What's a boy to do?
The Paris Climate Agreement
Should We Stay or Should We Go?
Before the game is afoot, thou still let’st slip.
–Shakespeare’s King Henry IV Part I
Predictably there’s been a lot written over the last few weeks about the Paris Climate Agreement and whether the Trump administration will continue to sit with other nations. There has been a substantial increase in tweets, polls, studies, press conferences, anonymous reports and mutterings going into and coming out of the Easter weekend.
Driving the increased media traffic is speculation Trump’s senior staff will begin meeting this week to develop a U.S. position on the Agreement. The ultimate decision will remain for The Donald to make.
It is important to be clear about what is really being decided. It is being reported that the question to be answered is whether the U.S. will continue to honor the obligations made by President Obama. It’s not.
While technically that might be right—in reality that train has left the station. Given the slew of executive orders Trump has signed directing EPA to cancel, suspend, roll back and reconsider dozens of environmental regulations, the administration has already declared its intentions.
Add to this: the Secretary of Energy’s recent order to prepare a study report about base load generation and whether the system is too supportive of wind and solar, the proposed slash and burn of federal clean energy and climate change programs, and the administration’s widespread purging of any references to climate change or suggestion of human culpability. These are not the actions of an administration intending to continue the commitment of the previous administration.
Although no one has asked me for my opinion—in particular any one of the Trumpians—I figure having given over 30 professional years to the clean energy sector and in support of climate action, I can forgo the invitation and just jump right in.
I realize I may be an outlier on this. The fact is I can’t imagine any good coming from the U.S. continuing to have a place at the table.
Let me rephrase that—only the Trump administration stands to benefit. It’s not as if the administration intends to keep the commitments Obama made.
Should the decision be to remain seated, Trump will get to claim that he has always been and environmentalist and perhaps succeed in fooling some of the people at least some of the time.
Now, I do understand that others are thinking The Donald’s Trumpettes might alter their—and his– opinions about climate change and the need to combat it.
I am guessing the reason for such hope is a belief that by keeping the company of climate defenders from other nations, the likes of Pruitt, Mulvaney, Bannon, Zinke, Sessions and others will gradually come to believe.
This might be called the “company you keep” theory of conversion. Both my professional and personal opinion on that is: it’s a load of crap—and not the good kind.
—It has about as much chance of succeeding as my turning into a Prius by standing next to one for a while—even a very long while--
Conversion by osmosis doesn’t happen in the real world. The denier’s chorus has already indicated nothing will convince them that the Earth is under threat by anything we do. Why else refuse to discuss it, by erasing references to even the possibility?
I wrote back in October an article suggesting that there was no comfort to be found in the finer points of law and diplomacy should Trump be victorious in November. Once in office, He Donald could still mess with the Paris Agreement.
At the time I wrote:
The real threat to combat global climate is Trump’s vow to:
Can he do any of these things? You bet he can. What should be most frightening to we climate advocates is the dark irony of it all. Very little of what Donald promises he will do, can he do. These things he can—and quickly.
What I wrote then was speculative, now it’s true. Being right is no consolation. The reason I am again raising what I had written earlier is to illustrate that Trump has an easy way forward to keep his promised recall of America.
A way forward is not itself determinative of what Trump will decide to do. There are good political and practical reasons why he will go down that path—whether he decides to stay or go from the Paris Accords.
Trump’s decision to stay at the table in Paris, while doing next to nothing at home, is a win-win forTrump. That it’s a loss for the rest of the world is of little matter to him. If ever a president needed a victory to show his supporters, The Donald do.
He has cellar popularity numbers and is facing a conservative Republican rebellion because of failed healthcare reforms, engagement in Syria, an implied willingness to cooperate with Democrats, and a seeming preference for the Wall Street crowd—including Gary Cohn. Cohn is Director of the National Economic Council, on the record in support of Paris, an ally of Jared Kushner and thought by Bannon as a conservative antichrist.
Within the next several weeks, pressure from the right is only going to increase. Trump is likely to need the support of Senate Democrats—House if possible—to keep the government open the day after the current continuing resolution expires. Inevitably, that will require some concessions to Democratic demands
These next few weeks will also begin to bring forth a clearer picture about what The Donald’s tax and infrastructure proposals will be and whether Ryan and McConnell have even a snowball’s chance of getting through the Congressional gauntlet without being eviscerated by members of their own party.
So, what’s a boy to do? Particularly if that boy has orange hair and is the 45th President of the United States? He’ll reach out and try to keep his base happy long enough to figure out something else to do to take their minds off his not living up to his campaign promises.
One of the most galvanizing phrases in the Republican lexicon is: we don’t need no lousy environmental regulations. For a president in need of proving to his core he still has it, dismantling federal clean energy and environment programs is a sure winner.
The White House asked business and industry for recommendations of regulations they would most like to see abolished or weakened. Environmental and labor regulations were the overwhelming favorites. With Pruitt at EPA and possessed of executive directives to go forth and rescind, Trump can fairly well assure business and industry their will be done.
Interestingly some major players in the oil, gas and coal industries are urging continued support for Paris. As reported in the Daily Caller, Peter Trelenberg, Exxon’s manager for environmental policy, wrote in a letter:
It is prudent that the United States remain a party to the Paris agreement to ensure a level playing field, so that global energy markets remain as free and competitive as possible.
