On Tuesday, major media outlets reported that “momentum has turned against the Paris climate agreement” in the White House, as the Washington Post put it.
After two major meetings, advisers who want the president to exit the landmark emissions-reduction agreement, such as strategist Steve Bannon and EPA head Scott Pruitt, appear to have the upper hand.
On Saturday, President Donald Trump promised supporters he would end “a broken system of global plunder at American expense,” and said he’d make a “big decision” on Paris within two weeks.
Exiting the agreement would make us a rogue nation. If America quits the international negotiating process that has given humanity its last, best hope to avoid catastrophic climate change, we will become a global pariah, like Putin’s Russia.
In addition, Trump will naturally be blamed for whatever climate disasters befall the nation and the world — including inundation of coastal cities, Dust-Bowlification, refugee crises, failed states, and wars.
In that scenario, history would certainly not look fondly on Trump — but would it be enough to make him the worst president ever?
The worst president, according to a C-SPAN survey of 91 presidential historians published in February, is James Buchanan, Lincoln’s immediate predecessor.
Why? Well, as a 2016 discussion of the best and worst presidents put it:
“And how does a president succeed in being ranked as the worst ever by four of our five polls? James Buchanan did it by being utterly ineffectual in the face of a disintegrating nation, refusing to offer any genuine leadership in response to the greatest moral and political crisis America had ever encountered.”
How bad was Buchanan? He went as far as to secretly lobby the Supreme Court to issue a broad decision in the Dred Scott case “that denied the right of the federal government to ban slavery in any of the territories and declared that African-Americans, whether slave or free, were not to be considered American citizens and hence were not entitled to the same rights and legal protections of white Americans.”
Climate change is the greatest moral and political crisis America faces this century. As our children and generations to come suffer the irreversible consequences of our inaction, our failure to stop this preventable catastrophe will loom larger and larger in their daily lives — and Trump’s ranking will sink lower and lower.
Ironically, Trump sees himself as a historically great deal-maker who could have avoided the Civil War. “Why could that one not have been worked out?” Trump said of the war on Monday. “I mean had Andrew Jackson been a little later you wouldn’t have had the Civil War. He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart.”
This comparison is “a projection of the president’s fundamental and enveloping narcissism,” said Jon Meacham, who won a Pulitzer Prize for American Lion, his 2008 biography of Jackson. “He told me a year and a half ago or so, a year ago, that, you know, he thought he could have done a deal to have averted the war.”
Could Trump have averted the war? Probably not. “The expansion of slavery caused the Civil War,” Meacham told the New York Times. “And you can’t get around that. So what does Trump mean? Would he have let slavery exist but not expand? That’s the counterfactual question you have to ask.”
Buchanan left a terrible mess that Lincoln had to address in a horrific war. Yet, however painfully, slavery was ended and the Union preserved.
But the climate change we don’t stop now is “largely irreversible for 1,000 years,” as NOAA reported years ago. So after a quarter-century of ignoring the ever strengthening science, the world’s ability to avoid the worst impacts is on a knife’s edge.
That means Trump’s efforts to kill both domestic and international climate action may not be fixable by a future president. For those suffering worsening impacts of Trump’s decisions, no one else will loom larger as America’s worst president.