The climate community was on high alert through the week as soundings from the Trump White House indicated the former reality TV star and casino magnate was leaning toward withdrawing his country from the landmark Paris agreement.
The flow of discussion and arguments produced the bizarre, alt-reality prospect of climate hawks on both sides of the Atlantic having to affirm—loudly and repeatedly—that the global deal approved by 196 countries in 2015 most definitely does permit governments to downgrade their greenhouse gas reduction commitments if they choose to.
“To be super clear YES US can legally downsize NDC [their Nationally Determined Contribution under the agreement] as Contributions numbers are not legally binding,” tweeted former French climate ambassador Laurence Tubiana, now CEO of the European Climate Foundation. “But politically should not.”
White House officials met Thursday, then twice again this week, to decide whether to abandon Paris, or remain in the global climate deal but try to renegotiate U.S. commitments. Along the way, momentum has shifted toward a departure announcement as early as next week, the Washington Post reported Wednesday, citing “participants in the discussions and those briefed on the deliberations”. Formal withdrawal could take up to three years, only taking effect toward the end of Trump’s tenure in Washington.
White House conversations apparently shifted in a crucial moment Thursday, “White House counsel Don McGahn informed participants that the United States could not remain in the agreement and lower the level of carbon cuts it would make by 2025,” the Post stated.
That apparently erroneous interpretation of a key clause in the Paris agreement “prompted environmental advocates and supporters of the agreement to take the unusual step of publicly defending the United States’ right to weaken its climate target,” Politico Morning Energy reported. “The Sierra Club indicated in a recent internal memo obtained by POLITICO that it likely wouldn’t win a court challenge over withdrawal or a weakened domestic climate change pledge.”
Veteran attorney Susan Biniaz, the State Department’s lead climate lawyer from 1989 until early this year, reinforced that view in an interview with the Post. “The Paris agreement provides for contributions to be nationally determined and it encourages countries, if they decide to change their targets, to make them more ambitious,” she said. “But it doesn’t legally prohibit them from changing them in another direction.”
And in an editorial Wednesday, the Post declared McGahn’s analysis nonsense.
“World negotiators considered making the agreement’s climate commitment language stronger, preventing countries from backtracking on their pledges. They purposely declined to do so,” the Post recalled. “The envoys who hammered out the agreement insist that they wanted to keep nations’ options open, in part because countries would otherwise lowball their international emissions commitments in fear of never being able to reduce their stated goals.”
With that degree of flexibility baked into the agreement, one of the messages to the White House is how badly the U.S. would alienate itself on the world stage if it stepped away from the Paris deal.
“International officials are signaling the White House is significantly underestimating the international blowback withdrawing from the deal would create,” Politico ME noted. The U.S. “will piss off every single country in the world” if it steps away, one Paris negotiator told the Beltway daily. “It will haunt the administration in every aspect of its international diplomacy.”
Overseas are amping up the pressure, as well, with the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) both weighing in in favour of Paris. ““If the biggest economy in the world dumps the whole thing,” an EU source told Reuters, “we all have to worry.” EU diplomats “are reaching out at all possible levels…to try to explain why they do not need to leave the Paris agreement.”
“There is a huge necessity that the UN continues to involve all nations and coordinate the action of all nations” in the climate fight, said Gen. Denis Mercier, NATO’s supreme allied commander for transformation. “If one nation, especially the biggest nation…if they do not recognize a problem, then we will have trouble dealing with the causes” of the climate crisis.