Joining Exxon are BP and Royal Dutch Shell. Chevron is more circumspect indicating it will withhold judgement until it better understands the impact of a yes on the administration’s domestic policies and programs. The American Petroleum Institute, has not taken a formal position on the Paris agreement.
Natural gas is playing a prominent role in carbon reduction efforts around the world. Their support for Paris is not particularly surprising, therefore. Cheniere and other natural gas suppliers also see staying seated at the table as a useful instrument for fostering demand for America’s energy resources…
A bit quizzical is the willingness of Cloud Peak Energy Inc. and Peabody Energy Corp. to publicly favor the Agreement. This being politics everyone wants something in return for even a gracious gesture.
In the case of coal, the companies are of a mind that support for Paris increases the likelihood the federal government will be more willing to support carbon capture research and demonstration.
They may be right. Although the argument for further development of capture systems can stand on its own as a means for Trump to show he is earnest about helping to keep coal on life support. Equally, the world actually needs to figure out how to capture and keep carbon before it is emitted into the atmosphere; there are significant business opportunities to be had should it achieve commercial viability.
Endorsement of the Agreement by oil, gas and coal companies is a gesture. As long as you are confident the Trump administration isn’t really going to do anything other than continue a carbon-as-usual policy, what the hey? Why not be gracious?
Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute actually has an answer to that:
Big corporations and Wall Street did not elect President Trump and are out of touch with the economic realities that face people who
in resource and energy-intensive industries.
The Heritage Foundation, the Texas Public Policy Foundation and the usual stage right cast all agree. Bloomberg quoted Mike McKenna, a Republican energy lobbyist, putting it this way: This is a campaign promise — a specific promise the president made repeatedly. He’s not just going to be able to walk away from it.
All of these folks have a lot of skin the game. I certainly don’t blame them for expecting The Big Guy to make good on his promises. Trump may be made of Teflon—others aren’t.
A few weeks ago there were reports of Pruitt being targeted as a turncoat for having advised the president not to order him to revoke the endangerment finding outright. I’d commented at the time that Pruitt was right—as a matter of legal strategy—to recommend what he did. It was a much sounder way to begin to kick out the struts holding up the Clean Power Plan.
The attack seemed disingenuous at the time. Pruitt is not just one of the most outspoken of deniers; as the Oklahoma Attorney General, he led the charge against Obama’s environmental efforts over a dozen times. His challenges are still working their way through federal courts. Why attack the poster boy of deniers?
I now think the answer to that is fairly obvious. Pruitt was the crash dummy used by the deniers to send Trump a message. It’s gotta be hell to be a Trump surrogate.
Let’s review the players and their positions–
There is good reason for the more moderate of Trump’s senior staffers, e.g. Kushner, Cohn and Tillerson, to be supportive. They likely believe what they are saying and it buys them some points with moderates—both Rs and Ds—to be used at a later date.
Seniors that are deniers, i.e. Bannon, Pruitt, Mulvaney, et. al, get to say what they believe. They also earn points with the Ebell’s of the world, along with the House Freedom Caucus and others.
Coal, oil and gas interests in support spruce up their images and, who knows, maybe it will lead to improved sales abroad.
For the fossil folks opposed– it’s what they do and as long they do it, they get to continue to do it.
The clean energy and environmental communities are a bit of a mixed bag. The enviros will never be happy with Trump and Trump really doesn’t give a shit.
Renewables are business people. The market is there and growing whether the U.S. stays or goes. Could it be better? Sure, but it will go on, no matter what.
Renewables straddle between the environmental community and the business community. My personal feeling is—that’s as it should be. The communities do work together, even if it’s not always. Neither can really afford to be too aligned or they will have trouble maintaining the needed discipline of their base.
Trump is going to be far better off with his core supporters, if he pushes back from the table. He has little—if anything—to gain by staying.
Climate defenders won’t believe him if he relents. Conservatives won’t forgive him if he does.
The man has a reputation for flippery, whatever he says today is likely to change with the winds tomorrow. Staying is the hollowest of gestures, as long as he continues along the course set by the executive orders and his proposed budget.
Remaining at the table is outright hypocrisy. Worst of all it will slow down other nations, which for deniers is victory.
The recent G-7 meeting was a glimpse into the future. Six of the seven nations were ready to do something positive and Secretary Perry said sorry guys, we’re still thinking about it.
No, I’m sorry. What the hell’s there to think about? His denial is as clear as his executive orders.
It is truly a shame that leadership—business leadership—may well fall to China and India because they are ready to fill the void created by the U.S. pulling back efforts. U.S. companies will still participate in the market.
Who knows, maybe that will be what convinces Trump to change his mind yet again. Whether he can convince enough Republicans in the Congress and elsewhere is a question for another day.
If all of this doesn’t suggest to you that the world would actually be better served by an honest and timely U.S. answer—as unfortunate as that might be—I will leave you with this last scenario and you can make the call.
Joel B. Stronberg
Joel Stronberg, MA, JD., of The JBS Group is a veteran clean energy policy analyst with over 30 years’ experience, based in Washington, DC.