"They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made." — F. Scott Fitzgerald, "The Great Gatsby"
Donald Trump's chief argument for withdrawing from the Paris climate accord is that it would destroy jobs, stifle growth, cause electricity blackouts and raise energy prices to ruinous levels. His decision is proof that he and his allies have no knowledge of the past and no regard for the future.
Americans have had to deal with environmental dangers before. Back in the 1960s, our air was filthy. Our rivers and lakes were dying. Our kids were being poisoned by lead. Alligators, bald eagles and other species were threatened with extinction.
But not everyone cared. Such ills, we were told, were the price of progress. We could have a cleaner environment, or we could have jobs and modern comforts. Require factories and cars to pollute less and our prosperity would vanish, leaving us all cold, hungry and poor.
It didn't turn out that way. A Republican president, Richard Nixon, signed the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act and created the Environmental Protection Agency. Things began to improve.
Auto and factory emissions declined. Skies cleared, and rivers became safe for swimming. Endangered creatures came roaring back. Lead levels in humans fell. Better air saved hundreds of thousands of lives by reducing heart disease and asthma.
Not only that but the economy flourished. Trump and his budget director have been promising a return to GDP growth rates of 3 percent per year. Back in the 1970s and '80s, despite those new environmental rules, growth often topped 4 and even 5 percent.
The doomsayers were wrong. The cost of protecting the environment turned out to be much less than critics had claimed. We proved beyond doubt that it is possible to solve serious environmental problems while making our people richer, healthier and more comfortable. Yet Trump and his allies have dug the old arguments out of the grave and lined them up like zombies to do battle.
In his announcement Thursday, the president took a moment to brag about the jobs added since he took office — overlooking that they materialized in spite of Barack Obama's environmental regulations, many of which are still in place.
The U.S. emissions targets in the Paris agreement were not onerous. Jerry Taylor, president of the Niskanen Center in Washington, has pointed out, "We're already two-thirds of the way toward meeting" them. All that is needed to complete the job is to merely accelerate the shift from coal to natural gas that is already underway.
If Trump were keen on job growth, he might note that the oil and gas business has added more jobs since 2006 than there are jobs in the entire coal industry. The evidence suggests that by 2030, if left in place, the Clean Power Plan (which is designed to cut carbon emissions) would create 15,000 jobs on net.
Today, as in the past, the opponents of environmental protection vastly exaggerate the expense of reducing pollution. As before, they give no weight to the rewards.
The benefits are not limited to saving the polar bears and the Greenland ice sheet decades from now. A study in the scientific journal PLOS ONE concluded that in the U.S., "air quality improvements associated with climate mitigation policies can be large, widespread, and occur nearly immediately once emissions reductions are realized."
The scientific basis for curtailing greenhouse gas emissions is powerful. But it's been clear for a long time that no amount of evidence will convince the opponents.
First they denied the planet is warming. Then they said the planet is warming, but from natural causes. Then they admitted humans are partly to blame but insisted we don't know how much warming will occur. Their latest line is that people are cooking the earth but the Paris accord would make only a trivial difference. Their conclusion, however, never changes: Do nothing.
But the mild uncertainty and modest costs that we face are no grounds for complacency. Taking steps to reduce carbon emissions would show a prudent approach to peril, an appreciation of the future consequences of our actions and a farsighted concern for generations yet to come.
Trump worries that the world is laughing at us. He should worry that his grandchildren will curse him.
Steve Chapman blogs at http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/chapman. Follow him on Twitter @SteveChapman13 or at https://www.facebook.com/stevechapman13. To find out more about Steve Chapman and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.