A meeting among President Donald Trump’s senior advisors to figure out the administration’s stance on the Paris Agreement is reportedly back on after an earlier one was called off. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Steve Bannon, Jared Kushner, National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Secretary of Energy Rick Perry are among those who will gather tomorrow and debate whether or not the US will pull out of the agreement — as Trump has suggested it should — or remain in it.
As of yesterday, Rick Perry allied himself with proponents of remaining, including Tillerson and Kushner — but said that the US should “renegotiate” the deal. “I’m not going to tell the President of the United States let’s just walk away from the Paris Accord,” Perry said at a renewable energy conference in New York. “But what I’m going to say is we probably need to renegotiate.
So what does that mean?
Other countries will almost certainly not allow the US to renegotiate the entire agreement, but each country’s individual emission-cutting targets are non-binding. That means the Trump administration is free to announce new, weaker targets for the US than the ones to which Obama committed.
This would antagonize other polluting nations. China, Brazil, Japan, the United Kingdom and the European Union are all already asking pointed questions about whether the Trump administration has a plan to meet Obama’s promises. However, US allies would likely respond better to the Trump team weakening US targets than they would if he chose to pull the second-largest polluting nation out of the deal altogether.
An opportunity for fossil fuels.
The idea to “renegotiate” has been bubbling up for months. In March, for instance, Rep. Kevin Cramer, a Republican and Trump ally from North Dakota, sent a letter to the president urging him to “present a new pledge that does no harm to our economy.” The Obama administration’s previous effort, to cut emissions by up to 28 percent over 2005 levels, “would cause irreparable harm” Cramer argued, citing figures from the American Council for Capital Formation, a fossil fuel industry aligned think tank.
Cramer’s home state is rich in coal, oil and natural gas, and many of the industries that extract those fuels see an opportunity to brighten their industries’ futures. Cramer’s letter encourages Trump to come up with a new pledge that takes into account “emission benefits produced by the shale revolution” — i.e., fracked natural gas — and “the importance of baseload power generation, including highly efficient and low emission coal-fired and nuclear power plants.”
George David Banks, a White House senior adviser on international energy and environmental issues (and a former executive vice president at the American Council for Capital Formation, the source of Cramer’s data), has been pushing the idea from within the White House. Andrew Restuccia reports for Politico that, back in March, Banks briefed fossil fuel industry officials on his plan.
Cramer also argued that remaining in the Paris Agreement will provide an opportunity for the US to push fossil fuel-related technologies, like carbon capture and storage, globally — a move that could help resuscitate America’s ailing coal mining industry. “We should work closely with our allies to develop, deploy, and commercialize cleaner technologies to help ensure a future for fossil fuels within the context of the global climate agenda,” writes Cramer.
They’ve got to do something
Here’s another possible reason that staying in the Paris Agreement is increasingly in vogue in Trumpworld: There’s a growing recognition among Republicans and the fossil fuel industry that, legally, the administration cannot simply ignore climate change. The EPA issued an “endangerment finding” at the beginning of the Obama administration declaring that the continued emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases imperiled public health.
Even though Trump and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt are moving to scrap the Clean Power Plan on which Obama’s Paris commitment relied, they have not yet taken aim at the endangerment finding that necessitated it. And even if they did, it is unclear they would succeed in unraveling it, John Timmer reports for Ars Technica.
So, with the endangerment finding in place but the Clean Power Plan on its way out, the Trump administration will have to find a new way to tackle climate change — or face a barrage lawsuits directed at Pruitt by clean energy advocates, who would argue that the EPA has identified a public health threat but is failing to do anything about it. Some Republicans see a carbon tax as an appealing option. Others, including Perry, are enthusiastic about the potential of carbon capture and storage technologies.
Taking the long view
“Renegotiation” proponents like Perry recognize that if the US is going to have to take action on climate change, however tepid, it makes sense for it to stay in the Paris Agreement, albeit with less ambitious goals.
Importantly, maintaining a “seat at the table” does not mean that the US will support the spirit of the agreement. After weakening its own commitments, the US could work to weaken the deal from the inside.
Still, for concerned environmental advocates the current deliberations by the administration are not lose-lose. A decision by the Trump administration to stay in the agreement — even with a weaker commitment than that set by Obama — would keep the window open for a future, more climate-savvy president to recommit the US to meaningful action.