Trump is attacking the Paris climate pact again. Here’s why

Source: Zack Colman, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Speaking in front of the political equivalent of a home crowd, President Trump told a cheering room of conservatives Friday what he really felt about the Paris Agreement: It’s not about climate; it’s about winning.

How Trump addressed perceived unfairness in the accord underscored how difficult it will be to keep the United States engaged in the global climate pact. That the United States gets a raw deal in trade deals and diplomacy is a central belief of the president, going back years before he ever entered public office.

The real Trump on Paris is the one who told the Conservative Political Action Conference that the Paris Agreement “would have been a disaster for our country.” He was showered in chants of “USA” in response. It cuts to the theme of fairness — or unfairness, depending on perspective — between the United States and its economic allies, and competitors, that runs through Trump’s trade positions.

“I think that it does in fact make it hard for him to walk back from his commitment to withdraw from Paris,” said Andrew Light, a State Department climate adviser under former President Obama who’s now at the World Resources Institute. “He wants his base to understand that Paris is a bad deal. ‘It’s not about dealing with a global problem, it’s a threat to Americans as well.'”

Trump’s view of the Paris Agreement has little to do with climate, a topic to which the president has devoted minimal attention.

“Other countries, big countries — India and others — we had to pay, because they considered them a growing country,” Trump said. “They were a growing country. I said, ‘What are we?’ Are we allowed to grow, too? OK? Now, are we allowed to grow? They called India a developing nation. They called China a developing nation. But the United States, we’re developed — we can pay.”

Those statements ignore that per-capita carbon emissions and wealth in India and China pale in comparison with the United States and that the Paris Agreement actually jettisoned the contentious developed-versus-developing construct that had plagued previous deals.

But that’s not what Trump considers. Despite flirting with the possibility of staying in the pact, the types of comments Trump made at CPAC dismay those who want to see the president reverse his withdrawal plans.

“It would take him fundamentally changing his opinion on what Paris is and means for the U.S.,” said Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy with the Union of Concerned Scientists. “And from watching him, the prospects of that seem pretty remote.”

Trump sees China and India adding coal-fired power plants to their electric grids while the United States shuts them down. One of Trump’s major gripes Friday was that the agreement constrained America’s “massive energy reserves” and that “we have coal. We have so much. And basically, they were saying, ‘Don’t use it, you can’t use it.'” That might make some sense if viewing the Paris Agreement through the climate lens under which it was executed. But U.S. coal plants are closing largely because of competition from low-priced natural gas, not climate-related reasons.

The president’s grievances about other countries’ pledges on greenhouse gases are “not scripted,” said former White House aide George David Banks, a Paris Agreement proponent who until recently handled international energy and climate issues for Trump.

So when Trump on Friday rattled off that China’s “agreement didn’t kick in until 2030” — which is incorrect, though he likely meant China’s emissions target is pegged to that year — or Russia’s emissions pledge is relative to a 1990 baseline, those are points that resonate with the president because they’re disparities, real or perceived.

“There were different perspectives and views, but I think one of the things that was discussed was how other countries — what other countries were doing within the context of Paris,” Banks said of the conversations ahead of the June 2017 announcement to exit the deal. “He cares about that, so obviously he remembered it pretty well.”

To Trump, this is about economics, competitiveness and, most of all, fairness. Those are “core values that he holds” in how the United States has been treated in trade and multilateral arrangements, said Kevin Book, managing director with ClearView Energy Partners LLC. Issues of “sanctions, trade and sovereignty” are still very much front of mind for Trump and his base.

“The stories that circulated in … June of 2017 suggested that [U.S. EPA Administrator] Scott Pruitt was the architect of Trump’s decision on Paris,” Book said. “Our contention was that the president had Scott Pruitt in the Rose Garden because Administrator Pruitt said what the president believed.”

That’s not to say Trump’s criticisms are baseless. China has caught flak for how much coal infrastructure it’s financing abroad, especially in Africa. The country also exports significant emissions through carbon-intensive manufacturing. And while the Paris Agreement ditched the distinctions between developing and developed countries, India and China are major U.S. economic competitors whose climate pledges enable them to add coal-fired power plants for several years.

That doesn’t mean meeting climate goals is any easier for China and India, as they’re starting from a different position than the United States. But that’s not what Trump sees. Nor does he see a potential advantage for U.S. clean-tech companies as other nations move to ratchet down emissions, which environmental groups and big businesses have argued. Trump, after all, came to power touting U.S. coal, oil and natural gas while calling solar and wind power too expensive.

A businessman by trade who takes a zero-sum approach to his interactions, Trump said in a Friday news conference with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, “I like bilateral deals much more than multi-.” He has also been more willing to take a hard line on trade by issuing tariffs on solar equipment and washing machines. Penalties on imported steel are expected to come next.

The benefits for remaining in the Paris Agreement are much less apparent to Trump from an economic perspective than in a one-on-one trade deal, said Sarah Ladislaw, director of the Energy and Natural Security Program with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“Just saying it’s like trade does not mean there’s a full-blown strategy. The approach to trade is tactical and transactive: Get the best deal,” she said in an email. “I assume the administration is waiting to see what people will offer them to reconsider their position on climate, but again, because it’s not a priority they don’t necessarily have a set of things that they want or that would satisfy this desire.”

Banks was on the losing side of the debate on Paris. He tried to argue that any country can unilaterally alter its commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, known as nationally determined contributions. In fact, the Obama administration lobbied other nations for that arrangement because Republicans wouldn’t have ratified an agreement that required the United States to hit a specific emissions number.

Many, including Banks, still hope Trump will eventually see the political advantages of remaining in the accord. Ladislaw said she thought Trump was “swayable” depending on the balance of viewpoints in the room. Light said Trump left himself plenty of leeway at CPAC to simply “change the talking points” to say he persuaded other world leaders to give the United States a better deal.

“If this administration ever really gets it together to want to achieve something internationally,” Light said, “then I think this is still something the rest of the world will be able to offer them.”

Some in the Trump administration, however, argued that the United States could only change emissions targets to be more ambitious, not weaker. Doing the opposite, they said, would invite litigation on domestic policies such as unwinding power plant emissions regulations. Trump sees that as critical to reviving the coal industry.

In that sense, the perception of fairness drove his decision on Paris.

“Those sorts of things have not changed,” Book said. “They didn’t change whether [National Economic Council Director] Gary Cohn was in the news or whether [former adviser] Steve Bannon was in the news.”