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Donald Trump changes the climate game

In withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris climate accord, Donald Trump has set in motion a number of powerful forces

This won’t be a popular thing to say, but what the heck: a lot of what Donald Trump said on Thursday about measures to contain carbon emissions is true.

Virtue isn’t free. Climate action imposes certain costs today against a hope of staved-off catastrophe in the future. Many of those costs are borne in areas of heavy industry or natural-resource extraction. Even Alberta’s NDP government puts the cost of its own climate plan at 0.3 to 0.4 per cent of GDP by 2022, though it argues the cost would be more than offset by oil exports through pipelines the climate plan made palatable. Even if cost across a society is low, or there’s a net benefit across a society, the cost to some segments of the society is real.

Those costs are so scary to democratically elected governments that it’s not at all clear they can meet reasonable reduction targets with measures currently in place. Jean Chrétien barely tried, Paul Martin was not in office long enough to be judged on the matter, and the super-virtuous government of Justin Trudeau adapted Stephen Harper’s carbon targets, just to be on the safe side, and is not currently on course to meet them. Check back later, the Prime Minister says. France had to abandon one carbon-tax plan.

Last autumn, Canada’s Conservatives greeted Trump’s election by saying it would be “complete insanity” for Trudeau to pursue a carbon tax in the face of the new president’s extremely-easy-to-foresee climate protectionism. Brad Wall, who remains Saskatchewan’s premier, said the same. It is easy to imagine that, if Trump’s policy results in further concessions to polluting heavy industry, some investment that would otherwise have gone to Canada will go instead to the U.S. industrial heartland. You can be sure you’ll hear about such cases if they happen.

MORE: Why corporate America thumbed its nose at Trump over the climate deal

But a very broad cross-section of governmental and private-sector actors across the West have parted company with Trump all the same. They include Justin Trudeau, a suddenly English-speaking Emmanuel Macron,  the CEO of Disney, Elon Musk, governors of big U.S. states, and mayors of big cities. These are people who believe (a) the science on climate change; (b) the importance of keeping commitments; (c) the utility of paying now to avoid grief later; (d) that sectoral gains, in clean tech for instance, can offset sectoral losses, and that it’s really hard to establish a causal link between aggressive climate action and economic decline; (e) that the time to part company with Trump was bound to come sometime, so it might as well come now.

In particular, Trudeau’s relationship with Trump looks increasingly like an amiable, even sucky, front for an aggressive and broad effort to get Canadian eggs out of the American basket. François-Philippe Champagne, Canada’s Energizer Bunny trade minister, hosted talks in Toronto on a post-American TPP trade alliance, and is working hard to find softwood markets somewhere other than due south. Macron is already more openly antagonistic to the White House than any French president since the Iraq war.

All of this comes hard on the heels of Trump’s astonishing Europe trip, which left the normally determinedly even-keel Angela Merkel musing that Germany must look out for itself in this world because the U.S. and Brexiting Britain, while still always friends, no longer have Europe’s back. Israel can’t trust its intelligence in American hands.

MORE: What Trump’s decision really means for global climate action

It’s important not to get too definitive, too fast, about all this. There were good reasons for U.S. hegemony for the last 80 years, and one loopy White House tenant won’t bring all those reasons to an end. But as Democratic governors, way outnumbered by Republicans, form alliances on climate policy, and Democratic big-city mayors openly resist the White House, and opposing Trump around the world begins to seem far more electorally advantageous than kowtowing to him, things could start to move fairly quickly.

Things to watch: calls by California Democratic state senators for a “climate summit” to be chaired by Jerry Brown and to which Mexican and Canadian representatives would be invited. Brown is ancient and distant from Washington, but has set himself up as a sort of leader of the opposition to Trump. The summit his Dems want would pose an interesting dilemma to the Trudeau government.

Closer at hand is the G-20 summit in Hamburg in July. What’s not to love about this summit? Trump and Trudeau will be there, as will the leaders of China—and Russia. The host will be Angela Merkel. Climate and free trade are on the agenda. A very large majority of the G-20 leaders are already, as of Thursday night, on the record opposing Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Accord. Several of them watched him traipse around Europe and came away unimpressed. Offhand it’s hard to imagine Hamburg will be the venue for a group hug.

MORE: Canadians shouldn’t be smug about America’s Paris accord retreat

One more thing. The Conservative Party of Canada has made sneering contempt for Trudeau’s climate plans its daily diet for 18 months. As a bonus, Conservative members heartily booed one of their own leadership candidates, Mike Chong, at every multi-candidate event on his campaign to seek the party’s leadership. (Patrick Brown, the former CPC MP who’s fetched up as Ontario’s poll-leading Conservative opposition leader, is interestingly more nuanced on the question.)

Laughing at carbon taxes won the Conservatives one election, in 2008, and there is still absolutely a constituency for it today. How does that change after Trump’s Paris Accord withdrawal? Guessing the answer to that one will be one of Andrew Scheer’s first big challenges.