When President Trump announced his decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Agreement in June 2017, the political calculus looked good to the new chief executive. By leaving the landmark climate deal, Trump would fulfill a campaign promise, pleasing some of his supporters in the fossil fuel industry while angering mostly those unlikely to support him anyway.
But since then the politics have changed: climate change is now one of the most-discussed issues in the 2020 presidential race and the vast majority of Americans say they support measures to reduce emissions, including the Paris Agreement.
That hasn’t stopped Trump. On Monday, the Administration formally notified the United Nations that the U.S. will withdraw from the Paris Agreement, taking the step on the first day the U.S. became eligible to do so. It’s a move Democratic presidential contenders have already criticized, and that strategists say will help clearly delineate any eventual Democratic candidate from Trump. To make the withdrawal even more politically fraught, the decision will take effect the day after the 2020 presidential election.
While Trump’s policy agenda on climate hasn’t changed to meet the political moment, there are signs suggesting that his messaging has. He’s largely stopped making the brazenly inaccurate claim that climate change is a “hoax,” instead making a more nuanced but also spurious claim that climate policy would mean wrecking the economy.
In recent months, Trump and his surrogates have argued that the administration’s policies have actually helped reduce emissions. For example, in October, Trump cited fracked gas as key source of emissions reductions in a speech in Pittsburgh. In a address on the environment in July (the existence of which was itself an indicator of the administration’s growing worry about the political salience of the issue) Trump claimed the U.S. was a leader in reducing emissions, even bragging that the country is doing better than its counterparts. “Every single one of the signatories to the Paris climate accord lags behind America,” he said.
In reality, U.S. carbon dioxide emissions rose substantially last year after several years of declining. And, while the expansion of natural gas has reduced carbon emissions in recent years as it has replaced coal in the electricity mix, natural gas leaks have contributed to emissions of methane, another greenhouse gas. Moreover, many scientists say continued expansion of natural gas is inconsistent with the goals of the Paris Agreement.
In a statement Monday announcing the U.S. withdrawal, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the U.S. “has reduced all types of emissions” and claimed the Paris Agreement imposed an “unfair economic burden” on the U.S. This is the other side of Trump’s new climate messaging plan: he and his Administration argue that Democratic policies aligned with scientific consensus will destroy the economy.
In a telling interview on the podcast Climate 2020, John McLaughlin, one of Trump’s top pollsters, acknowledged that the “vast majority of Americans” know that climate change is happening, but said that they remain skeptical of the costs, hinting at how the Trump campaign might try to explain its inaction on the issue. Specifically talking about leaving the popular Paris deal, McLaughlin suggested that Trump needed to hammer home his talking points about jobs. “Voters are highly cynical,” he said. “They don’t want to lose their jobs over this and they don’t want to pay a lot of money.”
Asked about Trump’s messaging on climate, his campaign spokesperson Sarah Matthews bashed Democrats and proposals for a Green New Deal, and said that Trump “continues to advance realistic solutions to reduce emissions while unleashing American energy like never before.”
It almost goes without saying that there’s a big problem with this rhetoric: it does not accurately reflect the urgency of addressing climate change. A landmark report from the IPCC (the UN’s climate science body) warned last year that the world is on the brink of hitting 1.5°C of warming, which could bring a slew of catastrophic effects, including impoverishing millions and driving a mass migration crisis.
At best, Trump’s policies maintain the status quo. Any future fall in emissions will happen in spite of Trump’s policies—which have sought to restore the high-polluting coal industry, reduce fuel efficiency standards and open vast new swathes of land to oil and gas drilling.
Globally, the U.S.’s step back on the international stage has weakened the international institutions tasked with fighting climate change. The Paris Agreement enshrines keeping temperature rise by the end of the century “well below 2°C” as the goal for global efforts to tackle climate change. While countries agreed to that target, analysis shows that their policy commitments would likely lead to warming of 3°C, and even keeping it at that level is uncertain, especially with the loss of U.S. influence and engagement.
Moreover, the numerous crises created by Trump—including, significantly, the trade war—have distracted from the international cooperation necessary to tackle the issue. Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement only underscores that reality. “It’s a terrible sign to the world,” says Reed Schuler, who advised then-Secretary of State John Kerry on climate policy during the Obama Administration and now works for Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.
Trump’s climate message has never seemed particularly fleshed out. For the first few years of Trump’s presidency, as the administration tore up climate regulations left and right, reporters repeatedly tried to ask administration officials whether the president “believes” the science of climate change. White House aides generally avoided the question, clearly uncomfortable with the gap between reality and Trump’s personal views.
Still, Trump, unfazed by the science, made the occasional comment underscoring that he did not get it. “Whatever happened to Global Warming?” Trump asked on Twitter last year during a Thanksgiving cold spell just days before his administration released a significant report on climate change threatens the U.S. Despite what appears to be a much more calibrated messaging strategy these days, it seems possible—perhaps even likely—that Trump will deliver more of that.
Other countries have by and large tried to brush aside Trump’s retreat on climate in hopes that a new American president will reverse course and worried that too harsh a line against the U.S. might provoke a backlash elsewhere. But that may not hold if Trump ends up reelected to a second term, as the European Union readies a carbon tax for imports to punish inaction in other countries and China doubles down on building its clean energy economy. When that happens, Trump will finally have turned his argument that the Paris Agreement benefits other countries to the detriment of the U.S. into a reality.