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Quitting the Paris climate agreement is a moral disgrace

President Trump is selling out our kids to give false hope to coal workers.

Trump kissing a small child, poor kid Dominick Reuter/AFP/Getty Images

No laid-off coal miners will get their jobs back from President Trump pulling the United States from the Paris accord on climate change. No extra oil rigs will sprout in the Gulf. There is no employment upside to an "America First" retreat from global leadership on one of the few issues that can accurately be described as a potentially existential threat to humankind.

There is only the profound immorality of abdication — of gleefully passing a mounting problem on to our children, and on to the poor.

Trump said Thursday he will fulfill a campaign promise and withdraw the US from the agreement, which aims to put the world on a path to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius. He called it financially "draconian", cited a puffed-up study on potential costs to the economy, and said he would seek a better deal for America. "I happen to love coal miners," he said at one point, in case you didn't see what the target audience is for the decision.

There is no evidence, though, to suggest the Paris deal is holding back coal or any other industry in America today. Trump’s position amounts to nothing more than a dollop of false hope for downtrodden coal communities, in exchange for a ton of additional risk heaped on everyone, particularly the poorest people in the world.

As more carbon accumulates in the atmosphere, and global average temperatures continue to rise, the odds of calamitous future environmental outcomes increase. Swamped cities, scorched crops, pandemics — nothing you would wish upon your children, or anyone else’s.

"It is a decision made for domestic political purposes that puts the livelihood and lives of millions of people in developing countries at risk," says Trevor Houser, a former climate negotiator for President Barack Obama who is now a partner with the Rhodium Group. "This is a craven, symbolic political move without any direct benefits for the constituents he’s targeting."

The Paris agreement is only a step toward the reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions that scientists roundly agree is necessary in order to reduce the most catastrophic risks of climate change. But it is a crucial step, won through years of diplomatic grunt work, including a sustained effort to rebuild American climate credibility that had been torched by the Bush administration.

The agreement will persist even if Trump completes the four-year process to remove America from it. But the accord will be immediately weakened, and, much more importantly, so will the fragile international coalition to fight what Jason Bordoff, a Columbia professor and former climate adviser to Obama, calls "one of the most global problems."

Ideally, the current administration would be pushing partner countries to strengthen their commitments under the agreement; instead, it is giving them an excuse to slack off.

The decision will punish the poor

For the global poor, the reduced ambition could prove disastrous. The World Bank estimates climate effects could push 100 million people worldwide into poverty over the next 15 years. A recent report from the Climate Impact Lab projects that the most damaging effects of climate change will be concentrated in "hot, poor countries" in regions such as Latin America and Southeast Asia, and in sub-Saharan Africa, where climate change is already associated with falling crop production due to record-setting drought.

"In our benchmark estimate," the authors write, "average income in the poorest 40% of countries declines 75% by 2100 relative to a world without climate change." Richer, cooler countries in Europe tend to fare better, but, notably, not the United States. It would suffer economically — and on the international stage.

"It's morally reprehensible to walk away from climate action," says Keya Chatterjee, the executive director of the US Climate Action Network. "It's an act everyone will recall as kids gasp for air during heat waves, as homes are wiped out by larger storms, as larger fires displace homes, and as droughts lead to crop failure."

It won’t create jobs

Trump has said the agreement gives "foreign bureaucrats" control of America’s energy reserves. (It doesn’t.) He’s cast it as a job killer. (It’s not.) Many US corporations support the agreement, including some large oil and gas companies, like Exxon Mobil. Clean energy advocates worry that stepping away from the deal would hamstring renewables here, which are growing so fast that there are now twice as many solar jobs as coal jobs in the US.

"It's the equivalent of a president saying, ‘There's no future for the US in medical research,’" says Josh Freed, the clean energy vice president at the centrist think tank Third Way. "The president is purposely giving up on an entire sector that could drive global economic growth."

The most notable corporate support for exiting the deal comes from the coal industry, which is hoping against hope — and the economics of low-cost natural gas — that a complete abandonment of emissions-reduction efforts will lead to an industry renaissance. It’s a last gasp, and unlikely to work, as Houser and Bordoff wrote in a detailed recent analysis.

And it will hurt American leadership

Once Trump quits the deal, he will inflict lasting damage on American foreign policy efforts, well beyond collaboration on environmental issues.

The agreement is in many ways emblematic of how leaders in Washington — on both sides of the aisle — have long viewed America’s role in the world. It does not commit the US to a go-it-alone effort. To the contrary: It leverages promised US emissions cuts to win pledges from the world’s fastest-growing carbon polluters, China and India, as well as other Western and developing countries.

By exiting, Trump would forfeit that leverage. He would return the US to its days of being distrusted by the international community on the issue, and further the belief, particularly in Europe, that America is an unreliable partner.

Even if a future administration rejoins the agreement, the damage will linger. In Copenhagen in 2009, efforts to forge an international climate deal were hampered, in part, by the deep-rooted suspicion Obama’s team (including Houser) faced from European, Chinese, and other negotiators in the wake of the Bush administration’s foot-dragging on emissions reductions.

It took years, and a batch of controversial regulations issued by the Environmental Protection Agency, to rebuild that credibility and pave the way for Paris. To now quit that agreement would, Houser says, "be the second time Lucy has pulled the football."

It's easy to forget this now, but at the end of the Bush era, both major-party nominees for president favored aggressive action on climate change. During the campaign, on snowy nights and afternoons campaigning for the New Hampshire primary, the man who would be the Republican nominee repeatedly made the case to skeptical conservative voters that they should err on the side of caution on the issue, even if they weren't sold on the science.

"Maybe I could put it to you this way," Sen. John McCain of Arizona said, in one version of that speech. "Suppose we are wrong, those of us that believe that the large body of scientific evidence indicates that climate change is taking place, suppose that we adopt green technologies and we are wrong. Well all we’ve done is given our kids a cleaner planet with less greenhouse gas emissions. "But suppose we are right. Suppose we are right and that there is serious damage being done or can be done to our planet by so called ‘greenhouse gases’ then I think and do nothing. Then I think obviously we would not be proud of what we’re handing on to future generations of Americans."

No, we would not. We most definitely would not.

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