Politico Energy and Environment
Trump’s climate conundrum nears a verdict
U.S. allies say they’re mystified about the president’s intentions for the 2015 Paris agreement — though some aides believe he’ll withdraw.
By Andrew Restuccia 05/30/2017
Donald Trump’s advisers have sent wildly different messages to U.S. allies about the president’s willingness to remain in the Paris climate agreement — adding to the confusion as he appears set to render a verdict this week.
Shortly before the G-7 summit in Italy last week, U.S. officials had private conversations with foreign diplomats that seemed to suggest Trump was open to staying in the landmark 2015 pact, two people briefed on the discussions told POLITICO. But then, to their frustration, the U.S. backed away, instead becoming the lone holdout from a declaration expressing “strong commitment” to the agreement.
The administration’s public statements have been no less mixed. National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn, who supports staying in the agreement, told reporters last week that Trump’s “views are evolving.” But allies of Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt, who wants the U.S. to leave, made it known that Trump privately agrees with them. Administration officials on both sides of the issue are increasingly convinced that he will withdraw, though they stressed late Tuesday that the decision is not yet final.
For all the mystery, though, Trump has only a few main options for dealing with the nonbinding climate deal, one of former President Barack Obama’s proudest diplomatic achievements.
He can stick with the deal, while unwinding most of Obama’s climate policies and pledges for reducing greenhouse gas pollution. He can use the threat of leaving to push other countries for concessions that benefit U.S. fossil fuels. He can even try to renegotiate the agreement — highly implausible, given that nearly 200 governments took part in crafting it.
Or he can do nothing.
This is POLITICO’s breakdown of the possibilities:
Trump vowed during the presidential campaign to “cancel” the Paris agreement, portraying it as a threat to U.S. jobs and energy production, and conservatives are convinced he’ll make good on that promise.
Pruitt and White House chief strategist Steve Bannon have emerged in recent months as the administration’s biggest opponents of the Paris agreement, and both men have made their case for withdrawal directly to Trump.
Pruitt and Trump discussed the issue again on Tuesday, a possible indication that he’s preparing to withdraw. Sources confirmed that Trump indicated in recent conversations with Pruitt that he was leaning toward pulling out of the agreement, as Axios reported last weekend.
But the climate discussions at the G-7, paired with a lobbying campaign from Pope Francis and other leaders, could have changed Trump’s mind. Other U.S. officials were convinced as recently as last week that Trump would remain in Paris.
Others are just uncertain. “I’ve stopped trying to figure it out,” said one longtime climate negotiator.
A withdrawal would strain U.S. relations with countries in Europe and elsewhere, and it could destabilize the foundation of the Paris deal. Such considerations have helped persuade even Trump’s secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, to support staying — as well as GOP lawmakers like North Dakota Rep. Kevin Cramer, an energy adviser to the president.
If Trump decides to pull out, though, the text of the deal would prevent a U.S. exit from formally taking effect until at least Nov. 4, 2020 — a little over two months before the end of his first term. But Trump’s public disavowal of the pact would certainly have an immediate impact on the global effort to tackle climate change.
In addition, Trump would have one speedier option for pulling out: He could withdraw the U.S. from the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the treaty that undergirds the entire regime of international climate negotiations. According to the Paris text: “Any party that withdraws from the convention shall be considered as also having withdrawn from this agreement.”
Remain, but win concessions
Administration officials who support remaining in the agreement have been working for months to try to flesh out a middle ground.
One option that has won support from some White House aides: weakening Obama’s pledges for cutting U.S. carbon emissions, and persuading world leaders to offer greater support for technologies to reduce pollution from fossil fuels like coal.
The first part is entirely within Trump’s power: Obama’s pledges were nonbinding, and the current administration would be free to substitute its own, less-ambitious promises if it chooses to — even as Trump seeks to undo Obama’s domestic climate regulations and slash EPA’s budget. Winning concessions from other countries would require some high-stakes dealmaking, however.
Before the summit in Italy, U.S. officials discussed those options with representatives from other G-7 countries, in conversations that gave diplomats hope that Trump was open to staying in the agreement if he could be reassured the U.S. has flexibility, according to two people briefed on the issue. But the U.S. ultimately backed away from pro-Paris language in the G-7’s closing joint communique, breaking with the six other countries that participated in the meeting.
Energy Secretary Rick Perry attempted a similar gambit during an April meeting of G-7 energy ministers in April. But the other countries rebuffed his attempt to place stronger pro-coal, pro-nuclear language into a proposed joint statement on energy policy, which wound up being scuttled.
If Trump decides to remain in the agreement, he’d probably cast the decision as a sign of his dealmaking prowess, and a wholesale repudiation of Obama’s climate pledge.
But it comes with political risks: Conservative groups would probably bash Trump if he decides to stay in the Paris deal, even if many people who voted for him probably don’t view the issue as a top priority.
Renegotiate the agreement — but that’s unlikely
Some in Trump’s orbit have urged the president to renegotiate the agreement, an option that is seen as all but impossible among international climate negotiators.
The 2015 Paris talks were the culmination of years of preparations, and it’s unlikely that Trump could persuade negotiators from nearly 200 nations to reopen the underlying text.
Some closely tracking the issue suspect that “renegotiate” is just shorthand for ensuring that the U.S. gets a better deal in future discussions arising from Paris. That could be accomplished through bilateral and multilateral negotiations with individual countries, or by influencing the discussions at subsequent climate conferences over how to implement the agreement.
Trump could also delay a decision for months or even years, avoiding the political fallout of withdrawing or remaining.
Instead of issuing a firm verdict this week, the president could announce he’ll tentatively remain in the agreement, but continue to review his options and reserve the right to withdraw at a future date.
Some who follow the issue think that could be his most politically savvy option.
“What good does it do to announce your intention to leave 2 ½ years early?” asked one longtime climate negotiator. “You’ve given up all your leverage.”