This past weekend, the Trump administration seemed to signal that maybe the United States’ participation in the Paris climate accords was still up for negotiation. After weeks of wall-to-wall coverage of how climate change fuels the megastorms that have hammered Texas, Florida, and the Caribbean — and with several similar weather systems teed up in the oceans around us — a U.S. official sat in on a meeting of nations that did sign the climate treaty, and a European Union official left with the impression that the U.S. would not withdraw but instead “review the terms under which they could be engaged.”
It’s no wonder the European official was confused. Since The Wall Street Journal’s report to that effect, we’ve had a flurry of White House officials insisting the president hasn’t altered his stance — and carefully adding that he is open to having his mind changed. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the administration’s position remains the same, and the U.S. “is withdrawing unless we can reenter on terms that are more favorable to our country.” National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said the president’s “ears are open if … [his] very legitimate concerns with Paris” were addressed. On Monday, White House economic adviser Gary Cohn said the U.S. would withdraw, unless it could secure “terms more favorable to the United States.”
That sounds sensible — like the opening gambit of a negotiation — but it’s actually meaningless. First, each signatory to Paris set its own targets for reducing the greenhouse gases that cause climate change. Second, each country has complete latitude to decide how it reaches those targets. Third, the accords don’t even provide penalties against countries that promise to cut greenhouse gas emissions and then fail to do so. From an international perspective — or even an oil-and-coal-industry perspective — it’s hard to see what withdrawing from the treaty accomplished.
A new U.S. president could have said, “I’m lowering our Paris target,” or “I’m changing the way we plan to meet the target” — and then dealt with the criticism at international gatherings. That approach would have kept the U.S. inside the treaty — and inside the process that sets the rules for follow-up over the next few years.
That’s why the right way to look at the latest statements from the Trump administration is through the lens of politics. “Reviewing the terms of engagement” is a wonderfully diplomatic phrase to drop on the eve of President Trump’s first foray into the wilds of the United Nations. It suggests to foreign governments that there might be a deal to be had, or at least some value in engaging with the administration on climate. It gives the same impression to Americans who want to believe whatever iteration of “Trump pivots to center” we’re on this week. It gives the media a plot twist. And it gives the president a chance to reassure his conservative base that he’s never changing. He gets all these benefits simply from a trick of rhetoric.
This tactic is, strangely, fundamental to how Trump governs. He ends protections for young out-of-status immigrants, making them vulnerable to arrest and deportation — and then announces something that looks like a six-month waiver and says it’s Congress’s job to fix the problem. He announces that transgender individuals may no longer serve openly in the U.S. military … with a time delay and a pretense of wiggle room for the secretary of Defense. In addition to climate, Trump seems to be gearing up for the same puppet show on U.S. participation in the six-party agreement that suspended Iran’s nuclear weapons program and provided for intense inspections of the country’s nuclear facilities.
Funnily enough, although diplomacy depends on a gloss of misdirection and half-truths, the international-affairs community is especially unready to deal with a leader who doesn’t say what he means.
So here’s a simple way to understand where Trump really stands on climate: Look at the discrete, domestic policies that would make the U.S. economy cleaner and greener — there, the administration’s position is deeply at odds with Paris. Though slowed by lawsuits, the White House insists it is moving ahead to replace or repeal entirely the power-plant standards that would have provided a major proportion of the emissions cuts the U.S. promised at Paris. Another major chunk of U.S. cuts were to come from higher requirements for auto mileage, which the administration is also reviewing — while Britain and France have outlawed gasoline-powered cars as of 2040, and China is moving to become the Detroit of the electric car.
If those policy choices stick, whether we keep our name on Paris is irrelevant. They would mean the U.S. — the world’s second-largest emitter now and largest single emitter over time — will not be able to comply with the targets Obama committed to in Paris. Nor will U.S. businesses be able to reap the economic benefits of the shift to a green economy. While China looks to become a new Detroit, we risk a future of selling each other horse-drawn carriages. Perhaps we’ll do diplomacy with courier pigeons, too.