White House debate on Paris was never about climate change

The wrangling between Trump’s advisors was always about how best to burn more fossil fuels

Supposedly at war over climate change, key advisors Jared Kushner and Steve Bannon watch on as Trump signs orders to green-light the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines (Photo: Office of the President of the United States)


As United States President Donald Trump was deliberating his country’s future in the Paris climate deal, there were two internal camps marshalling their arguments.

But the wrangling in the White House was not a debate about climate change. It was over how best to burn more fossil fuels.

In one corner were the fossil fuel apologists, the climate science denialists and the network of conservative think tanks that have used conflicted cash to keep their arguments flowing.

For them, leaving the United Nations pact would help the US regain a competitive advantage and put their economic prosperity first. The costs of climate change impacts were never factored, because for them, they do not exist.

In the other corner, there were groups who, on the face of it, seemed unlikely bedfellows.

Trump’s daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner – both presidential advisors – recruited of the likes of Hollywood star-turned-climate campaigner Leonardo diCaprio and former Vice-President Al Gore to sit down with the president.

In the uncertain months leading up to this decision, much was made of her influence on her father. But, on this issue at least, that appears to have been overblown.

Rex Tillerson told his senate confirmation hearing that the US should stay in the agreement to protect its own interests (Photo: greatagain.com)

Ivanka was joined by Trump’s secretary of state Rex Tillerson, who oversaw a long-running programme designed to confound climate action as the CEO of Exxon. He was also pushing for the Trump administration to keep a seat at the UN table.

At least two coal companies, Peabody Energy and Cloud Peak, had tried to convince Trump to remain in the Paris deal. Oil and gas giants Exxon and Conoco also voiced support for the Paris deal.

This internal fight represented two different approaches from a fossil fuel industry trying to sustain itself. One approach is to bulldoze and cherry-pick your way through the science of climate change and attack the UN process — all to undermine your opponents’ core arguments.

Another approach is to accept the science but work the system to convince governments that “clean coal” and efficiency gains are the way forward.

The latter was exactly the rationale reportedly deployed by coal firms like Peabody Energy and Cloud Peak.

According to White House officials quoted by Reuters, these firms wanted Trump to stay in the Paris deal because this gave them a better chance of getting support for “low-emission” coal plants.  They might also get some financial help to support the development of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology.

When the World Coal Association talks about it’s role at United Nations climate talks, it too is hopeful that being inside the United Nations tent will give them a chance to justify the future of its industry through less-dirty coal generators and CCS.

During his senate confirmation, Tillerson was asked if the US should maintain leadership on climate issues. He demurred, saying that the US should “maintain its seat at the table”. Earlier he had said he held this view so that the US could understand “what the impacts may be on the American people and American competitiveness”.

It was hardly an endorsement of the aims of the process. Its certainly didn’t convince Trump, of course, as we now know who won.

Full story: Donald Trump’s US leaves Paris climate agreement

Celebrating today will be Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon, the former boss of the hyper-partisan news outlet Breitbart, and Scott Pruitt, the head of Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency (Bannon once called global warming a manufactured crisis, while Pruitt is unconvinced that extra carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is causing climate change).

Trump had declared a year ago that, if elected, he would leave the Paris agreement and stop all payments to “UN global warming programs”. On that, he has simply fulfilled a campaign promise.

The “remain” camp was clearly facing an uphill battle.

There’s an awful lot of dust that needs to settle before the implications of Trump’s decision become clear.  Will his decision galvanise others, such as Europe and China, to take a great leadership role?

Will it encourage some eastern European countries already unhappy at the greenhouse gas cuts pledged in Paris, to slow the process further?

For the meantime, we can begin to assess why the climate denial machine that won the day over those trying to subvert the climate process from within.

Social science academics that have studied the “climate change counter movement” say the organisations that proliferate this world view have captured key institutions that grant them outsize power.

Professor Riley Dunlap, a pioneer in the field of environmental sociology, concedes that Trump’s decision is  “a major victory for the denial machine.”

Report: Leaked EU-China climate statement – in full

In particular Dunlap, of Oklahoma State University, points to “core elements like the Heritage Foundation” – a think tank that Trump has tapped for several positions in his administration.

“Withdrawal is the logical outcome of their success in getting Trump to appoint hardcore deniers like Scott Pruitt to key cabinet and administrative positions,” says Dunlap.

“This administration is institutionalising climate change denial more fully and brazenly than did the George W. Bush administration, which was effective in stalling both national and international policy-making.”

“While efforts to reduce carbon emissions can still be taken at state and local levels, the federal government’s role is critical, especially in international efforts to deal with climate change.”

The only way to change that is through the ballot box, he says.

“We are not going to reduce the influence of the denial interests in the federal government until we see major changes in its composition – a new administration and Republicans losing their grip on Congress.”

Professor Robert Brulle, of Drexel University, has studied the network of think tanks that have been pushing back against climate action – often with debunked arguments about the influence of fossil fuel brining on the climate.

“It is very clear to me that the organisations long-associated with providing climate misinformation played a major role in the announcement by president Trump,” Brulle told Climate Home.

“What is needed is the public exposure of the tactics and strategies of these organisations engaged in misinformation efforts, and how they work with their sponsors to create and promulgate their misinformation campaigns.”

Report: GOP climate rebels emerge from the shadows

Professor Aaron McCright, of Michigan State University, also researches the political and social dimensions of climate policy.

He says there is a slowly strengthening bloc within the Republican Party that rejects the kind of climate science denial that has become a key element of their party’s identity.

“These science-accepting Republicans must continue to grow in number; they must find public platforms to consistently communicate their messages; and they must do the hard work of convincing their GOP brothers and sisters to accept the science and go about looking for conservative solutions to climate change,” he says.

“This will not be easy.  But, I think this is the only real way to crowd out motivated climate change denial from their party.  The change must come from within.”

Read more on: Climate politics | Fossil Fuels | US | World | | | | |