Trump’s reason for leaving the Paris agreement left Obama’s science adviser stunned

“We’re going to lose tremendous global clout and influence” by withdrawing from the Paris agreement.

Dr. John Holdren CREDIT: AP Photo/ Haraz N. Ghanbari
Dr. John Holdren CREDIT: AP Photo/ Haraz N. Ghanbari

It was never going to be easy for President Donald Trump to justify his decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement — an accord that is popular, rooted in scientific fact, and nonbinding. But the error-riddled, circuitous reasoning he gave from the Rose Garden on Thursday left Dr. John Holdren, President Barack Obama’s chief science adviser, stunned.

“It’s going to take days to parse all of the misleading statements in there,” Holdren said.

Trump centered his decision on America’s economic interests, claiming the agreement was too costly for the American people. But he completely omitted the severe economic toll posed by failure to act on climate change, a cost far greater than that of action, Holdren said. Trump also claims to be protecting U.S. jobs, but his speech totally ignored the economic benefits of clean energy — a sector that is growing much faster than the economy as a whole.

“And there was no mention at all of why we have the Paris agreement in the first place,” Holdren said. “He never mentioned the damages from climate change.” That’s right: After months of leaks and speculation, fueled by the reality-TV-host-turned-president’s tendency to hype his own announcements, he delivered an entire address on a major international agreement to limit the worst effects of climate change without once mentioning climate change.

ThinkProgress talked to Holdren, on what will inevitably be remembered as a dark day for U.S. climate leadership, about the impact of Trump’s Paris decision, what it means that he made the decision without a science adviser, and the administration’s dangerous new form of climate science denial.

So we finally have an answer from Trump on the Paris agreement. What are the implications of the U.S. withdrawing?

It’s a blow to the prospects for limiting the damage from global climate change and a blow to U.S. leadership on the world stage. The harm from climate change can no longer be avoided; it’s already happening. We’re already experiencing more torrential downpours and associated flooding, more extreme heatwaves, larger annual area burned by wildfires, and increasing damages from sea level rise.

In addition to the direct effects on U.S. emissions and investments in preparedness, resilience, and adaptation, there is the effect on other countries… United States withdrawal could become a specific excuse for countries that were hesitant to join in the first place, and were persuaded to do so by the unity of the U.S. and China leading the charge, to now withdraw from the agreement. The second thing is withdrawal of our financial support and technical support for other countries, particularly developing countries, for both mitigation and adaptation.

And the last way in which U.S. withdrawal will have major adverse impacts is our standing in the world diplomatically and politically. We’re going to lose tremendous global clout and influence if we prove ourselves to be such an unreliable partner in global agreements — who’s going to take lectures from the United States going forward about what we all need to do together?

Almost everything we’ve learned is from leaks and anonymous sources, but Ivanka Trump reportedly wanted to be sure her dad heard from both sides and was getting the best advice. But there is no reliable scientific expert giving him advice. What do you think about that decision making process?

I think it’s a terrible gap that President Trump has not yet appointed an OSTP director [White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, which Holdren directed]. In addition, the other major science and technology appointments in the government are mostly vacant: there is no NOAA administrator, there is no NASA administrator, there is no USGS director, there is no director of the office of science in the Department of Energy.

There is no indication anybody is able to whisper in President Trump’s ear about what science is telling us about climate change and what is needed to deal with it, never mind about a host of other issues in which science and technology affect or should affect policy choices — about the economy, biomedicine and public health, space, national and homeland security, and more.

This is a terrible choice to be presented with but what concerns you more, leaving all of these science-related jobs empty or filling them with people who very clearly have no background in science? The one that sticks out the most to me is Sam Clovis, the right wing radio host who’s rumored to be picked for lead scientist at USDA.

I actually do think it’s worse to fill those positions with unqualified people. It’s basically a fraud when you do that, and I don’t support fraud in government. If they’re not interested in having science and technology advice, they might as well admit it by leaving those positions vacant.

As far as federal spending goes, the Trump budget blueprint looks like they took anything related to science and just hacked it out. Obviously some of that will be restored by Congress, but I assume there will be cuts. What impact does it have when you diminish anything related to science and technology?

The first thing I would say about that is that the problem in the end is the overall caps on discretionary spending. If Trump adds $54 billion to defense and Congress goes along with that, then there is no alternative under the caps but to reduce spending elsewhere in the discretionary space. And there is no way in that circumstance to avoid cuts to R&D [research and development], because R&D is a substantial part of discretionary spending after you get done with defense. If you don’t lift the caps, there are going to be cuts for sure. For that reason I think it’s probably a mistake for the science and technology community to go after individual cuts… because I don’t think we’re going to win an argument about not increasing defense.

I’ve been watching over the past several months, starting with the Trump cabinet members’ confirmation hearings when a lot of them were asked, do you think climate change is a hoax? And there’s a new tack where you don’t outright deny climate change but you cast doubt on it.

Most of them did — they said climate is clearly changing but it’s not clear what the human role is — and that was pretty clearly a coordinated response that they agreed on and had been supplied with. Obviously if you don’t know what the human role is then you take a lot of the steam out of the argument for action, except as sort of an insurance argument. It’s a crock, scientifically. We do know.

And it’s spread beyond the Trump officials — the New York Times hiring Bret Stephens, for instance — this injection of a fake sense of uncertainty into the debate around climate science and what’s causing it and what needs to be done.

I thought the Bret Stephens column was terrible. Here’s Stephens, a former hysterical denier, saying, now I’m a reasonable person and the reasonable view is that this is still highly uncertain. What a crock. Stephens is trying to claim the mantle of respectability in part by criticizing Trump, but on climate change… his position is unreasonable and inconsistent with the science.

When I was asked after Paris, oh aren’t you so happy we finally got this agreement? And I said, yes, I am very happy, a lot of us worked really hard for that. But I would’ve been a lot happier if we had done this in 1990, 25 years ago, when we already knew enough to justify everything that has finally been agreed in 2015. We lost that 25 years in part because of the propagation of false doubt.

Finally, when we last talked in December, you weren’t able to speculate on specific Trump policies, and you still had some optimism about the world continuing to move forward on climate action in the age of Trump. How do you feel about that now?

We now know a lot more than we did then about what his policies are going to be, and essentially all of the news is bad. We know about the anti-science, anti-evidence, climate change denying people he’s put in many key positions. We know about his failure to put scientists in many key positions. His executive orders have been terrible in the climate space.

Nonetheless, there is still some basis for optimism. Number one, states and cities are going to continue to lead in the U.S., and a number of major emitting countries around the world are going to continue to lead. And the other thing is there are these two fundamental forces that are driving us toward reducing emissions: one is the growing and increasingly obvious harm from climate change, which increases the incentive to act, and the other is the falling costs of acting — renewables continue to get cheaper, energy efficiency continues to get cheaper. These costs will continue to fall even in the absence of federal policies, because it’s in the interest of the private sector to continue to advance wind and renewables and energy efficiency; they’re making money at it.

I think we’ll continue to make progress on a number of fronts in reducing emissions, but we won’t make as much progress as we need without the federal government contributing.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.