Trump’s climate move puts American politics first
In explaining his move to leave the Paris climate accord, Donald Trump spoke less to the world leaders who wanted him to remain in the pact and more to the voters in Ohio and other parts of the rust belt who supported him precisely because of his “America First” mantra.
“I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” Mr Trump said on Thursday. “It is time to put Youngstown, Ohio; Detroit, Michigan; and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania . . . before Paris, France. It is time to make America great again.”
For the so-called liberal elites who dominate the west and north-east coasts of America, and the Democratic mayors of Pittsburgh and Youngstown, the appropriate response came from President Emmanuel Macron of France, who declared in English: “Make our planet great again”.
But for working-class Americans who supported Mr Trump because they were frustrated at both globalisation and international deals that they believe handicap America, the US president piped music to their ears when he stressed that “we don’t want other leaders and other countries laughing at us any more and they won’t be”.
Critics argue that many of the reasons Mr Trump gave for abandoning the Paris deal do not stack up, particularly given that none of the environmental targets are legally binding. But the move allowed the president to market a clean win to his base after having failed to pass any big legislation and with dimmer prospects as he faces a mounting crisis over the Russia scandal.
Larry Sabato, a politics expert at the University of Virginia, said the decision to pull out of the Paris accord was “somewhere around 90 per cent” politics, and pointed out that while Mr Trump has called climate change a “hoax”, even his daughter Ivanka disagreed with the move.
“Trump is simply trying to position this decision as the fulfilment of his campaign pledge to put America first and restore jobs to the Midwest as well as coal-producing areas,” said Mr Sabato.
The decision to pull out of the Paris accord underscored that earlier speculation that Mr Trump was jettisoning his “America First” philosophy and the policies of economic nationalism advocated by Steve Bannon, his top White House strategist, was exaggerated. A visibly energised Mr Bannon sat in the front row at the Rose Garden ceremony while Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner, who supported staying in the pact, were nowhere to be seen.
Two months ago, the Nation magazine ran the headline “President Bannon is Dead, Long Live President Cohn,” in a reference to Gary Cohn, the former Goldman Sachs executive who heads the White House national economic council and who is viewed with suspicion by conservatives.
But the Paris decision, coupled with recent moves on trade, suggest that Mr Trump is once again listening more to the populist views that propelled him on his once unlikely path to the White House. On MSNBC television on Friday morning, Joe Scarborough, the co-host of Morning Joe, repeated “President Bannon” over and over again to underscore the point.
One White House official said Mr Bannon was urging Mr Trump to return to basics, including by holding more campaign-style rallies across the country, to reassure his base that he is in tune with their concerns. The inability of Ivanka Trump and her husband to persuade Mr Trump to remain in Paris also lends credence to the view that Mr Kushner has lost some influence as the Federal Bureau of Investigation probes his connections with Russian officials.
Mr Trump also managed to deflect attention from his legislative problems and the Russia scandal with the Paris decision, which allowed him to check one of his campaign pledges.
“When you’re early in an administration those promises matter,” said Joseph Majkut, director of climate policy at the Niskanen Center. “It’s one thing he can do without the consent of Congress. He doesn’t need votes and a judge can’t get in his way.”
The Paris deal also sits at the crossroads of bigger issues that animate much of the Republican party: economic allegiance to fossil fuel jobs, scepticism of climate science, and antipathy towards the international order. “One of the things this Paris decision is doing is exporting the reactionary win/lose politics that we have in Washington to the world,” said Mr Majkut.
Polls show that only a small minority of Americans believe there is no solid evidence of global warming, with a Gallup poll in March showing a record number are “concerned believers”. But broken down by political affiliation, conservatives are much more sceptical that world temperatures are rising and that humans are the main cause.
A survey by the Pew Research Center last October showed that among people who identify themselves as conservative Republicans, 19 per cent said there was no solid evidence of climate change, while 48 per cent attributed it to “natural patterns”.
Often overlooked by Democrats is the fact that while a majority of Americans do express concern at climate change, many do not rank it as a priority. Only 15 per cent of Republicans rated climate change as a high priority in a Pew poll in January, while terrorism was a major concern for 82 per cent of respondents and the economy for 79 per cent.
“Clearly Americans would like to see a transition towards cleaner energy and support regulations that would increase renewables,” said Barry Rabe, a University of Michigan expert on opinion polls. “But do they want to pay much more for it? No.”
Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi