The Paris Climate Agreement: Why is President Trump Still Waffling?

By Joel B. Stronberg

Predictably there’s been a lot written over the last few weeks about the Paris Climate Agreement and whether the Trump administration will continue to sit with other nations.

Driving the coverage is the on-again off-again meeting between Trump and a pace of senior advisors. The ultimate decision will be his to make—purportedly after the G-7 summit at the end of May. His advisors are divided. EPA Administrator Pruitt leads the leavers, while Secretary of State Tillerson, Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump are shepherding those advising to stay.

Pruitt believes remaining a signatory to the Paris agreement will be used as grounds to challenge the administration’s recent rollback of environmental regulations, including the hold put on  the Clean Power Plan. Tillerson is wary of increased diplomatic pressures, should Trump decide to renounce the agreement. Interestingly, both are right.

It is important to be clear about what is really being decided. The question these groups are grappling with is: WIll the U.S. will continue to honor the carbon commitments made by President Obama?

While technically it’s a good question for them to be asking, in reality the train has left the station. Given the slew of executive orders Trump has signed directing EPA to cancel, suspend, roll back and reconsider dozens of environmental regulations, the administration has already declared its intentions.

Add to this: the Secretary of Energy’s recent order to prepare a study report  about base load generation and the implication of a tilts towards wind and solar; the proposed slash and burn of federal clean energy and climate change programs; and the administration’s widespread purging of any references to climate change or suggestion of human culpability. These are not the actions of an administration intending to reduce aggressively carbon emissions. Intentions matter—despite what my mother had to say.

I realize I may be an outlier on this; but, the only good I see coming from the U.S. continuing to occupy space at the table accrues to the Trump administration. It’s not as if the administration intends to honor former President Obama’s commitments. Should the decision be to remain, President Trump will claim he has always been an environmentalist and perhaps he will succeed in fooling some of the people at least some of the time.

I understand others are hoping that by keeping the company of climate defenders Trump and his key advisors will come to believe climate change is real and must be aggressively combated. This might be called the “company you keep” theory of conversion. My opinion on that: it’s a load of crap—and not the kind you put into a digester.

Conversion by osmosis doesn’t happen in the real world. The denier’s chorus has already indicated nothing will convince them that the Earth is under threat.

Back in October, I wrote an article suggesting that there was no comfort to be found in the finer points of law and diplomacy, should Trump be victorious in November. Once in office, President Trump could still mess with the Paris Agreement. At the time I wrote:

 The real threat to global climate is Trump’s vow to revoke every executive order in support of the development and deployment of clean energy technologies; and remove all regulations impeding the unbridled operation of the coal, oil and gas industries.

Trump’s decision to stay at the table in Paris, while doing next to nothing at home, is a win-win for Trump. That it’s a loss for the rest of the world is of little matter to him. If ever a president needed a victory to show his supporters, Donald does.

Trump has cellar popularity numbers and is facing a conservative Republican rebellion because of failed healthcare reforms, engagement in Syria, an implied willingness to cooperate with Democrats, and a seeming preference for the Wall Street crowd—including Gary Cohn. Cohn is Director of the National Economic Council, on the record in support of Paris, an ally of Jared Kushner and considered by Steve Bannon to be a conservative antichrist.

Increasing pressure from the right will be brought to bear on President Trump between now and Congress’ summer recess. Although his base still supports him, many established and powerful conservatives—in and out of Congress—are becoming increasingly doubtful.

These next few weeks will also bring forth a clearer picture of Trump’s tax and infrastructure proposals. They will also demonstrate whether Senators Ryan and McConnell have a chance of getting the proposals through the Congressional gauntlet, without being eviscerated by members of their own party.

So, what’s the president to do? He’ll reach out to his base.

One of the most galvanizing phrases in the Republican lexicon is: we don’t need no lousy environmental regulations. For a president needing to prove to his core supporters he still has it, dismantling federal clean energy and environment programs is a sure winner. Divestiture of these programs and policies renders the current U.S. Intended Nationally Determined Contributions moot. As it is, existing commitments by the U.S. and the other 200 or so parties to the Paris agreement are unlikely to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius.

Interestingly, some major players in the oil, gas and coal industries are urging continued support for Paris. Peter Trelenberg, Exxon Mobil’s manager for environmental policy, recently wrote in a letter:

It is prudent that the United States remain a party to the Paris agreement to ensure a level playing field, so that global energy markets remain as free and competitive as possible.

Joining Exxon Mobil are BP and Royal Dutch Shell. Chevron is more circumspect, indicating it will withhold judgement until it better understands the impact of a yes on the administration’s domestic policies and programs. The American Petroleum Institute has taken no formal position.

Natural gas is playing a prominent role in carbon reduction efforts around the world. That industry’s support for Paris is therefore not particularly surprising. Cheniere and other natural gas suppliers also see staying seated at the table as a useful instrument for fostering demand for America’s energy resources.

A bit quizzical is the willingness of Cloud Peak Energy Inc. and Peabody Energy Corp.  to publicly favor the Paris agreement. Coal companies are of a mind that support for Paris increases the likelihood the federal government will be more willing to invest in carbon capture research and demonstration.

They may be right. Although the argument for further development of capture systems can stand on its own with the administration. In any event the world needs to figure out how to capture and keep carbon before it is emitted into the atmosphere; there are significant business opportunities to be had should it achieve commercial viability.

Endorsement of the Paris agreement by oil, gas and coal companies is a gesture. If you’re confident the Trump administration isn’t really going to do anything other than continue a carbon-as-usual policy, what the hey? Why not be gracious?

Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute actually has an answer to that:

Big corporations and Wall Street did not elect President Trump and are out of touch with the economic realities that face people who work in resource and energy-intensive industries.

The Heritage Foundation, the Texas Public Policy Foundation and the usual stage right cast all agree. Bloomberg quoted Mike McKenna, a Republican energy lobbyist, putting it this way: “This is a campaign promise — a specific promise the president made repeatedly. He’s not just going to be able to walk away from it.”

These folks have a lot of skin the game. I certainly don’t blame them for expecting The Big Guy to make good on his promises. Trump may be made of Teflon—other Republicans aren’t.

Two recent developments are being alluded to as possible mind-changers. The first is an attempt by former lead negotiators, Todd Stern and Susan Biniaz, to lower Trump’s resistance to the climate accords–by suggesting it is well within his prerogative to lower the U.S. intended reduction targets.

The second a letter by 200 investors, representing more than $15 trillion of managed assets, urging G-20 governments—most especially the Trump administration—to reaffirm their commitments to combat climate change at meetings in May and July.

Whether the possibility of lowered targets and the investors’ letter will convince president Trump to commit to the Paris agreement or not, it will be used by the Kushner, Trump, Tillerson, Cohn and others to support their recommendation.

Bottom line, Trump is going to be far better off with his core supporters, if he pushes back from the table. Politically he has more to gain by leaving than staying, at least in terms of appealing to his core supporters. Climate defenders won’t believe him if he relents. Conservatives won’t forgive him if he does.

 

Joel B. Stronberg, Esq.,of The JBS Group is a veteran clean energy policy analyst with over 30 years’ experience, based in Washington, DC. He writes about energy and politics in his blog Civil Notion . He works extensively for public and private sector clients at and recently taken on the duties of managing partner for LAC Solar Light, Inc. a B-type corporation working in the Americas. Joel can be contacted at thejbsgroup78@gmail.com.

Image credit: gckwolfe, Flickr

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