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Analysis: Trump’s Zero-Sum View of The World is Most Dangerous When Applied to Climate Change

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President Donald Trump, who fancies himself a master negotiator, walked into the White House itching to improve what he sees as a series of dismal deals struck by his predecessors.

He’s already tried to apply the zero-sum negotiating tactics he honed in the New York real-estate world to the North American Free Trade Agreement, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and more generally, to the US’s international relations with a variety of countries.

That combative approach has already frayed relations with some of the US’s closest allies, but Trump’s latest example of deal-making bravado threatens to inflict the most damage yet. On June 1, Trump announced his intentions to renege on the Paris climate accord in a feisty speech delivered in the White House rose garden. The US, he said, was getting short-changed by the agreement, which he claims will bring devastation to American companies and workers. He also vowed to renegotiate the deal on better terms, if possible. (Several legal experts, as well as signatory countries France, Germany, and Italy, believe the US will not be able to renegotiate if it leaves the agreement.)

“It is time to put Youngstown, Ohio, Detroit, Michigan, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, along with many, many, other locations within our great country, before Paris, France,” Trump said.

But while Trump’s tough talk may play well with his base, this approach is naive, misguided, and dangerous for the world—including the US, whose interests he claims to be defending.

To begin with, the world’s leaders, many of whom Trump has already antagonized, may be unwilling to entertain the idea of trying to negotiate anything with the US president. Trump’s view of the world is that it’s a massive negotiation table where you better swindle someone else or you’ll be swindled. His brash, threatening style might have worked when closing real-estate deals, but it’s unlikely to gain as much traction among those who believe in the world as a global community, where it is possible to strive for—if not always achieve—compromise and cooperation.

Trump may also find that other countries can easily turn his arguments about unfairness back at the US. On Thursday, Trump complained that countries such as China and India get special dispensations for certain kinds of pollution under the agreement, while the US is unfairly burdened by aggressive emission-restriction targets.

His grievance neglects the reason the Paris agreement signees—all 197 of them—agreed to set up different standards for different countries: For decades, wealthy countries, and especially the US, exploited developing countries’ natural resources to their advantage and belched the biggest amounts of pollutants that contribute to global warming. And in more recent years, wealthy countries have essentially outsourced their pollution to the poorer countries where the goods they buy are manufactured.

But Trump’s biggest miscalculation in pulling out of the Paris deal is not recognizing the real nature of the zero-sum climate change game. For him, this scenario must end with one country winning—or losing—at the expense of another country. “The Paris climate accord is simply the latest example of Washington entering into an agreement that disadvantages the United States to the exclusive benefit of other countries leaving American workers, who I love, and taxpayers to absorb the cost in terms of lost jobs, lower wages, shuttered factories, and vastly diminished economic production,” he said.

In fact, all of humanity is at risk of being on the zero side of the equation here. If the world doesn’t work together to solve the problem, losing jobs in Youngstown or Detroit will be the least of the US’s problems.

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