One week from today, President Trump gets his earliest opportunity to make good on his pledge to pull the United States out of the Paris Agreement.
The president made it clear last week that his plans had not changed, telling an audience in Pittsburgh that staying in the climate pact would have the effect of “shutting down” American energy companies while allowing foreign firms to “pollute with impunity” (Climatewire, Oct. 24).
It’s a message the president has offered many times since June 1, 2017, when he announced the U.S. withdrawal. Since then, observers have been anticipating the arrival of Nov. 4, 2019. It’s the first day permitted under the agreement’s rules when the United States can formally request an exit. That process will take one year.
“If everything is going according to plan, which I have every reason to believe it is, Nov. 4 is the day that the United States can officially begin the process of withdrawal, per the requirements of the agreement itself,” said Mandy Gunasekara, a former senior EPA official who now heads the Energy 45 Fund, a pro-Trump advocacy group.
The Paris Agreement took effect in the United States and 89 other countries Nov. 4, 2016, after satisfying a requirement that at least 55 countries responsible for at least 55% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions formally join. That threshold was reached just 10 months after global leaders accepted the pact in Paris. It now has 187 members, including North Korea, Syria and Russia. The United States is set to become the only member of the United Nations that shuns the deal.
The earliest the United States could leave the deal is Nov. 4, 2020, the day after the presidential election. That’s contingent on the United Nations’ receiving formal notice of withdrawal 365 days earlier. Every day that the United States delays giving that notice is one day longer that the Trump administration will remain in the climate pact.
Here are three things to watch
Coal Baroness Might Hand Off Paris letter
It could fall to U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Kelly Knight Craft to sign and deliver the letter formally withdrawing the United States from Paris.
There’s some precedent for that. Craft’s predecessor, Nikki Haley, sent a legally unnecessary letter to U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres in August 2017 affirming Trump’s intent to withdraw “unless the United States identifies suitable terms for reengagement.”
It’s not clear why Haley sent the letter.
“My suspicion was that Nikki Haley was tired of being asked in the hallways whether the U.S. would really leave Paris or not, or what does renegotiation actually mean?” said Andrew Light, a senior adviser on climate change in the Obama administration.
Craft, who was confirmed in July, recused herself from U.N. negotiations related to coal because her husband, Joseph Craft III, is CEO of Alliance Resource Partners, a coal mining company. But it’s unclear whether she would recuse herself from issues related to climate change or from actions that don’t involve negotiations, like delivering the letter.
Light said it would be unfortunate optics to have a “coal baroness” deliver the last blow to U.S. participation in Paris.
Richard Gowan, U.N. director at the International Crisis Group, said Craft “might prefer not to play a prominent role in this process.”
She seems aware of the controversy surrounding her ties to coal, he said, and spent the early months at U.N. headquarters focusing on topics like humanitarian aid and conflicts in Africa.
The letter, no matter who hands it off, will be produced by the State Department with White House signoff.
Effect On U.S Negotiating Clout
The United States has sent a team of career climate negotiators to the last two rounds of climate talks despite Trump’s 2017 decision to leave Paris, and they played a role in shaping the Paris rulebook — which was delivered last year in Katowice, Poland.
The team has kept a low profile while negotiating for long-held U.S. priorities. For example, Andrew Rakestraw, a State Department attorney, co-led a working group on transparency with a Chinese counterpart. He has since left the climate team.
Light said formalizing the withdrawal from Paris would further compromise the State Department-led team ahead of talks in December, when nations will meet in Santiago, Chile, for the next global climate conference.
“Going into Chile, if we’ve already done this, then people are really going to look askew at a country that has formally executed a withdrawal but still might be trying to change the substance of the agreement,” Light said.
Todd Stern, who served as special envoy for climate change under President Obama, noted that most of the Paris rulebook is complete. And he said most countries long ago abandoned hope that Trump would reverse course and stay committed to Paris.
“I don’t think there’s a lot of players out there who are in the ‘Gee, maybe he’s not so bad; maybe it won’t happen’ camp,” Stern said. “But I suppose it puts one more nail in this thing.”
The United States is also set to host the Group of Seven developed countries in June, and White House acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney has said climate change won’t be on the program. But Light, who is now a senior fellow at the World Resources Institute, said if the United States is in the midst of formally leaving Paris, that could turn up the heat on the other six world leaders to deliver something on climate.
“Those other G-6 leaders are all from countries that, to a one, are facing a much-increased environment of public frustration about inaction on climate change,” he said.
If the United States leaves the Paris accord in November 2020, it is virtually assured to rejoin in early 2021 if a Democrat wins the presidency. That could be done with a single letter and a 30-day waiting period.
The so-called nationally determined contribution (NDC) to Paris that the Obama administration offered in 2015 could be reinstated through 2025 — though it’s likely Trump-era policies have eroded the country’s ability to cut emissions 26% to 28% by 2025, as promised.
There would be challenges ahead for a Democratic president. A new president would have no ability to deliver an updated NDC next year in Glasgow. So the United States would rejoin the agreement as a delinquent member that hadn’t fulfilled its obligation to abide by its timeline.
“I think there will be some patience in the rest of the world for the United States to get its act together to submit a formal NDC,” Light said. “But there’s also going to be quite a lot of skepticism. After all, this is the second time we will have led the world down a path to create a climate agreement that is highly sensitive to our domestic circumstances and that either we didn’t join it or we abandoned it almost immediately.”
The Clinton administration, led by then-Vice President Al Gore, helped broker a climate deal in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997 but never submitted it to the Senate for ratification.
“I don’t think there would be a lot of toleration of significant delay for the United States to put forward a new NDC,” said Light.
But Stern said the world would likely be relieved to have the United States back in the deal, happily giving it months to deliver a carefully considered NDC. That would take time and coordination among agencies across the federal government and couldn’t be accomplished during a presidential transition period, he said.
A new president would likely promise soon after taking office to deliver a 2030 pledge at or before the U.N. climate summit at the end of 2021, he said.