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White House Officials Raise New Hopes that U.S. Will Stay in Paris Climate Treaty

The Wall Street Journal set off a kerfuffle early Saturday evening, September 16, when it sent out an email news alert headlined, “Trump Administration Won’t Withdraw from Paris Climate Deal, EU Official Says.” European Union Commissioner for Climate Action and Energy Miguel Arias Canete was quoted by the Journal as saying: “The U.S. has stated that they will not renegotiate the Paris accord, but they will try to review the terms on which they could be engaged under this agreement.” Canete was interpreting remarks made at a meeting in New York City by White House advisor Everett Eissenstat.

The White House press office soon after sent out an email headlined, “FAKE NEWS: PARIS ACCORD.” White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters stated: “There has been no change in the United States' position on the Paris agreement. As the President has made abundantly clear, the United States is withdrawing unless we can reenter on terms that are more favorable to our country.”

That would seem to end the story, but Lisa Kaufman of The New York Times had reported on September 12 that Gary Cohn, chairman of the White House National Economic Council, was going to host a breakfast meeting in New York City on Monday, September 18, just before the United Nations General Assembly was scheduled to open. Cohn’s meeting was not with economic ministers from other countries, but rather with a dozen or so environment and energy ministers. The purpose of the meeting was to talk climate policy. 

Then on September 21, Andrew Restuccia and Emily Holden reported in Politico that more than a dozen deputy-level administration officials had met the day before “to chart a more cohesive energy and environmental policy strategy, including a game plan for communicating its position on climate change, according to three people familiar with the meeting.” They also reported that the meeting, which is part of White House Chief of Staff John Kelly’s effort to bring some order to the White house’s chaotic policy-making process, was only the first of several meetings on climate and energy.

These events have led to a flurry of news articles and opinion columns speculating on what is really happening in the Trump Administration on climate policy. I gave my assessment to several newspapers and broadcast outlets, and here is a fuller version of what I told CNBC: In announcing on 1st June that the United States would withdraw from the Paris Climate Treaty, President Trump unfortunately left some wiggle room when he said that he was open to renegotiating the agreement on terms that were in our national interest. The method the President chose for getting out of Paris cannot take official effect until November 2020. This has allowed opponents of withdrawing from Paris inside the administration, including Cohn, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and a number of lower level officials, to continue to work to undermine the President’s position. I think Eissenstat’s remarks were intended to create mischief and then see what would happen. My guess is that the mischief will continue until President Trump demands that it stop.

The idea of renegotiating and reentering the Paris Climate Treaty is ridiculous, which is not to say that it couldn’t happen. The Obama Administration pledged in its Nationally Determined Contribution, which is a part of the treaty, to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. The regulatory actions undertaken by President Obama without any new legislation by Congress would have achieved just over half of the necessary reductions, according to Steven Eule of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The Trump Administration is undoing most of these regulatory actions, and if administration policies to boost economic growth and fossil fuel energy production succeed, emissions are likely to start to increase.

Moreover, President Trump has given China as an example of following its national interest in joining the Paris Climate Treaty. China’s NDC pledges that its greenhouse gas emissions will peak by 2030. Chinese economic projections show emissions peaking before 2030 in a business-as-usual scenario—that is, without taking any actions to limit fossil fuel energy use. The European Union would never allow the United States to reenter Paris with an NDC pledging that emissions will peak some time in the future.