In his broadside against the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, Jonathan Chait makes an observation that is difficult to dispute, even among Paris skeptics (and regular readers of Via Meadia know that we have not been cheerleaders for the agreement): Right-wing opposition to the accord is grounded as much in a desire to explode perceived progressive smugness as it is in specific policy considerations.
There is far more at work in conservative opposition to decarbonization than the hidden hand of oil and coal; indeed, many fossil-fuel companies prefer the predictability of the Paris agreement to policy that jerks back and forth every time the presidency changes hands between the parties.
The dominant spirit of conservative thought — or, more precisely, verbal gestures that seek to resemble thought — is not even skepticism but a trolling impulse. The aim is not so much to reason toward a policy conservatives would favor as to pierce the liberal claim to the moral high ground.
Chait describes this newly nihilistic impulse on the right as irresponsible and destructive. And indeed, it usually is. The Republican Party and the United States would be in a better place if conservative politics offered more substantive policy solutions and less tribal signaling. (Ditto for the progressive left). But the truth is that if there is a deserving target for the conservative “trolling impulse,” it is the Paris accord. The process that produced the agreements was so long on preening and self-congratulation, and the agreements themselves so hollow and lacking in actual policy content, that a simple “no” for the sake of making a pompous and failed establishment uncomfortable is not the worst thing in the world.
Like many Trump-era debates, the President’s actions on Paris are best understood through the lens of what we (following Tyler Cowen) have called “placebo politics”—elevating or reducing the status of this or that group through symbolic actions that won’t have much if any material impact on policy. President Trump’s repudiation of the agreement falls into this category: It delights his nationalistic base and sends his internationalist-minded critics into paroxysms of rage and despair—all without actually doing anything, because the Paris agreement consists simply of voluntary, unenforceable emissions pledges that are already being flouted.
Of course, the fact that the agreement is symbolic could be an argument for staying in, rather than getting out. As the MSNBC anchor Chris Hayes tweeted in lambasting Trump, “The agreement quite literally imposes nothing!!!” Honest champions of the accord admit that it may be more or less ineffectual when it comes to solving climate change, but argue that leaving would impose costs on American credibility. This is not an unreasonable argument; it may even be vindicated in the wake of Trump’s decision. But it shows that the debate essentially comes down to which kind of symbolism you prefer—the symbolic affirmation of international cooperation and environmental leadership or the symbolic affirmation of the U.S. working class at the expense of the global elite whose “polite fictions, agreed-upon conventions and hypocritical pretenses” seem in many arenas to be unraveling.
The drama of the Paris climate accords, then, amounts to a portrait in miniature of our political moment. A smug establishment indulged in vacuous, photo-op politics that doesn’t get us any closer to solving our major problems but pleases donors and nonprofits and makes the great and good feel even better about themselves. An angry coalition of people who felt that their status was declining reacted against this half-hearted phoniness by indulging in a placebo politics of their own—raising their own status by nihilistically tearing down the other side. Trump’s decision today doesn’t make the U.S. better off, but it probably doesn’t make us much worse off, either.