In their scramble to reach a decision on whether to stay or leave the the Paris Climate Change Agreement, the Trump administration has repeatedly delayed meetings and pushed back announcements. Just this Tuesday a meeting with top advisors was moved because of a scheduling conflict, marking the second time that a key meeting was abruptly rescheduled. And while Trump had previously announced that he would reach a decision on the agreement before the G7 leaders’ summit meeting on May 26th, at a press briefing on May 9th Sean Spicer postponed yet again, saying that a final rule on Paris would come only after the G7 summit.
So, in Trump’s own words, “What the hell is going on?”
During his campaign, Trump pledged to “cancel” and “rip up” the Paris Agreement. But now that he’s president, Trump seems to have realized that things aren’t as simple as he imagined; a withdrawal from the Paris Agreement would come with a huge price tag in the form of diminished U.S. influence abroad. And, as there seem to be plenty of ways to ignore the emissions reductions promised under the agreement, Trump has started to reconsider his pledge to pull out of Paris. The situation has become increasingly messy as Trump’s top advisors split into two opposing camps on whether to stay or leave the agreement. And in true reality TV fashion, much of the debate has been playing out all over the media.
Advocating to stay in the agreement are the globalists in Trump’s administration, who claim that an exit from Paris would diminish American influence abroad. The members of this camp include economic advisor Gary Cohn, the so-called “Democrat” and senior advisor Jared Kushner, and the first-daughter Ivanka Trump, who is the closest thing to an environmentalist currently in the White House.
“He’s [Trump] already not popular in many countries, particularly in Europe but in other parts of the world as well, and an exit from Paris would just be another blow to his reputation and it would make cooperation with anything he wants to do much more difficult,” explained Alden Meyer, Director of Strategy and Policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists. “And I think there’s a lot of people that are trying to impress that upon him.”
The international business community has also largely rallied behind the globalist camp; a coalition of Fortune 100 companies, which includes the likes of Google, DuPont, General Mills and Shell, sent a letter to Trump stating that the Paris Agreement is “a stable and practical framework” for combating climate change. Even Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who was the Chairman and CEO of one of the world’s largest oil and gas companies, thinks staying in Paris is a good idea. In his confirmation hearing Tillerson said: “It’s important that the U.S. maintains its seat at the table about how to address the threat of climate change, which does require a global response.”
On the other side arguing for a direct ditching of the agreement are the nationalists and climate change deniers, which include the Chief White House strategist Steve Bannon, the EPA Climate Denier-in-Chief Scott Pruitt, and dozens of conservative and free-market groups. The main arguments here are that climate change is a hoax, that the Paris Agreement is a “bad deal” that will harm the U.S. economy, and that staying in the agreement could force Trump to take domestic policy positions he doesn’t like.
This pullout position promoted by Bannon and Pruitt is largely in line with the Trump administration’s rhetoric on other trade and international treaties, like NAFTA and NATO, explained Meyer.
It’s an anti-multilateral, anti-globalist mentality: a ‘let’s go our own way and fortress America’ way of thinking, which really doesn’t work when it comes to climate change. There is no way to build a wall that will insulate Americans from extreme weather events, hurricanes sea level rise, floods, forest fires…it’s not rational.
Trump Can’t Just “Cancel” the Paris Agreement
Trump can’t single handedly cancel the Paris Agreement. Christiana Figueres, who, as the former Executive Secretary of the the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, was the agreement’s key architect, broke it down like this:
It’s important to understand that no single country, no matter how large or small, can cancel the Paris Climate Agreement. The Paris Agreement is a multilateral agreement that has gone into force, and any country has the right to exit the agreement, or in fact to exit the Convention, but that doesn’t mean that the multilateral structure is actually canceled.
At its core, the Paris Agreement is a collection of voluntary pledges from individual countries, spelling out how they will each reduce their own emissions by certain amounts. Any country, including the U.S., can decide to not follow through with their so-called Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), but that alone wouldn’t alter the pledges from the other signatories.
So while Trump could formally withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Agreement, he could also stay in the Paris Agreement and simply not complete any of the reductions pledged under the Obama administration. This is, in effect, one of the main arguments for the globalist camp: Why leave, if staying in the agreement doesn’t cost much while a withdrawal would come with a heavy price?
