Outrage and despair, that’s the weather where I sit: talk of the United States as a rogue nation, the “end of American leadership,” and nightmarish glimpses of climate apocalypse.
The odd thing is that Trump’s announcement that the United States will pull out of the 2015 Paris climate accord, while it is surely bad news, might also be a productive wake-up call for climate politics. To judge by the agonized response, Paris had come to stand, at least in liberals’ minds, for the thought that the world was bumping toward the right track, that someone out there was doing something about climate change. Trump, meantime, got his base worked up by denouncing the accord as a “draconian” limit on American economic sovereignty.
But Paris can’t carry the weight of Trumpist outrage—or progressive optimism. The accords were unenforceable by design, a cobbled-together set of national aspirations to cut greenhouse-gas emissions by enough to slow global warming (but not, in the best of scenarios, avoid major climate disruptions). The United States, even under Obama, was the reason for the weakness of Paris: anything stronger, with actual obligations, would have required Senate approval. The Senate would have killed it. So Paris was, basically, a hope-chest of good intentions, an optimistic gloss on business as usual.
Trump ripped the gauze from business-as-usual and stamped it with his trademark crass bombast: we aren’t doing anything about this, and no one can make us do anything. That is, alas, true. It is true today, after Trump’s announcement, and it was true a month ago. It is true whether or not the United States can formally withdraw from the accords (and the best lawyerly read looks to be that it can’t for nearly four years, because of the protocol that the accords establish for signatories to leave). It is also true that the countries that remain active in Paris can’t make one another do anything. Again, that was the design of Paris, because of political constraints that the United States imposed (not alone, but crucially) before anyone thought Trump had a chance of winning the White House.
This doesn’t mean Paris signified nothing. At its most promising, the agreement was a reference point for national politics and for movement-building in and across countries. With favorable domestic politics, it could have become a platform to coordinate and integrate national efforts. The Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which Trump has scuttled, was just one example of such national efforts. But we lost that on November 8, 2016, when Trump defeated Hillary Clinton.
Ironically, the symbolic withdrawal from a largely symbolic agreement seems to be alerting the American mainstream to this reality. In one way, the sense of emergency around Trump’s announcement is misplaced. In another, it is simply overdue. We have been in a national climate emergency since Trump took power. Indeed, we have been in a slower national climate emergency since 1997, when the Senate refused the 1992 Kyoto Protocol—an actual treaty nominally committing countries to significant greenhouse-gas reductions. And the world remains in a decades-long climate emergency in good part because the United States has been so instrumental to blocking real international action while also avoiding domestic reforms. Getting onto emergency footing is exactly right, even if it is not for all the right reasons.
The major hazard of mainstream outrage about Trump is the tendency to overestimate how much of his catastrophic administration is unique to him, and so to exaggerate how close the country was to doing the right thing before he took power. The best potential of the same outrage is that it might alert people to how bad things are, and to how much has to happen to change them.
From a left perspective, it’s easy to be impatient with the localist and voluntarist responses that spring up in response to this sort of outrage. Michael Bloomberg says that New York, other progressive cities, and businesses will fill the gap, and university presidents sign on. Private capital will continue to flow into the parts of renewable energy research where returns make it worthwhile. But while none of this is remotely enough, the fact is that the politicized climate movement, best developed in 350.org and its allies, hasn’t been remotely enough, either.
Now and for the foreseeable future, we need politics at many scales and in many forms, advancing both a widespread sense of urgency and a vital program for a green world that is egalitarian, democratic, and finds a way to make human and natural flourishing compatible. One barrier to that politics is any notion that we are not in an emergency, that anyone out there has this figured out or is already doing the right thing. In the age of Trump, that comforting illusion, at least, is off the table. The next thing is to make the outrage productive.
Jedediah Purdy teaches at Duke and is the author, most recently, of After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene (Harvard University Press, 2015). He is a member of the Dissent editorial board.