Michael Dorf: Why Republicans Love Trump’s Paris Accord Stance

This article first appeared on the Dorf on Law site.

Leaks from the Trump White House indicate either that President Trump has decided to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement or that he is nearing but still has not made a final decision.

Many informed observers think it doesn't really matter. Even if Trump does not formally withdraw (either from the Paris accord or the entire UN framework), his Coal First environmental policy will ensure that the United States does not meet its targets under the Paris agreement anyway, with some environmentalists arguing that so long as the U.S. is going to miss its targets, the rest of the world is better off with the U.S. out of the agreement, so that our example does not water down the meaning of the commitment for other countries.

Debate over whether the world is better if we stay in or get out and the game-show-style interest that Trump (in typical Trumpian fashion) has generated regarding his Big Decision should not obscure two basic facts: (1) The Trump environmental policy is disastrous; and (2) when it comes to the environment and global warming especially, Trump is a mainstream Republican. The first point is obvious. Here I'll mostly elaborate the second one.

The Paris accord was only ever going to make insufficient reductions in carbon emissions to address global warming. If feedback loops like the melting of permafrost (releasing trapped methane) are not already irreversible, it will take additional steps beyond Paris to prevent droughts, famines, and rising sea levels that submerge Mar-a-Lago and much of the rest of coastal civilization.

Some of the most effective steps that could be taken--like dramatically scaling back the raising of animals for food and fiber (see, e.g, this and this)--are barely even in the mix of steps that receive public attention.

GettyImages-643877034 Floodwaters surround homes and cars on February 22, 2017, in San Jose, California. Thousands of people were ordered to evacuate their homes as floodwaters inundated neighborhoods and forced the shutdown of a major highway. NOAH BERGER/AFP/Getty

But to acknowledge that Paris and other measures to address global warming and other looming ecological catastrophes (like ocean acidification, fresh water shortages, etc.) are inadequate is not to say that these measures should be abandoned in favor of environmental laissez-faire.

Even if half-measures and quarter-measures only buy a little time, it is better to buy that time than to waste it, as Trump and his enablers intend.

If the Earth remains habitable in future decades, Trump will be remembered not only as the egomaniacal clown who tried to destroy American democracy but perhaps chiefly as the shortsighted fool who condemned the planet's inhabitants to living in a hellscape whose ugliness is interrupted only by well-maintained golf courses.

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That legacy will not be Trump's alone. Although the last days of Trump's Should-I-Stay-or-Should-I-Go show on Paris have framed the internal debate as between Secretary of State Tillerson and First Daughter Ivanka versus EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and Reichsführer Bannon, that intra-TrumpWorld saga provides a misleading picture of the state of play among Republicans, seeming to suggest that on climate matters there is a moderate reasonable center (epitomized by Tillerson and Ivanka) battling a hard-right extreme.

The truth is that on the environment, as on other issues, the intra-Republican debate is often less about ends than about means.

For example, former Speaker of the House John Boehner was deemed a moderate because, by contrast with the Freedom Caucus, he was unwilling to hold the global economy hostage (via the debt ceiling) in order to achieve counterproductive spending cuts, Obamacare repeal, and regressive tax cuts, but his underlying policy preferences were basically the same.

Notwithstanding appearances to the contrary, that's also largely true with respect to the environment. Sure, it looks like Trump is an extremist, even within the Republican Party.

By contrast with Senator John McCain, Trump does not even appear to believe in global warming, much less to want to do anything about it. When he is feeling maverick-y, McCain can be an environmental moderate, as he was during his presidential run in 2008.

Moreover, the letter from Senator James "Snowball" Inhofe urging Trump to get out of Paris was signed by only 22 Republican Senators. Thus, one might think that more than half of Republican Senators favor remaining in the Paris accord.

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But one would probably be wrong. If more than half of Republican Senators favored the Paris accord, President Obama would have been able to get it through the Senate as a treaty. He did not even try because he knew that it would be DOA in the Senate.

Even now, some of the Republican Senators who did not sign the Inhofe letter might actually support leaving Paris but are simply laying low. Or they could have collateral reasons for opposing leaving. Some might take the view that the U.S. shouldn't have entered the accord, but that once it did, it would be too much of a sacrifice of geopolitical influence to get out.

Overall, there is no reason to think that the GOP is substantially more favorable to environmental protection than Trump.

Want another indicator of where the mainstream of the Republican Party is on environmental issues? How about the fact that exactly one Republican Senator (Susan Collins of Maine) voted against the confirmation of Scott Pruitt as EPA Director, despite Pruitt's clear record as a mouthpiece for the most shortsighted energy companies.

So, how bad is the prospect of Trump's withdrawal from the Paris accord and, more importantly, his environmental policy overall? They are terribly bad. Bigly bad. Sad bad. So bad that it makes me glad that my house is over 1,300 feet above sea level.

But despite the Trumpian adverbs, the anti-environmental policy is not distinctly Trumpian bad.

When ostensibly mainstream Republicans accept or even defend distinctly Trumpian outrages such as the obvious lying, deranged tweeting, and even some of the awful policy (like his travel ban), they are making a deal with the devil: Getting jurists like Neil Gorsuch onto the federal bench, securing regressive tax cuts, and eliminating programs that aid the working poor and the most vulnerable are sufficiently attractive to them that they are willing to accept what would have heretofore been unacceptable.

To use a phrase for which Anderson Cooper misguidedly apologized, Republicans will defend Trump even when he takes a dump on the desk, because that is the price of getting what they want.

However, Trump's horrible environmental policy is not just something that Republicans are willing to accept in order to get something else that they really want.

To mainstream Republicans, Trump's anti-environmentalism is a reason to support him, not a cost of supporting him. They don't merely tolerate this turd that Trump dumped; they welcome it.

Michael C. Dorf is the Robert S. Stevens professor of law at Cornell University. He blogs at DorfOnLaw.org.

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