Donald Trump’s advisers are to hold another meeting on Tuesday to decide whether the US should remain in the Paris climate agreement, amid growing nervousness from businesses and other countries over a potential withdrawal.
The unusually public internal debate over the future of the deal has shown deep divisions within Trump’s administration as to whether to ditch the pact, which was struck in 2015 when nearly 200 nations agreed to curb their greenhouse gas emissions to avoid dangerous climate change.
Trump, who promised to “cancel” the agreement during the presidential election campaign, has said there will be a “big decision” on the accord ahead of a G7 meeting of nations later this month in Sicily. The president is reportedly leaning towards exiting the agreement, although he may still decide to downgrade America’s involvement rather than end it completely.
Different factions in Trump’s orbit have clashed over whether the US should pull out. Steve Bannon, Trump’s top strategist, favors withdrawal, as does Scott Pruitt, the EPA administrator, who has called it a “bad business deal for this country”. Rick Perry, the energy secretary, said last month “we probably need to renegotiate” the agreement.
Meanwhile, Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state, and Trump’s family members and advisers Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, are understood to favor remaining in the deal. Ivanka Trump is set to meet separately with Pruitt on Tuesday to discuss the Paris pact and according to AP has been handed the task of reviewing US climate policy.
Discussions have become somewhat bogged in a legal debate over whether the US could downgrade its emissions reduction goals. Barack Obama’s administration set a target of a 26-28% reduction in emissions by 2025, based in 2005 levels.
The Paris agreement states “a party may at any time adjust its existing nationally determined contribution with a view to enhancing its level of ambition”. Pro-exit elements in the administration have argued that this text would make it hard to cut the US’s emissions reduction target and may even be used by environmentalists to challenge Trump’s attempts to dismantle Obama’s Clean Power Plan.
The Paris agreement is built on a series of voluntary targets set by individual governments with no penalty for failing to meet them. Obama-era officials who helped craft the UN document point out that the language specifically encourages further ambition while allowing nations to backtrack if necessary, such as Japan has done in the wake of the Fukishima nuclear disaster.
“The issue of changing targets come up during the negotiations and the answer is clearly yes – you can change them,” said a former US government official familiar with the process, who asked not to be named.
“There’s clearly an expectation that you’d change it in the higher direction but it’s not legally prohibited to change it in the other direction. This is a red herring, used to get people nervous about legal risk. People seem very focused on an imaginary risk and not the very real economic and diplomatic risk of withdrawing.”
Several countries have urged the US, the world’s second largest greenhouse gas emitter, to not leave the Paris agreement and risk undermining it. Only two other nations – Nicaragua and war-torn Syria – are not party to the deal. Some US foreign policy experts have warned Trump that the US’ standing in the world and its position as a clean energy leader would be weakened by withdrawing, for no tangible benefit.
“Withdrawing would be harmful mostly to the reputation of the US, it would severely downgrade its leadership status in the world,” said Maria Ivanova, a global governance expert at the University of Massachusetts. “There’s no space for a vacuum so if the US leaves the world of clean energy and energy efficiency then that vacuum will be filled by somebody, probably China.
“Some countries would decry the US leaving while others will say ‘now we can pull together on this’. Countries stepped in when the US pulled out of Kyoto and we got the Paris agreement. There shouldn’t be a place at the table for countries who say they disrespect the agreement but will stay and influence what other nations do.”
Big businesses have added their voice to the debate, with a group of more than 200 large investors this week joining calls from firms, including fossil fuel interests, to stick with the status quo. A recent letter signed by BP, Shell and Rio Tinto informed Trump that the Paris deal “expands markets for innovative clean technologies, generating jobs and economic growth” adding that “climate change presents US companies with both business risks and business opportunities.”
But dozens of conservative and free market groups are urging Trump to follow through with his promise to exit the deal, claiming it wages “regulatory warfare” against America.
“The Paris climate treaty is an all pain for no gain agreement that will produce no measurable climate benefits and exacerbate energy poverty around the globe,” said Myron Ebell, former head of Trump’s EPA transition team and a director at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
The American public is largely supportive of the deal, according to polling conducted by Yale University. Nearly seven in 10 registered voters say the US should stay involved in the climate pact, with just 13% wanting an exit. A slim majority of Republican voters want to remain.
The world’s average temperature has increased by around 1C since mass industrialization, with 16 of the 17 warmest years on record all occurring since 2000. The Earth hasn’t experienced carbon dioxide levels as high as they are now for at least three million years, when the sea level was around 80ft higher than it is today.
Scientists have warned that nations face a shrinking window of time in which to cut heat-trapping emissions to avoid further warming beyond 2C that would cause severe sea level rise, heatwaves, spread of disease and the potential mass displacement of people.