The Paris Agreement Dispute Is a Distraction. The Real Battle Is Playing Out in the EPA.

When it comes to the fate of U.S. policy on climate change, watch what Trump does with the Clean Power Plan, not what he says about the Paris accord.

A Street Art work shows US President Donald Trump and President Emmanuel Macron on Paris Climate Agreement in Paris, France on June 13, 2017. Photo by Alain Apaydin/Sipa USA(Sipa via AP Images)
Street art depicts President Donald Trump and President Emmanuel Macron and the Paris Climate Agreement in Paris on June 13, 2017. Photo: Alain Apaydin/Sipa USA/AP

For anyone who’s been following the fate of the United States’ involvement in the Paris agreement, the main question surrounding it recently has been pretty clear: Will he or won’t he?

Conflicting reports over the weekend — sparked by a vague Wall Street Journal story on Saturday — alleged that the Trump administration was reconsidering its June decision to withdraw from the landmark climate deal. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster denied it, only to be upstaged Sunday morning by Secretary of State and former Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, whose department would theoretically oversee either a renegotiation or a withdrawal. On this week’s Face the Nation, Tillerson said that President Donald Trump was “open to finding those conditions where we can remain engaged with others on what we all agree is still a challenging issue.”

In what’s being taken as a for-now final word on the matter, chief economic adviser Gary Cohn emphasized Monday that the U.S. will leave the agreement “unless we can re-enter on terms that are more favorable to our country,” doubling down on the line the administration has held since its initial withdrawal announcement.

This weekend’s mixed signals kept reporters busy. Confusion around the agreement may even have put climate change in the news more than the string of hurricanes that have battered the Caribbean and southern United States in recent weeks, the strengths of which can be linked to rising temperatures and sea levels. Materially, though, the Paris agreement’s future in the U.S. may be one of the least important aspects of Trump’s climate policy. It may not even have that big of an impact on the agreement itself.

As conflicting messages shoot back and forth, other members of the administration are quietly unraveling a slew of policies, precedents, and regulations in ways that could make it much more difficult to plan for a low-carbon future after they’re gone. Considering the U.S. accounts for around one-fifth of global emissions, these moves could also make it harder to curb warming worldwide.

Even if Trump is eager to bail on Paris as soon as possible, the United States won’t technically be able to make an official exit until November 2020, the tail end of Trump’s first — and, with any hope, last — term. What he can do is start the process to make that happen, which will be routed largely through a State Department that might still lack the proper staffing to carry out the job.    

Effectively, nothing has changed; since the Rose Garden announcement about the decision to bail on the agreement earlier this summer, the White House’s line has always been that it would stay in if it could somehow negotiate a better deal. Multiple countries have also said that the underlying language of the deal won’t change no matter what the White House does.

President Donald Trump arrives to speak about the U.S. role in the Paris climate change accord, Thursday, June 1, 2017, in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

President Donald Trump arrives to speak about the U.S. role in the Paris climate accord on June 1, 2017, in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington.

Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP

Most of the document’s emissions reduction plans, meanwhile, are tied to each country’s nationally determined contribution brought to the table in France in 2015.

The central feature of the U.S. commitment that year was the Clean Power Plan, aimed at capping emissions from power production. Scott Pruitt has spent his tenure so far as Environmental Protection Agency administrator making every attempt to dismantle it from within; his agency is currently in the process of reviewing the plan and proposing its replacement, and on a longer term mission to cripple its own authority.

Put simply, whether Trump stays in the agreement means little if the chief means of compliance — the Clean Power Plan — is gutted. On the other hand, if states and companies move in the direction the plan intended even without it in force, Trump’s gutting loses power. After the withdrawal, many have even stated that they intend to strengthen their carbon-cutting plans in response. All of that has more bearing on the atmosphere than Trump’s rhetoric around Paris.

Pruitt has other ways of pushing his agenda, too. As Rebecca Leber chronicled for Mother Jones, he spent the days after hurricanes Harvey and Irma fending off allegations from the Senate that his EPA has grown increasingly nontransparent, insulting German Chancellor Angela Merkel and chiding anyone who dared to mention climate change in relation to the two storms. To top it all off, on September 12, he stalled an Obama-era regulation that kept power plants from releasing toxic metals into wastewater. Research funding proposals must now pass through a public relations head, who reportedly advised staffers to excise the “double C-word” from any funding requests. Inspired partially by New York Times columnist Bret Stephens, he’s also expressed interest in hosting a “red team, blue team” debate on the existence and severity of man-made global warming — an event that could help prime the pump for scaling back the EPA’s ability to regulate carbon.

