Trump Has Already Won First Battle Over Paris Climate Agreement
President Trump’s ambiguous decision-making process regarding whether to stay or leave the Paris framework agreement on climate change means he will meet with European, Canadian and Japanese leaders at the G7 meeting in Sicily with what looks like an open mind.
But informed observers argue he has already successfully renegotiated the 2015 Paris Agreement in which the Obama administration had agreed to cut U.S. carbon emissions by 26-28 percent from 2005 levels by 2025 and spend billions of dollars to support environmental programs in developing nations.
Critics of Trump’s environmental and energy policies had hoped that those Trump aides who want to remain in the Paris agreement would win the day. Enormous amounts of political capital were spent during the Obama administration’s second term to craft the Paris agreement in a way that could survive future administrations, no matter how anti-climate-action they could be. But it’s likely many of the Obama-era efforts regarding climate change will largely be undone.
Trump has essentially forced European leaders and the environmental community to accept a reinterpretation section 4.11 of the climate agreement that says: “A Party may at any time adjust its existing nationally determined contribution [NDC] with a view to enhancing its level of ambition…”
“There is no obligation embedded in the Paris agreement, nor is there an obligation in the forum itself,” said Kevin Book, managing director at ClearView Energy Partners, a political consulting firm.
After the Trump administration signaled in late April that remaining in the agreement could create legal problems for the administration as it looked to undo Obama-era environmental policies, “nearly every major environmental group spontaneously reinterpreted section 4.11 to allow the U.S. to revisit its ambitions downward,” Book said. “Arguably, this may be the greatest negotiating success of the president’s political career, so far.”
Negotiators in Paris debated whether to lock in language that would only allow one-way, more stringent adjustments to emissions, but decided against it. The looser language means a country like the United States can weaken its commitment to the agreement and not be in violation. Before going further, it’s worth noting:
The overarching international legal authority for everything related to climate change is the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change treaty passed by the U.S. Senate in October 1992. This treaty was signed by nearly 200 countries and has created the international legal foundation for the entire climate change political economy.
The actual U.S. legal foundation for the national control of greenhouse gas emissions is the obscure but powerful “endangerment finding” made by the Environmental Protection Agency in December 2009. The EPA found that greenhouse gas emissions were a danger to the health of U.S. citizens because of the threat rising sea levels and temperatures can have on humans. The endangerment finding found six actual pollutants – carbon dioxide (C02), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs) and sulfurhexafluoride (SF6) – as the cause of man-made climate change.
In the simplest of terms, the fight over what to do about rising greenhouse gas emissions is a disagreement over the view that argues human life has been put at grave risk by fossil fuel emissions. Democrats and those on the left of the political spectrum believe climate change is an acute political emergency; most Republicans and those on the political right believe it is not a political emergency and are unresponsive to the scientific consensus that global warming is a threat to the health of the planet.
A key part of the argument against pulling out of the Paris agreement is that it will alienate America’s allies in Europe at a time when disagreements over NATO funding and a refugee crisis emanating from the Middle East are challenging U.S.-European relations.
“I think [Trump] is going to start learning, especially as the G-20 process unfolds, that pissing off the Europeans for no reason is not a good idea,” said David Victor, an international relations scholar at University of California San Diego, speaking with Vox journalist David Roberts.
The idea that such an exit would alienate European partners is not unprecedented. In May 2001, George W. Bush withdrew the United States’ signature from the Kyoto Protocol signed in the late 1990s, much to the consternation of Germany and France.
It’s possible that Trump will simply frustrate expectations regarding Paris and punt a final decision even further into the future. The United States cannot withdraw from the Paris agreement as currently written until 2019, giving Trump plenty of opportunity weaken the U.S. pledges in the meantime.