“The only other countries that are not in Paris are Syria and Nicaragua, even North Korea has signed the agreement,” explained Meyer. “An exit from the Paris would be a huge blow for President Trump internationally, making it more difficult to get support from other countries and leaders for parts of his agenda on trade, on terrorism, on military cooperation.”
The Bogus Legal Argument for Ditching Paris
Under the Paris Agreement, the Obama administration pledged to reduce U.S. emissions by 26-28% by 2025, based on 2005 levels. One of the main mechanisms of achieving these emissions reductions was the Clean Power Plan (CPP), which would have curbed emissions from power plants by about 30% by 2030. Since being appointed head of the EPA, Pruitt has been systematically dismantling the CPP. However, according to Bloomberg, both Pruitt and Bannon have voiced concern that the Paris Agreement legally prohibits countries from weakening their emissions reduction pledges, and that if the U.S. stayed within the agreement, the EPA could be sued over Pruitt’s efforts to dismantle the CPP. Therefore, both Pruitt and Bannon argue that a total pullout from Paris is needed.
“These are pretty dubious arguments and I’m not sure if I would hire these people [Bannon and Pruitt] as my lawyer” said Jake Schmidt, Director of the National Resource Defense Council’s International Program. “Because if you look at it, not one single group of states or environmentalists that defended the Clean Power Plan have argued that the Paris Agreement requires the EPA to keep these [the CPP] regulations intact.”
Bannon and Pruitt’s argument rests on Article 4.11 of the Paris agreement, which says that a nation “may at any time adjust its existing nationally determined contribution with a view to enhancing its level of ambition.” While article 4.11 allows for an adjustment up, it doesn’t explicitly allow for an adjustment down, and such a decrease could supposedly expose the Trump Administration to the risk of legal action by conservation groups. The New York Times summed it up like this: “The question is whether the ability to “adjust” is like a ratchet, allowing progress only in one direction — upward — or if it permits a country to weaken its commitment without violating the terms of the deal.”
But, as Vox writer David Roberts points out, “That’s not really a question. It’s an utterly fake question. No one credible thinks for a moment that 4.11 creates any kind of legally enforceable prohibition against weakening an NDC.”
Roberts cites a brief co-authored by Susan Biniaz, one of the authors of article 4.11, explaining that a downward revision is totally consistent with the language of the Paris Agreement:
When the question arose during the negotiation of the Paris Agreement whether a party could revise its NDC once submitted, many negotiators believed it went without saying that parties could, given that NDCs are “nationally determined.” Others, however, believed it was desirable to make this point explicit — thus the inclusion of Article 4.11. The option of legally prohibiting a “downward” revision was discussed and supported by some, but rejected…in sum, while a downward revision is liable to draw criticism, it is a legally available option under the Paris Agreement.
Similarly, Todd Stern, the lead climate negotiator in the Obama administration, told The New York Times that the language of the Paris Agreement was meant to allow flexibility, both up and down, in terms of emissions reduction commitments. Even the Sierra Club seems to agree; in a memo sent in early May the environmental group’s senior attorney wrote that “it is extremely unlikely that a U.S. court would find that Art. 4.11” presented grounds to sue the Trump administration.
So, Why Exit the Paris Agreement at All?
“I think it’s pretty clear what’s driving it: The Bannon wing of the White House, and Jeff Sessions and Pruitt and the others in that camp,” explained Meyer. “It’s a political signal to the nationalist wing of Trump’s base. It’s an ideological battle.”
“Bannon’s view of the world is that a global anything is bad…and so something like the Paris Agreement fits in his world view of things that are bad for the U.S. to be a part of,” agreed Schmidt. “And Bannon is feeling like he needs to run through the list of campaign promises, check the box on his whiteboard.” Roberts reached a similar conclusion in his article, writing “Leaving the Paris agreement is good for one person only: Steve Bannon.”
While leaving the agreement might benefit a small camp of loud Trumpeters, it would have a resounding impact on the rest of the world. The fallout wouldn’t be constrained to politics, diplomacy and the economy, but would also include the irreversible consequences of climate change.
"Do we really want to join Syria and Nicaragua as the only nations on Earth not committed to this worldwide fight to stave off famine, drought and environmental devastation?" asked Ken Cook, President Environmental Working Group. “Walking backward doesn’t take the planet or the country with you, Mr. President. It won't stop the glaciers from melting, catastrophic storms from occurring, or the Atlantic Ocean from rising up and swallowing Mar-a-Lago.”