He’s not alone, either. Expanding fossil fuel production — and minimizing regulations on it — has been a priority for the administration more generally since its first days, when Trump brought both the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines back from the dead. Tillerson is rumored to be in the process of nixing the U.S. climate change envoy to the United Nations. Ryan Zinke this weekend said his Department of the Interior would look to shrink federally protected natural monuments and will soon embark on the first steps toward drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The list goes on.

Why, then, are crossed wires around the agreement one of the only times that network news anchors bother to mention rising temperatures?

Still, like the Paris agreement, the climate policies Pruitt and the rest of Trump’s team seem hellbent on destroying were already totally ill-equipped to handle the crisis at hand; together, every national pledge agreed to in 2015 would bring us to around 3 degrees of warming by century’s end. As it stands now — pre-withdrawal — the Paris agreement still leaves us collectively on track for catastrophic levels of warming.

Why, then, are crossed wires around the agreement one of the only times that network news anchors bother to mention rising temperatures?

To see how far off-base our conversations about climate change in the U.S. are, just take a look at debates happening among climate scientists.

A paper released in Nature Geoscience on Monday by a team of climate researchers lays out an ostensibly hopeful scenario: It is “not yet a geophysical impossibility” to cap warming at the “well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels” threshold laid out by the Paris agreement, and even meet its even more ambitious 1.5 C target.

The study, summarized in layman’s terms here, relies on the argument that the 2013 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report — considered a gold standard for climate policymakers — overestimates how much warming has already occurred. Having run several studies, researchers brought observed warming to date in line with projections and found that we may be able to emit three times more carbon than the IPCC outlines and still have a reasonably high chance of remaining under 1.5 C of warming.

On the surface, that sounds like great news. Other climate scientists are skeptical of the findings, arguing that researchers underestimate the potential for warmth absorbed by oceans and land in earlier periods of warming to make their way into the atmosphere later. Glen Peters, a senior researcher at the Center for International Climate Research, called the study “breathtaking,” but cautioned in a blog post today against integrating the research team’s findings into mitigation scenarios too quickly, questioning aspects of the paper’s implications that remain uncertain. “Suppose we start to act on their larger budgets, but after another 5-10 years we discover they were wrong. Then we may have completely blown any chance of 1.5°C or 2°C,” he contends.

Peters wrote that he “seriously [hopes] they have this right,” as it could offer “real and tangible hope for small island states and other vulnerable communities.”

What both sides of this debate agree on is that keeping warming below catastrophic levels could be among the greatest challenges humanity has ever faced. The scenario the paper lays out is still plenty stark from a policy standpoint, requiring the world to start working together to hit net-zero emissions in the next 40 years. According to the new study, at current levels of emissions, we’ll use up the carbon budget consistent with staying below 1.5 C within 20 years. “It’s still very difficult to get our emissions down in that space of time,” Richard Millar, the study’s lead author, tells The Intercept. “But it’s really a possibility. …What that means in more concrete policy terms is that both the Paris pledges need to be strengthened at the first possible opportunity” in 2018.

The paper is even more blunt. “Rapid decarbonization,” the allegedly more rosy Nature Geoscience study concludes, “relies on societies being able to swiftly replace existing capital with new investments at massive scales,” adding that the level of emissions reductions required to pre-empt the worst climate impacts “have historically been observed globally only for short periods, such as in the 1930s Great Recession and the Second World War, and regionally in the collapse of the former Soviet Union. Sustained decarbonization at these rates, and the associated capital displacement (run-down and replacement of fossil-fuel infrastructure), would be historically unprecedented.”

That’s the rosy scenario.

What’s also historically unprecedented, though, is large-scale emissions reduction, and Millar points out that he doesn’t “think it’s deterministic that it’s only possible to cut emissions through wars or recessions. We haven’t tried climate policy properly in the past.” That will mean making not just the electricity sector carbon-neutral, but several other aspects of the economy as well.

Though careful to point out the agreement’s role as a stepping stone for further action, Millar notes that its impact “is actually quite boring” — establishing an ongoing process where world leaders can continually reassess their mitigation pledges.

Given that, he also cautioned against seeing the Trump administration in overly apocalyptic terms. “I think it’s unlikely that there’s going to be a huge increase in emissions as a result of this withdrawal. A bigger question is what the impact of the USA on other countries will be, whether it limits their emissions or galvanizes more action,” Millar tells me, referencing the potential for other high-emitting nations to take a similarly hands-off approach to mitigation.

Though countries such as France and Germany have been quick to affirm their commitments to the agreement, countries like India and Russia could still treat U.S. withdrawal as an excuse to lessen their own commitments. “Paris has an important role to play in how it’s laid out a framework, but Paris isn’t the end of the story. It’s just the start,” Millar said.

Top photo: Street art depicts U.S. President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris on June 13, 2017.

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