Yesterday, in a press briefing in the White House, President Trump’s press adviser, Sean Spicer, spoke about Trump’s discussions with his advisers about whether or not to withdraw from the Paris Agreement.
Before we look at Spicer’s comments, let’s remind ourselves what Trump said in May 2016, when he promised to “cancel the Paris Agreement”:
This agreement gives foreign bureaucrats control over how much our energy and how much we use right here in America. So foreign bureaucrats are going to be controlling what we’re using, and what we’re doing, on our land in our country. No way. No way.
Trump’s campaign rant is based on a complete misunderstanding of the Paris Agreement. The US, like every other country that signed the Paris Agreement, decides for itself what its emissions reductions targets will be. The Paris Agreement is voluntary and non-binding.
Spicer explains: Trump wants to meet his team
In his press briefing yesterday, Spicer mentioned the Paris Agreement almost as an afterthought:
Finally, with regard to the Paris Climate Agreement, the President has been meeting with his team for quite a while on this matter, and he will not be making an announcement regarding that agreement until after he returns from the G7.
This year’s G7 meeting will take place 26-27 May, in Italy.
Three journalists asked questions about the Paris Agreement:
Question: Are the cancelled meetings a sign the President is vacillating on the Paris accord and undecided whether to remain in the agreement or withdraw from it?
Sean Spicer: I think it’s simply a sign that the President wants to continue to meet with his team, develop a – meet with not just the national – the economic piece, but his environmental team and come to a decision on what’s the best interest of the United States using the expertise that surrounds him.
Question: As it relates to the G7, you said the decision on the Paris Climate Agreement will be made after the G7. So does the President feel that he can extract any concessions while he’s there? Does he feel like he can renegotiate it? Or does he just want more time? Why until after the G7?
Sean Spicer: I think the President wants to make sure that he has an opportunity to continue to meet with his team to create the best strategy for this country going forward.
Question: It’s my understanding that the President’s initial inclination was to pull out of the Paris agreement. He suggested as much on the campaign trail. But the situation has become a little bit more complicated. The knock against the Paris Agreement is that it would have a detrimental effect on the U.S. economy if fully implemented. Does the President believe that there is a way to stay in the Paris Agreement – maybe renegotiate the standards? Because he’s under a tremendous amount of pressure from many of his own advisors, other countries, to stay in this agreement to some degree. Does he think he can make changes and still stay in it?
Sean Spicer: I think the reason that he is seeking the advice of his team is to get options, and then he’ll pursue the best one. But I’m not going to tell you which one that he’s going to do. That’s why he’s continuing to meet with the team and to get advice. That’s it, plain and simple.
Regardless of the question, Spicer’s response is that Trump want to meet his team.
The third question came from John Roberts of Fox News. His question is based on a misreading of the Paris Agreement – the suggestion that it is legally impossible for a country to reduce the emissions reduction target set in its nationally determined contribution.
Is the Paris Agreement legally binding?
Article 4.11 of the Paris Agreement states that,
A Party may at any time adjust its existing nationally determined contribution with a view to enhancing its level of ambition, in accordance with guidance adopted by the Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to this Agreement.
While that sounds like any adjustment in a country’s climate targets can only be more ambitious, it is not legally binding.
Todd Stern, President Obama’s lead climate negotiator, told CNN:
“We obviously didn’t want parties to be going back, but we also thought it would be counterproductive to have a legal bar saying ‘thou shalt not go back’.”
The Sierra Club asked its lawyers to look into whether they could sue the Trump administration if he weakened the US nationally determined contribution. The lawyers response in a memo dated 1 May 2017 was that,
It is extremely unlikely that a U.S. court would find that Art. 4.11 creates a private right of action that would allow a suit against the Trump administration challenging the revision of the NDC, or that such a suit could win on the merits.
Earlier this week, Todd Stern wrote an opinion piece for the Washington Post in which he tries to persuade Trump not to pull out of the Paris Agreement:
As a matter of diplomacy, withdrawing from the Paris agreement would be a stain on the legacies of both the president and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, an act of diplomatic malpractice. Countries large and small, rich and poor, are deeply invested in Paris because they understand the peril of climate change and know the Paris agreement cannot be truly effective without U.S. engagement. They would see withdrawal as a slap in the face, disrespecting their fundamental interests and, in turn, eroding the United States’ diplomatic capital.
And the day after receiving the memo from the Sierra Club’s lawyers, John Coequyt, the Sierra Club’s Global Climate Policy Director, said in a statement:
“Using the flexibility of the Paris Agreement to reduce our commitment, or even going so far as to pull us out, would be a disaster for the United States because it would provoke international blowback, harm our global leadership role, and threaten the health and safety of all families in this country.”