Trump.
As a candidate, Trump boasted that he could shoot people up and down Fifth Avenue and he would still not lose voters. He was right. These are signals of a broken structure, of a crisis in the foundational values that forge a nation.
So the decision to exit the Paris Agreement by someone who represents those who deny climate change and who call it a hoax—a Chinese conspiracy to extract commercial advantages—shouldn’t be a shocker. For many of the other countries that have been studying the Trump administration for the same 136 days as the rest of us, the decision was not a surprise either. Dismaying, yes, but not unexpected.
Other countries had already started to adjust—showing the declining importance of U.S. leadership.
In the past several years, China has emerged as a renewable energy leader. The Paris Agreement and Trump’s defection have extended Chinese authority. After Trump’s decision, China reaffirmed its commitment to the Agreement and climate action. The European Union responded in the same way. The German Environment Minister pointedly responded to the U.S. policy shift saying that Trump could not stop the world from protecting the environment. The Guardian reported that the EU and China will step into the vacuum left by the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement and accelerate emission reduction targets. India, which has an extraordinary need to acquire energy from any source available, continues to transition away from its coal dependency. Over the last decade, it has dramatically expanded its renewable energy capacity. And it is not just countries adjusting to a new world order without the U.S.
Even within the U.S., at the regional, state, and municipal levels, action on climate is happening. Take California, for example. The governor’s office has a list of over 1,000 counties, cities and town initiatives addressing climate change across the state.
Action on climate is also now well beyond governments’ jurisdiction. Wired magazine reported the big tech giants Facebook, Google and Apple Park are already running their operations mostly on clean technology. General Electric and Walmart are moving forward with plans for increasing energy efficiencies and transitioning to renewables. They are doing it because it’s getting cheaper and because its burnishes their brand among consumers.
Universities in the U.S. are also on the front lines of climate action. This map highlights the more than 600 colleges and universities in every state that are already taking action. They are training students how to deal with climate change by reducing pollution and increasing resilience.
The U.S. government does not lead the world. In leaving this Agreement, it joins the loners club. Syria and Nicaragua are the only two countries in the world outside this pact (and Nicaragua decided not to sign the Agreement only because it did not go far enough in addressing climate change—though the Ortega government has hardly been a paragon of international liberal values in other aspects, including women’s rights.).
So the question every person who values breathing clean air, drinking unpolluted water, eating uncontaminated foods, maintaining their health, and passing on a planet that can sustain a life of abundance to their children is: What will you and your neighbors do to get these things for yourselves now that the biggest (and, likely, most obnoxious) player has left the room in need of therapy?
In international relations, there is a school of thought that proposes the world is most stable when one single, strong state emerges as the dominant power to lead all others in global affairs—hegemonic stability theory. It is a role the U.S. has filled and has coveted since the end of the Cold War. But U.S. hegemony has been in decline for some time. Trump and the GOP have put it into a death spiral
This will not be the last move to undermine global environmental governance from the United States. The rest of the world needs to continue to adjust to dealing with a still large and still influential—but fundamentally unhinged and rudderless nation that Trump—if nothing else—has come to embody and catalyze. Fortunately, the rest of the world and much of the U.S. is moving on. U.S. leadership in the world, and all the benefits that brings with it, is the loser.