Stockholm (NordSIP) – A flurry of speculation exploded over the weekend that the Trump administration is reassessing its exit from the Paris Climate Accord, following remarks by White House Senior Adviser Everett Eissenstat at the 2017 Montreal Summit suggesting that the U.S. wouldn’t pull out of the agreement, but offer to reengage in the international deal on more favourable terms to the U.S. instead.
The story, however, is likely to amount to just that: speculation. Following the report by the Wall Street Journal’s Emre Peker, the White House swiftly denied it was backtracking. “There has been no change in the U.S.’s position on the Paris agreement. As the president has made abundantly clear, the U.S. is withdrawing unless we can re-enter on terms that are more favourable to our country,” Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement.
Mr Eissenstat, who is deputy assistant to the president for international economic affairs and deputy director of the National Economic Council, reportedly suggested at the meeting of 30 energy ministers organised by Canada, the European Union and China that the U.S. would remain at the negotiating table and possibly revise existing U.S. climate change objectives, rather than pull out altogether. He did not provide further detail. Summit participants were enthused that while this could mean reductions in the curbing of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, the return of the U.S. to negotiations would re-establish some unity around the Paris Accord, pre-empt other potential exits from the hard-wrought agreement and perhaps buy time to change the president’s perspective on the issue.
“The U.S. has stated that they will not renegotiate the Paris accord, but they will try to review the terms on which they could be engaged under this agreement,” European Commissioner for Climate Action and Energy Miguel Arias Cañete explained.
President Trump, who announced the withdrawal of the U.S. from the treaty in June, has suggested that he would be open to “begin negotiations to re-enter either the Paris accord or an – really entirely new transaction – on terms that are fair to the U.S., its businesses, its workers, its people, its taxpayers. So we’re getting out, but we will start to negotiate,” as the president stated.
However, the White House signalled its intent to continue the process of withdrawal by delivering an official notice to the United Nations via the State Department in August. The State Department did indicate, however, that the U.S. would continue participating in international climate change negotiations – including talks aimed at implementing the Paris Accord.
Several attendees at the Montreal Summit corroborated the suspicion that the assertions attributed to Mr Eissenstat were being misconstrued, with one suggesting that Eissenstat was simply restating the administration’s existing position as outlined by the State Department. “He basically repeated exactly the State Department press release from August,” the person said, according to Politico. “This is being misreported. Unhelpfully so I think.”
Under the terms of the U.S. agreement to the Paris Accord, it cannot fully withdraw until November 4th, 2020 – and withdrawal would therefore likely require president Trump’s re-election in order to be implemented, heightening the likelihood the issue will take centre stage in the 2020 presidential election. The president, whose declaration to withdraw was seen as a gift to his political base, is unlikely to radically overhaul his position – at least publicly – before then, not least because it is also likely to be a top issue on the democratic platform.
While the president has demonstrated a string of U-turns from initially hardline negotiating positions on a host of issues in his presidency so far, and while several factors over time – such as the changing constitution of his cabinet – might well cause him to change his mind, it remains more likely that in this instance, European and other diplomats were hearing what they wanted to hear. There is some consensus among diplomats, according to Politico, that the U.S. will ultimately opt to remain in the agreement while weakening the existing pledge to cut domestic emissions by 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025.
In the meanwhile, the most reliable indicator must be Trump himself. Known for making statements vastly at odds with the official communiqués by members of his administration, nothing will truly be known about the current U.S. position on Paris beyond the official statement from the State Department until the president brings it upon himself to comment the issue. Pending that, observers will mine National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn’s appearance with foreign officials in NYC today to discuss climate and energy issues ahead of the United Nations General Assembly for more clues – and more speculation.
UPDATE: (September 19) White House National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn made clear the U.S. stands by its plans to abandon the Paris Climate Accord unless there is a renegotiation more favourable to Washington, Reuters reported. “We made the president’s position unambiguous, to where the president stands, where the administration stands on Paris,” Cohn told reporters after an informal breakfast meeting with ministers from a dozen countries and the European Union. “There was some confusion over the weekend and I think we removed all the confusion,” Cohn said, referring to the Montreal meeting.
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