The United States began the formal process of leaving the Paris Agreement on climate change yesterday, withdrawing on the first day it was legally possible. Barring something unforeseen, the country will depart the accord on November 4, 2020—a day after the next presidential election.
If it feels like the Paris withdrawal has been coming for years, that’s not wrong. It was already clear on the day he was elected that President Donald Trump would leave the Paris Agreement. After some vacillating early in his term, Trump made a sunny, pomp-dense Rose Garden speech in June 2017 and promised to depart the treaty. But under the agreement’s terms, he could not formally notify the United Nations of his intent to leave until this week, and American diplomats attended climate negotiations in the interim.
Nearly two and a half years later, it’s worth briefly remembering that 2017 speech, which ran to more than half an hour. Scott Pruitt, the only other Cabinet official who spoke at the event, resigned from the Environmental Protection Agency amid scandal a little more than a year later. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (whom Trump later fired) and Energy Secretary Rick Perry (who will resign before the end of the year) also attended. The effort to leave Paris has by now survived three chiefs of staff, four national security advisers, and 10 Cabinet secretaries. Trump himself really wants to leave the treaty.
In that light, the notice-giving yesterday was almost subdued. The president held a campaign rally last night in Lexington, Kentucky, a state with thousands of coal jobs. Yet while Trump could once rhapsodize for 27 minutes straight about the alleged unfairness of Paris, he barely mentioned the agreement last night, referring only twice in passing to the “horrible, costly, one-sided Paris climate accord.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was left to fill the void with a brief press release. There are rumors that the Trump 2020 campaign will try to convince voters of its environmental record, which most Americans disapprove of. Perhaps last night was a preview of that strategy.
Back in 2017, the president also promised either to immediately start talks to reenter Paris or to discuss “a really entirely new transaction on terms that are fair to the United States.” Two years on, no such treaty has appeared.
But this vow was always a little nonsensical, since Paris is a voluntary agreement. After the failure of the Kyoto Protocol, a climate treaty from the 1990s, the United States made a few demands: Any accord must make no legal distinction between rich and poor countries, and it must not include externally imposed, legally binding emissions cuts. (The first of these demands was set forward in a 95–0 Senate vote.) So the world produced the Paris Agreement, which doesn’t differentiate between rich and poor countries and which doesn’t impose external binding targets.
“We’re withdrawing from something that’s purely voluntary. It doesn’t make any sense,” says Bentley Allan, a professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University. “It’s reprehensible—it’s absurd that we’re withdrawing.” The only reason to leave such a treaty is if “you want to actively make the symbolic act of damaging this thing,” Allan told me.
In other words, Trump is not leaving the agreement because he doubts climate science. And he is not leaving it because of what the agreement does: He is already rolling back Barack Obama’s domestic climate rules, which actually accomplished the bulk of emissions cuts. Trump is leaving the Paris Agreement because he actually intends to slow the global transition away from fossil fuels.
Trump’s political opponents—and, sometimes, the press—often term him a “climate-change denier.” But in a way, this term actually flatters him. His stated views about climate science are far too messy and opportunistic to bear any coherent label. Here is a man who can tell New York Times editors that “there is some connectivity” between human activity and climate change and, two years later, say that “people like myself, we have very high levels of intelligence, but we’re not necessarily such believers,” before finally proclaiming during a snowstorm that it “wouldn’t be bad to have some of that good old fashioned Global Warming right now!”
All this doesn’t add up to an epistemology: It’s pure trolling, and, as with most trolling, you almost have to admire the chutzpah. In this late hour—well into the fourth decade of modern climate politics—it’s hard to believe that belief in climate change is the main obstacle to battling it. A supermajority of Americans now say that global warming is real, and a majority say that people are making it happen. Yet a federal climate bill is not exactly steaming through Congress.
No, when Trump pulls America out of the Paris Agreement, he is responding to a different ideology: carbonism. For Trump, carbonism is a powerfully economic and cultural idea. Think of the carbon in carbonism as akin to the nation in nationalism: It implies a founding myth, a powerful worldview, a theory of value, and a prophecy. But it is, at heart, a simple idea. Carbonism is a belief that fossil fuels—which send carbon pollution spewing into the atmosphere, accelerating climate change and ocean acidification—have inherent virtue. That they are better, in fact, than other energy sources.
