As Trump mulls a Paris exit, climate advocates pivot to the private sector

U.S. President Donald Trump. Photo by: Shealah Craighead / The White House

Key takeaways:

The White House has postponed a meeting to discuss whether the United States should stay in or leave the Paris climate agreement.

This week, negotiators are meeting in Bonn, Germany, to set the technical “rulebook” for implementing the climate change treaty.

U.S. climate advocates are hedging against Trump’s decision and looking to businesses and cities to lead on climate action.

The White House has pushed back a meeting between President Donald Trump and key advisors to decide whether to maintain or scrap United States commitments to the Paris Agreement on climate change. Uncertainty about the U.S. position has clouded international climate change cooperation since Trump was elected.

Trump was scheduled to meet Tuesday with key advisors to discuss whether the U.S. should stay in or leave the international treaty that aims to reduce global carbon emissions and support climate change adaptation in developing countries. Trump advisors who advocate leaving the Paris Agreement appear to have gained the upper hand in recent days, and climate action advocates are hedging against an unsupportive White House by pressing business and city leaders to take the reins.

It is not clear why the meeting was postponed or when it will occur. Trump’s decision is expected before the G-7 meetings later this month in Italy, where international climate change policy will be on the agenda. An official announcement — or leaked information — could come sooner than that.

The White House deliberations were meant to take place at the same time climate diplomats are working in Bonn, Germany, to assemble a technical “rulebook” to guide implementation of the Paris Agreement. Since U.S. delegates to this “intersessional” meeting — sandwiched between the last climate conference in Marrakech and the next one in Bonn — don’t know what their government’s international climate policy will be, their influence in shaping the Paris Agreement’s implementation rules is likely to be limited.

“Now that the climate leadership that delivered the Paris Agreement is faltering, we should focus on building a new, collective and more inclusive one that taps into the great potential of cities, businesses and civil society.”

— Gino Van Begin, secretary general of Local Governments for Sustainability

Regardless of Trump’s decisions, advocates say they aren’t expecting to see climate leadership from the White House. Instead, they working to build a new climate action coalition among businesses and sub-national leaders.

“Now that the climate leadership that delivered the Paris Agreement is faltering, we should focus on building a new, collective and more inclusive one that taps into the great potential of cities, businesses and civil society. If nations are not going to be pulled from above, they can be pushed from below," said Gino Van Begin, secretary general of Local Governments for Sustainability, at a press briefing in Bonn Monday.

Many major companies, including some of the world’s largest energy producers, have stated their support for continued U.S. engagement in the agreement. Last month businesses including Apple, Google, DuPont and Shell wrote a letter to Trump urging him to maintain U.S. engagement with the Paris Agreement.

City leaders aim to weather Trump's climate change backslide

In the age of Trump, mayors will lead on climate change action — and nations will follow, said former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

If Trump does withdraw the U.S. from the treaty, businesses should expect to see even more pressure from citizens frustrated by the federal government’s backtracking, said Heather Coleman, climate and energy director at Oxfam.

“What we will see is a pivot to looking toward those actors and also understanding quantitatively — what does this mean? How far can we go as a country without the U.S. government leading the way?” Coleman said. “I think companies are going to bear the brunt of a lot of this frustration, and I think they know that.”

A study by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that a majority in every U.S. state support American participation in the Paris Agreement on climate change.

The Trump administration will be considering a range of policies, described to Devex by advocates as ranging from bad to worse. On one hand, Trump could opt to keep the U.S. in the Paris Agreement and weaken U.S. commitments to it. That would make it difficult, if not impossible, to achieve the global target of limiting global warming to two degrees celsius.

On the other hand, the White House could opt to pull out of the treaty altogether. That option is reported to have become more likely in recent days, after Trump advisors including Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt raised concerns that backtracking on Paris commitments might open the U.S. government up to legal challenges. Ivanka Trump has reportedly led the internal charge to remain.

“This legal skirmishing is a tactic to cover what is, at its heart and purely, a political decision,” said Paula Caballero, director of World Resources Institute’s climate program, in a press call last week.

Climate advocates are pressing for the U.S. to remain in the Paris Agreement, even if the administration weakens its commitments, because doing so would maintain some level of a U.S. climate diplomacy workforce to participate in international discussions.

Those pushing to remain in the deal point out that the Paris Agreement commitments do not officially begin until 2020, buying some time as politics evolve. Staying party to the treaty may also stave off some of the diplomatic backlash that would likely come from leaving the negotiating table, Coleman said.

There is a lot of grey area in terms of what withdrawal would actually look like. Under the Paris Agreement framework, the secretariat cannot accept a withdrawal notification until November 2019, and it would not take effect for another year after that. The White House could announce its intent to leave the agreement, but then task the State Department with figuring out what that means, said Coleman. That would leave U.S. climate diplomacy in a sort of “purgatory state” between participation and withdrawal, Coleman said.

The administration could also pursue what she called a “nuclear withdrawal” option, which Trump has reportedly considered. The U.S. could pull out of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change entirely. Since the Paris Agreement applies to countries that are party to the UNFCCC, withdrawing from that body would void U.S. obligations to the treaty.

Stay tuned to Devex for more news and analysis of what the Trump administration means for global development. Read more coverage here and subscribe to The Development Newswire.

About the author

  • Igoe michael 1

    Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.