Political Gabfest

The America First Argument for a Global Climate Pact

Read what the Political Gabfest had to say about Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement.

This is a transcript from the June 1 edition of the Political Gabfest. Slate Plus transcripts are lightly edited and may contain errors. For the definitive record, consult the podcast.

David Plotz: This afternoon, President Trump will announce whether or not the United States is going to stay in the Paris Climate Accord. Does it matter whether or not we end up leaving, given that the Trump administration’s clearly not going to pursue any policies that will reduce our emissions?

Emily Bazelon: Yes, it matters.

Symbolic gestures and moves matter. It will embarrass the United States of America, basically in front of the entire world. It will confirm the doubts and fears that a lot of non-Americans already have about our president.

Also, under the Obama administration, the United States was really key in pushing for oversight and review mechanisms so that we’d know if the countries are actually living up to their commitments. Without us, it is possible that will weaken. It’s also possible other countries will pull out.

Plotz: If in fact the Trump administration has no intention of abiding by the limits that the accord recommend to us, if in fact they have made it clear they have no respect for it, isn’t it like allowing a scofflaw? Why would the other countries want us in there if we are not going to respect it?

Doesn’t that undermine the treaty more effectively than us at least straightforwardly withdrawing from it and saying, “We’re leaving.”

Bazelon: I think that’s totally possible, because if we withdraw and leave, then other countries—China, Europe—will jump in and readily seize the mantle of leadership. It will be our loss and their gain. Maybe that is better.

The other alternative, though, if we stay in, is it’s possible that some of these rollbacks and the coal industry fantasy will not have staying power. Look, time isn’t going to stand still. Climate change is going to march on, and our economy, like every economy, is going to have to adjust. There’s some benefit to being part of the group, right, and the way in which the peer pressure of other nations might have an effect on us, too.

But yes, there is an argument that if we were going to be a terrible scofflaw, sitting there smirking in the corner as our carbon emissions roll up and up and up, that it’s better to just have us gone.

John Dickerson: This is another symbolic way in which the United States is not connected to other nations. It’s just another big, symbolic, America First moment. Separate and apart from what this does to the deal, it sends a signal to all other countries that America’s looking out for itself, going its own way, not held back by agreements, alliances, and norms.

And that tends to make other countries adventuresome in the way they protect themselves, in the alliances they make, in the decisions they make, knowing that America is not going to step in and stop them from doing it. It’s a version of what people used to say about President Obama, which is when America doesn’t lead, other countries do what they want. This is just a different formation of that.

Plotz: That’s a great point, John.

Some are emphasizing that China needs to reduce pollution because it makes life miserable for people in cities. What’s weird is that our own self-interest is also served by staying in this treaty. We’re in a good position to build really strong alternative-energy businesses. We’re in a good position to wean ourselves from the most egregious forms of pollution. The United States will be economically better off. All these people who work in alternative energy—there are many, many more of them than work in coal—will have better jobs. The country will have cleaner power, and more of it. It’s bizarre to nod to this small number of people who work in the coal industry.

Bazelon: No, it’s also Republican donors.

There are winners and losers in this. The people who don’t want the economy to shift in the way you’re talking about are people in industries that will be severely dislocated. There is a sadness and sorrow to that because it affects real people.

But the aggregate, in the end, if you really look at the whole picture, is exactly what you’re saying, right? For sure, we are letting a very entrenched power in the fossil fuel industry, and the people who work for them, be the tail that wags the dog for the whole country. It’s going to be self-destructive economically, and also in terms of American authority abroad.

Plotz: What I don’t understand, Emily, is why… I think there’s a really strong America First argument to be made to stay in this. “Let’s be the best solar country,” and “Let’s be the best wind, make the best turbines.”

Bazelon: Much of corporate America is behind that argument. There’s a huge ad in a bunch of newspapers, including the New York Times today, from major corporations begging the president to stay in. There was a really interesting move this week where Exxon Mobil shareholders like Black Rock and Vanguard voted against Exxon management to tell Exxon they have to start, basically, coming clean about the effects of climate change on their industry. I should say that my cousin Steve Mufson wrote about that for the Washington Post, that is how I know about it.

There is all this adjusting that’s going to go on. The United States of America can have its head in the sand and deny for as long as it wants, and that will just mean that it falls farther and farther behind in leading the way out of this.

Plotz: John, why isn’t there a stronger Republican move to say, “Yeah, this is a chance for us to grow a new technology industry, for us to grow a new strong energy industry?” Why is it so attached to the coal, and to lesser extent, the oil industry?

Dickerson: That case has been made to the president, that the United States will be at a competitive disadvantage if it withdraws. The corporations or the investors that would make that case—including the 280 different investors representing about 17 trillion dollars worth of assets who wrote a letter saying that climate change has to be —that part of the party doesn’t have the same sway as those other interests that you mentioned. They’re split in the business community. And public opinion among those most likely to participate, and therefore penalize Republican candidates, is strongly anti–climate change, strongly anti-elitist, telling us what to do, policies. You would pay a big penalty politically by supporting these policies.

One other element of this story is that Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state, has been arguing for staying in, and so you see a nice clash between the promises the president made on the campaign trail and that he made as recently as his last rally in Harrisburg, where he was not saying what he was going to do but it was pretty clear from the rhetoric and the response from the crowd that this globalist agreement was not the kind of thing anybody believing in America First would be a part of. It’s a push between the experts the president’s put around him and his base.

One thing I tried to ask Secretary Mattis about, but he sort of answered a different question, was that it used to be the position of the Pentagon that climate change was a serious security threat because of the effect it has on destabilizing developing nations. It just creates more chaos and madness in the world. I don’t know what the actual Pentagon policy is on that now, Secretary Mattis instead just talked about the president’s position. I guess my point is that if you think of the people who have sway and who represent more traditional thinking in the administration, Mattis and Tillerson would be two of them.

Plotz: One of the arguments made for withdrawing is that the world doesn’t want us to withdraw from Paris. The fact that, the very fact that so many countries are desperate for us to stay in is taking into argument that we should get out because, clearly if these countries want us to stay in, America’s getting screwed by this deal, right? If it advantages all these other countries for us to stay in, then it must be a bad deal for us, which is so insane.

Bazelon: Right. The other thing I keep thinking about is: so “America First” is the slogan because of its history, which is already noxious to me, but it’s really turning into “America Alone.” It’s just kind of telling other countries to go fuck themselves, with the occasional, like, reach out to some particular country. It’s like the mean girl who just picks one person to coddle at a time but is obnoxious to everyone else.

Dickerson: America has never been closer to the Philippines, to Egypt, to Saudi Arabia.

Bazelon: That’s what I mean! Like, once in a while we pat China on the head, but meanwhile we’re telling Germany—

Dickerson: I don’t agree. Between Saudi Arabia, UAE, all those nations that were there in his first visit—China, Egypt—probably there are more human beings in the countries that President Trump has shown, Turkey, excessive affection for, than the European countries that he hasn’t shown affection for.

Bazelon: But he’s not showing affection for the people who live there, it’s their autocratic, strongman leaders who he is palling around with. Let’s make a distinction there.

Dickerson: Fair enough.