We are all going to die. That was the left’s typically chipper and phlegmatic message following Donald Trump’s rejection of the Paris climate agreement, as Twitter filled with warnings that the earth’s surface is now doomed to superheat and all human life to be baked into onion crisps (if anything, I’m underplaying how hysterical they’ve been). Fareed Zakaria spoke for them all when he intoned: “This could be the day the US resigns as leader of the free world.”
Oh, I don’t know. My carbon footprint is only a size 7 to the globetrotting Zakaria’s 14 wide, so maybe I’m not the best authority on pollution, but the reaction seems a bit overblown to me. The Paris Agreement is non-binding, first of all, and member nations set their own benchmarks, with America’s far more onerous than those of big polluters like China and India. Had we followed through, jobs inevitably would have been lost, wages depressed, all for only 0.2 degrees Celsius less warming by the year 2100, according to the Massachusetts Institute for Technology.
Meanwhile, American greenhouse gas emissions are already falling, by 9 percent between 2005 and 2014, and another 2.2 percent in 2015, courtesy of cleaner natural gas obtained through fracking and Fareed Zakaria remembering not to leave his Gulfstream idling in the driveway. We’re making solid progress on our own without the straitjacket of Paris, thank you very much. But even if that agreement wasn’t going to have a major climatological impact here at home, the potential for a political shakeup is very real, especially for the battered Democratic Party.
The left is less a well-oiled machine than conservatives often imagine; it’s more a loose confederation of interest groups, all of which look to technocratic government for help achieving their goals—unions obtain more negotiating power through the National Labor Relations Board, the NAACP benefits from grants for inner-city development and policies like affirmative action, and so on. But what happens when these disparate elements diverge? It’s an interesting question and no issue raises it as urgently as modern environmentalism.
The fight against climate change wedges apart two of the left’s most important constituencies: organized labor, whose members tend to oppose green regulations as threatening to their jobs, and metropolitan elites, who are wholeheartedly in favor. The Obama administration thought they could whip this problem by bringing onboard Van Jones, the briefly tenured green-jobs czar, who tried to unite the two groups in a blue-green alliance of mutual interests. It was always illusory stuff: a government-funded renewable energy renaissance, with former coal miners singing “Hi Ho” while they nailed solar panels to roofs and steadied windmills on rolling hills, polishing the United States into a shimmering Tomorrowland crisscrossed by high-speed rail. But many liberals believed in it and their optimism was genuine.
It did not work out. Coal jobs collapsed by the tens of thousands under Obama, but to the extent they were replaced, it was by fracking, which revolutionized the American economy. Environmentalists were twisted into pretzels: they couldn’t deny that natural gas was cleaner than coal and they couldn’t stop the abrupt frack boom, but they also chafed at the idea of the energy sector becoming dependent on another fossil fuel. Eventually, most green groups came out against fracking, and they brought weight to bear, banning the procedure in New York for instance.
Consequently, blue-collar workers began to feel beleaguered—they’d finally found a substitute for the crumbling coal industry and now the left was attacking that, too? West Virginia began going red, at the presidential level under the Bush administration and then locally under Obama. Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania finished their own dramatic shifts in 2016, invigorated by Donald Trump’s facile pledges to reopen the mines. A West Virginian who worked in the natural gas industry once told me his co-workers were terrified of the EPA. Towns in southern New York have actually mulled seceding to Pennsylvania where they can legally frack. This isn’t some exercise in right-wing eye-poking; it’s a very real and very impactful political divorce.
The left’s unanimously negative reaction to Trump spiking the Paris Agreement shows that the green side has won out in the prenup, that Democrats now primarily cater to urban elites while the old union reliables—FDR admirers every one—are set adrift into choppy populist waters. To that end, in his speech yesterday, Trump had a point. International schemes to fight climate change are popular amongst Parisians; in the fracking-heavy exurbs of Pittsburgh, less so.