One terrible game to play during this presidency is to assess the actual cost of the damage Donald Trump will have wrought by the time he’s done being president. How many people will lose their health insurance? How many Americans will be blocked from voting? How many hate crimes will we endure?
The president’s failure to acknowledge or address climate change ranks high in the catastrophic-Trump-decisions Olympics. Failure to act—or worse, acting to exacerbate—climate change could have lasting implications for the entire planet. It’s true that the train may be out of the station when it comes to avoiding climate change altogether, but we can still attempt to mitigate and alleviate the worst of the effects. In that context, Trump’s almost-guaranteed decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement, the most promising global initiative addressing climate change, seems like a big deal.
And it is, but not because his decision to withdraw will catapult us toward assured and quick global demise. In fact, in recent weeks, many people have started to realize that Trump pulling out of the Paris Agreement is perhaps the best thing that could happen for the future of the agreement and, by side effect, the planet. After all, the accord is largely a voluntary gentleman’s agreement. Trump has exhibited absolutely no gentlemanly interest in keeping the light promises America has made under the agreement, regardless of whether we pull out. He’s already rolled back the policies that would ensure we might make our commitment to Paris, so effectively, he’s stepped out of the accord before officially doing so. It is much better if we, as a nation, are honest about our fickle lack of commitment to these norms than if we stay in and drag down the entire process.
At the Atlantic, Robinson Meyer spoke with a number of experts who believe Trump’s decision might actually have a positive effect on the future of climate negotiations, freeing world leaders to pull together a stronger agreement that forces greater action. At the New York Times, Brad Plumer’s survey of experts came to a similar conclusion—for instance, Australian climate scientist Luke Kemp told Plumer, “I worry that letting the United States just stay in the agreement and do whatever it wants could show how weak Paris is. It sends the message that the agreement is more about symbolism than action.”
The U.S. is failing at both symbolism and action. We are the only country led by someone who does not think climate change poses a real threat, and our problems go beyond the president. Our Republican-led Congress prevented the Paris Agreement from asking countries to make stronger initial pledges in the first place: World leaders knew the American Republicans would never ratify a binding agreement, so they settled for the softer one. More recently, 22 Republicans in Congress have written a letter to Trump imploring him to withdraw even from that. Attorneys general from 10 Republican-led states have done the same. We were never going to lead the way on climate change, even under Obama, because we are held hostage by a GOP that refuses to acknowledge the reality of the threat.
And so America’s decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement is simply an honest reflection of where we stand, where we have stood for many years in this fight: We are not the leaders. We are the problem.
It didn’t have to be this way. We were the first country to develop solar technology, largely understood to be a major solution to our current greenhouse gas emissions quandary. Yet in the past several decades we have ceded that crown to China without putting up much of a fight. As Trump fights to restore the dying coal industry for no logical reason other than nostalgia, China has become the top manufacturer of solar panels. And even if you get past the fact that this is because many politicians still think climate science is negotiable, it’s still an economic and innovation loss that will hurt America’s interests in the long run.
Over the years, the use of solar energy at the White House has become a sort of mood ring that can be read as an indication of the current occupant’s environmental opinions. Former President Jimmy Carter was the first president to put a solar-based energy system to use within the White House, an action he saw as a symbolic step toward America’s future as an energy leader. In his 1979 speech dedicating the solar-based water heating system that would heat the water used in the White House kitchens, he said:
A generation from now, this solar heater can either be a curiosity, a museum piece, an example of a road not taken or it can be just a small part of one of the greatest and most exciting adventures ever undertaken by the American people.
Ultimately, Carter’s fears were borne out. Two years into Ronald Reagan’s presidency, the White House roof was resurfaced, and the solar heating system wasn’t reinstalled. On Reagan’s watch, federal research dollars for renewable energy also dropped from $718.5 million in Carter’s last year to $110.8 million per year. Some of the White House panels wound up in museums: one in the Smithsonian, another in the Carter library, some at a Maine university. In 2010, one went to the Solar Science and Technology Museum—in Dezhou, China. At that time, China was producing 80 percent of all such solar water heaters. (In an equally apt piece of museum symbolism, in April the Kentucky Coal Mining Museum announced that it would convert to solar power to keep its expenses down.)
The White House solar panels were first restored by George W. Bush, whose staff put up an electric system on the grounds in an understated and quiet move. Obama reinstated a rooftop system much more publicly and was showered with praise for the decision. And while Obama took global warming seriously, he was tasked with leading a country partially controlled by many people who did not and who continuously hamstrung his efforts on the issue.
In his first few months in office, Trump has delivered an incredible assault on environmental regulations—in a perverse way, they are perhaps his most successful accomplishment to date. He has not adopted a coherent or informed view on climate change, baffling interviewers with his non sequiturs on the topic and failing to appoint a science adviser. His press secretary doesn’t even have an answer on whether Trump thinks human activity is contributing to global warming.
He’s also left Obama’s solar panels on the roof. One of his press officers said she’s “not aware of any plans to move them.” This is perhaps the most perfect crystallization of Trump’s entire climate strategy and even his lazy, incompetent presidency as whole. When it comes to doing the actual, substantive work of government, the stuff that would make a difference to real human beings, Trump bails. But when it comes to pomp and circumstance, to symbolism, to stunts, he’s all the way there.
The world deserves to take action on climate change free from the grip of this small man and the backward party that has empowered him. As for America? It’s well past time we were left behind. Perhaps this will help us realize that our name and our history is not enough to keep us great: To maintain our position as a world leader, we will actually need to figure out how to lead.