Opinion

Trump fiddles while California burns

The U.S. leaves the Paris accord in a cloud of hubris and wildfire smoke

President Trump is an awful president even when he isn't committing high crimes and misdemeanors.

We were reminded of that truth Monday, when his administration notified the international community that the United States is officially withdrawing from the Paris climate accord. The decision is entirely Trump's to make. There is no abuse of power, no illegal quid pro quo, no undermining of democracy involved. Leaving the accord is simply a terrible, selfish decision.

Also on Monday, California continued to burn. Over the last two years, in fact, wildfires have burned 5,000 square miles in the state.

The two stories are related, of course. An August study in the journal Earth's Future found that climate change has driven a fivefold growth in the annual size of the state's burned area since the early 1970s.

"Human‐caused warming has already significantly enhanced wildfire activity in California, particularly in the forests of the Sierra Nevada and North Coast, and will likely continue to do so in the coming decades," the study's authors wrote.

So it was galling to see Trump's allies greet Monday's accord withdrawal by taking a victory lap.

"The U.S. is proud of our record as a world leader in reducing all emissions, fostering resilience, growing our economy, and ensuring energy for our citizens," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a tweet. "Ours is a realistic and pragmatic model."

Hardly.

It is true that U.S. emissions declined for much of the decade preceding Trump's election — an overall drop of 12 percent between 2005 and 2017, according to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. But it is also true that Trump's policies have tried to reverse some of the factors that led to the decline.

According to the center, during those 12 years "electric power sector emissions fell 27 percent as a result of a shift from coal to natural gas, increased use of renewable energy, and a leveling of electricity demand." The Trump administration, of course, has done everything it can to reverse the decline of coal — on Monday, for example, it announced a rollback of Obama-era rules that limited the amount of heavy metals and ash that coal plants allowed in the nation's groundwater. The White House has also sought to make big cuts at the federal department that funds clean energy research.

The Trump administration's "model," then, appears to involve gutting existing environmental regulations while claiming credit for climate progress made under his predecessor. Which might be an impressive display of chutzpah, except for one fact: California is still burning.

Honestly, I had thought there might come a moment when climate-denying conservatives would see the light. Perhaps it would be when their home — or the home of a loved one — burned to the ground thanks to their state turning into a tinderbox. Maybe it would come when their beachfront condos in Florida started experiencing regular flooding. Or when the polar ice started melting. Or maybe it would even happen when they realized that the planet keeps setting new heat records year after year.

The signs are all around us now that climate change is real and affecting humans in the here and now. There are some exceptions, but little has changed for Republicans. They don't — or won't — see a problem. They quibble about forest management instead. Or they blame government. So the actions they take, when in power, make the problem worse.

This is all cause for despair. One need not be an alarmist to feel actual, legitimate alarm.

Trump's decision to withdraw from the accord is made more frustrating by the fact that the agreement is essentially meaningless. The accord asks member countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions — but contains no rules or requirements to do so. It is all voluntary. All the accord really does is give member countries an opportunity to say they will fight climate change, even if they don't take much action. The Trump administration can't even muster that much activity on behalf of America's future citizens.

What a shame. California is burning. It is going to keep on burning. President Trump, it appears, is more than happy to provide the matches.

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