When the Trump administration replaces the Obama-era Clean Power Plan with a new rule that may actually increase pollution, that’s carbonism. When Perry tried to get Americans to subsidize failing coal plants through their power bills, that’s carbonism. When the EPA fights to allow the free venting of methane and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, that’s carbonism. When the EPA fights to let coal plants have an easier time spewing heavy metals and other neurotoxins into the atmosphere, that’s carbonism.
For the Trump administration, carbonism is more powerful than neoliberalism or any theory of free markets. How else to explain the White House’s proposed rollback of fuel-efficiency rules, which—in its hurry to freeze every possible legal restriction on carbon—actually mixed up the idea of supply and demand? And for Trump, too, carbonism is more powerful than any belief in federalism or states’ rights. How else to explain his years-long war on California’s statewide climate policy?
For the president, carbonism is visceral. At home, Trump’s carbonist politics are prosperity-focused, locked in the postwar decades, and permeated with nostalgia for old-fashioned race and gender relations. Just as President Ronald Reagan linked black women to government through the epithet welfare queens, Trump has bound carbon pollution to heavy industry and white men. Abroad, Trump’s carbonism is vulgar. Hence his repeated promise that the United States had “the oil” in Syria, even as it betrayed its Kurdish allies.
But carbonism does not need to be so blunt. Consider Pompeo’s statement yesterday on American withdrawal. It is elegant carbonism, citing “the reality of the global energy mix” instead of that other reality (the warming one). It cites the importance of using “all” energy sources “cleanly and efficiently, including fossils fuels.” And when it mentions climate change, it is only to “enhance resilience to the impacts of climate change.”
Here we can see the deeper logic of carbonism: that carbon pollution imposes no hard limit on human flourishing, that through the exclusive magic of fossil fuels, society can effortlessly solve any problem. Sometimes these arguments are rooted in accurate understandings of historical progress. Fossil fuels really did make modern excess possible, improving the living standard of hundreds of millions of people. But now that it’s time to move away from fossil fuels, carbonists become desperately anti-progress, or they reuse old arguments in bizarre new ways. Hence Perry’s 2017 claim that fossil fuels somehow reduce sexual assault in “those villages in Africa.”
Carbonism is easy to ignore. Much of the political establishment—including many members of the media—perceive climate change chiefly as an environmental issue. So they scratch their head at Trump’s insistence that he loves “clean air and clean water” even as he cuts rules on toxic air pollution. But there may be no contradiction in Trump’s mind, because he sees carbonism as an economic and cultural idea. And in a way, he is right. Climate change will wreak havoc across the natural world, but its origins—and its worst consequences—will strike at human society. To fight climate change, to decarbonize, is to remake the metabolism of the global economy. Which is to say: It’s possible, but it’s harder than installing a bunch of catalytic converters.
But carbonism also surrounds us. To some degree, our political culture is still carbonist; we are all carbonists. While the fretted-over federal-budget deficit is an idea, not a physical fact, the carbon dioxide fumigating into the sky right now is real. It is spilling from gas stoves, pouring out of car tailpipes, and gushing from the coal or gas fire that (in all likelihood) turned the turbine that, at some remove, is making electrons dance across the screen you are reading. Carbon spewing into the atmosphere right now will outlive our grandchildren. It will exist, as a mindless physical fact, trapping heat and distorting geology, for centuries to come. And thanks to the dread logic of the second law of thermodynamics, the heat that it captures will not come out of the atmospheric system for millennia.
The Paris Agreement exists because the rest of the world is onto this. Instead of framing fighting climate change as a source of pain, the agreement recognizes that the victors in a post-carbon world will be those who move first. So the European Union and, to a lesser degree, China are pouring money into renewable energy. Even though solar panels were invented in an American lab, by employees of an American company, Germany and China now control the global supply chain that produces them. Even if the United States were to reenter that market, it would have to fight for market share.
There’s a standard line here: that when the United States withdraws from the Paris Agreement and treaties like it, it damages American credibility abroad. Such a concern feels a little blasé in the wake of our betrayal of the Kurds. If you help us fight the Islamic State and we abandon you, why should anyone trust us over a climate treaty?
The damage to American credibility has, to some degree, already been done. The real risk now is to American power. One day, perhaps not long from now, a few global governments will decide that the age of carbon is over. They will back massive investments into remaking the global energy economy, redirecting the turbulent flows of international finance. If the United States is not among those governments, then American banks—whose wealth is deeply bound to fossil fuels—will suffer a sudden revaluation. And the mighty dollar, that last guarantor of American power, will go up in carbonism’s flame.