Trump hasn’t actually left the Paris climate deal. Not yet

Comment: Despite the headlines and Donald Trump’s rhetoric, the official US position remains unchanged and where things go from here are unclear

Times of accord. US president Barack Obama, UN secretary general Ban Ki Moon and French president Francois Holland - all former- at the Paris climate conference in 2015. (Pic: UN Photos)

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So, US president Donald Trump is pulling out of the Paris Agreement on climate change, but is prepared to renegotiate to go back in on terms more favourable to the United States.

Is that all clear?

Er… well, no. Clear as mud, actually. I’m not even sure that what the president announced last night can really be described as a ‘withdrawal’.

There’s been no official word on how and when the president plans to leave. And that’s important: as I wrote earlier in the week, there’s a world of difference between following the formal exit process laid down within the agreement and just walking out.

In fact, Trump’s language was more reminiscent of a business deal than a diplomatic process – ‘nah, I’m not going to buy at that price, we need to look again, but let’s keep talking and if you can meet me halfway, we might have a deal’.

Full story: Donald Trump says will US leave Paris climate agreement

But that’s not the way international diplomatic agreements work. It doesn’t tell us the hows, the whys and the whens – and we can’t be totally sure about the big if.

If the president is serious about wanting to renegotiate, then he has, really, to leave by the formally agreed process (and indeed US journalists have had White House steers to that effect) – because there’s no way that there’ll be any renegotiating once the US is outside.

So, let’s assume for a moment that the White House writes a letter to the UN climate convention next week declaring its intention to pull out of the agreement, but says that before it takes its Stetson and goes home entirely it’s prepared to enter into meaningful negotiations with other countries about getting a ‘fairer deal’.

Under the agreement, the letter wouldn’t count as a formal notice of withdrawal because the earliest a country can lodge such a notice is three years after the agreement came into force. That means November 2019.

Report: Trump desire to renegotiate Paris deal ‘incoherent’ and ‘clumsy’

So, while other countries would take such a US letter seriously, they could also argue that it changes nothing within the agreement until November 2019. There will be a US seat at the table this year’s UN climate summit in Bonn in November, and for subsequent conferences – plus US involvement in all the formal and informal discussions that take place between meetings.

At next year’s UN climate summit, countries are due to have what’s termed a ‘facilitative dialogue’ – a kind of stocktake (which can’t, for unbelievably arcane political reasons, be called a stocktake) of where they’re all at. Thereafter, the US would be due to begin work on an amended pledge for cutting its carbon emissions, and the clear intention of the Paris Agreement is that this would be tougher than the one it has already.

That doesn’t sound like a goer. So would the US delegation decline to take part in the facilitative dialogue – or heckle from the sidelines?

Or, will the White House opt to leave its seat at the table vacant, and instead hold talks with other countries designed to build momentum for the famous ‘renegotiation’? Might that involve setting up some kind of alternative forum, as the US did under President George W Bush with the late, unlamented Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate?

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Fast-forward then to November 2019, by which time campaigning for the next US Presidential Election will be well underway. The set of contenders to be the Republican candidate will presumably include one or two who would repudiate Trump’s stance – and one can pretty much assume that all the Democrats will be pro-Paris Agreement.

At that time, triggering a formal pullout might have considerable appeal for president Trump. If he’s seeking a second term in the White House, it would re-affirm with his core vote – and if he isn’t, it could become a legacy issue. Albeit one that any incoming president could reverse.

The formal mechanism in the agreement means that a country leaves one year after it lodges its formal letter of intent to leave. So if the US lodges the letter on the first day it can, that means it would leave in November 2020… in fact, the very day after the 2020 Presidential election.

If the incoming President had declared all along that he wanted back into the Paris agreement, you can bet the rest of the world would go along with that – meaning the US would never actually have left.

Alternatively, Trump could go along with the formal process for now, and declare a unilateral, screw-you exit if and when the mood strikes him – walking away, and presumably blaming other countries’ intransigence – the great deal-maker failing to make this one last deal. But that would open the door for a future, pro-Paris president to argue that the US had left illegitimately, and declare that decision invalid.

The other bit that’s clear as mud is what exactly President Trump wants to renegotiate.

The agreement has a part that’s supposed to be legally binding; but neither of the elements to President Trump seems to be objecting are in it.

The US set its own target [pdf] for reducing its own emissions by itself, and can change it by itself.

Analysis: White House debate on Paris was never about climate change

Meanwhile the total sum of money due for delivery from public and private sources in developed countries, to help the poorest clean up their economies and protect against climate impacts, is in the non-binding bit. It’s $100bn per year by 2020 – but that isn’t apportioned between different donor nations, nor between public and private sources. So there is no set US contribution beyond the $3bn which president Obama pledged to get things started – of which $2bn won’t be paid, as president Trump has already cancelled it.

Thus, neither the US emissions cut nor a US financial contribution was negotiated in the first place; so how can they be renegotiated?

Added to which, there’s no single entity with which to renegotiate. As the UN climate convention noted on its website: “The Paris Agreement remains a historic treaty signed by 195 Parties and ratified by 146 countries plus the European Union. Therefore it cannot be renegotiated based on the request of a single Party.”

Myron Ebell of the lobby group the Competitive Enterprise Institute has since conceded that there’s a large element of bluster about the ‘renegotiation’ meme.

I’ve left aside all the other things that could conceivably change the course of US history over the coming years – wars, impeachments, lawsuits on climate and energy cases – but even without any of that, it’s already a muddier picture than the headlines might indicate.

Trump has surprised us before, and he might surprise us again, by coming out with something that is procedurally clear.

Until then, the only thing that is clear is that while Elvis might have hung up his guitar for the last time and saddled his horse, he hasn’t yet left the building – and there is a scenario under which he never does.

Richard Black is the director of the Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit.

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