The weekend brought swirling reports that the Trump administration was rethinking its rowdy withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, which it announced in June.
By the time Trump’s key advisors fanned out on the Sunday morning political talk shows, however, the hope that the administration was backtracking on its biggest climate hit job yet was dead. H R McMaster, Trump’s national security adviser, appeared on the right-wing network Fox, and called the news “a false report.”
It was more than the usual shrill charge of “fake news” however.
“The president decided to pull out of the Paris accord because it’s a bad deal for the American people and it’s a bad deal for the environment,” McMaster said, playing to the network’s nationalist audience. “The president’s ears are open if, at some point, they decide they can come forward with an agreement that addresses the president’s very legitimate concerns with Paris.”
“They” in this case, is nearly all of the world’s nations: 195 countries signed the Paris in 2015, creating the first ever worldwide pact to come to grips with climate change. Only two nations sat the agreement out – one because it said the agreement didn’t’ go far enough.
At a time when the United States is dealing with the wreckage left by two major hurricanes in less than a month, and even people who voted for Trump are now saying he should do something about climate change, the media might be forgiven for running to press with a narrative that seemed sensible.
But there’s a kernel of truth in the contradicted story, which was sparked when a European diplomat told reporters that the White House was considering softening its anti-Paris stance.
That’s because the United States hasn’t really left the Paris Accord and won’t be able to legally do so for a very long time.
The US commitment to Paris, which the administration of Barack Obama submitted in March 2015, set the goal of reducing the country’s greenhouse gas emissions by 26% to 28% by 2025. The baseline level this reduction is measured against is 2005, when the US emitted 6,132 million metric tons of carbon dioxide.
Because of the way the agreement is written, Trump can’t even submit written notice of his intentions to pull out of the accord until November 4, 2019.
Even then, however, he would have to wait a year – until November 4, 2020, for the withdrawal to take effect. Coincidentally, that’s the day after the next presidential election, at which point what Trump wants to hopefully will no longer matter.
While Obama agreed to the Paris accord through executive action, the US Senate approved the original treaty that was the UN’s basis of the overall Paris agreement under the administration of George H W Bush in 1992.
That means that Trump might have to exit that agreement as well – a process that would take a year and require senate approval. Throughout his loud denunciations of the Paris accord, Trump hasn’t thought to indicate he would have to tear up that treaty as well.
In the meantime, of course, it would probably be wrongheaded to expect Trump to live up to the commitments to which he is bound.
In March, two months before his showy announcement on Paris, Trump took aim at Obama’s Clean Power Plan, the centerpiece of America’s commitment to accord, which slashed carbon dioxide emissions from US power plants. But even bringing that down is proving to be a legal migraine for his White House.
In order to scuttle the power plant regulations, the Trump administration would have to prove that carbon dioxide doesn’t, in fact, pose a threat to the environment – and in order to do that, it would have to repeal clean air legislation in the United States dating back to the 1970s.
Clearly, the administration failed to look before it leapt into an international and domestic legal morass that seems to be beyond its understanding. But the confusion leaves a little hope.
In order to save face with his own voters – millions of whom are standing in knee-deep water surveying their destroyed homes in Texas and Florida – Trump may be forced to do something more than just grandstand on the climate. If he fails, however, the next US president will have a far easier time sticking to an agreement that Trump failed to pull out of: UN regulations say all they need is thirty days notice that the US intends to stick to the deal.