Is Trump About to Flip Flop on the Paris Climate Accord?

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute site.

Ambiguity and inconsistency may be useful negotiating tools in the art of deal-making, but they are not salutary in terms of coherent policy-making aimed at an advancement of US economic and environmental interests.

Actually, ambiguity and inconsistency are not quite the correct terms to describe the Trump administration stance toward US participation in the Paris climate agreement. "Confusion" is a far better term.

On Sunday we were informed that "The Trump administration is considering staying in the Paris agreement to fight climate change 'under the right conditions.'" Then came Monday : "Gary Cohn, President Trump's chief economic adviser, told foreign climate and energy officials . . . that the administration still plans to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement."

That is, ". . . unless the accord can be made better for the country." And just to make the administration position absolutely clear, the White House sent to me — and at least 100,000 others not including those to whom it was forwarded — an email informing all that said administration's "position was made very clear during the breakfast" hosted by Mr. Cohn with the various energy ministers. (Bold in the original.)

Nor did this White House missive skimp on specifics, adding to the atmosphere of clarity. In summary:

  • The breakfast was a "useful conversation" on "the President's energy agenda," US energy resources and technologies, and energy security, economic growth, and the reduction of emissions.
  • "The conversation also focused on ways that our countries can work together to provide affordable, reliable energy to help reduce global poverty."
  • Technology and innovation will continue to play an important role as our countries strive to achieve these important goals.
  • The US is a global leader in advanced energy technologies, including highly efficient fossil fuels, and looks forward to continuing this conversation to promote a balanced approach.
  • The US looks forward to continuing this conversation.

Wow. Sadly, the energy ministers' time is extremely valuable, and it appears to be the case that the breakfast ended before the very clear administration position on precisely what "the right conditions" are and the meaning of "better for the country" could be delineated.

Trees bend in the tropical storm wind along North Fort Lauderdale Beach Boulevard as Hurricane Irma hits the southern part of the state September 10, 2017 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Chip Somodevilla/Getty

This is unfortunate, particularly given that the Paris agreement is an absurdity utterly indefensible regardless of one's views on the science and policy analytics of anthropogenic climate change. Let us review a few realities that really are clear, to wit:

  • If we apply the EPA climate model under a set of assumptions that strongly exaggerate the effectiveness of international emissions reductions, the Paris emissions cuts, if achieved by 2030 and maintained fully on an international basis through 2100, would reduce temperatures by that year by seventeen one-hundredths of a degree.
  • The US contribution to that dubious achievement — the Obama climate action plan — would be fifteen one-thousandths of a degree. Add another one one-hundredth of a degree if you believe the Obama pseudo-agreement with China is meaningful. (It is not.)
  • This effort to reduce GHG emissions would impose costs of at least 1 percent of global GDP, or roughly $600 billion to $750 billion or more per year, inflicted disproportionately upon the world's poor. Would those arguing the US should not withdraw from the Paris agreement please explain how it can be justified simply as a straightforward exercise in benefit/cost analysis?
  • And about those emissions promises: They are incorporated in "Intended Nationally-Determined Contributions," which few supporters of the agreement seem actually to have examined. If the goal is some unspecified reduction in global GHG emissions intended to moderate future temperature increases, then the Paris "strategy" is preposterous because the agreement does not and even in principle could not contain an enforcement mechanism.

Most of the INDCs promise GHG emissions cuts relative to a "business as usual" baseline, that is, relative to a future emissions path unconstrained by any policies at all. Since emissions are closely correlated with economic growth, a nation can "achieve" its promise by overestimating future economic growth slightly; when future growth proves lower than projected, the same will be true for GHG emissions. Thus will the "commitments" be met without any actual change in underlying emissions behavior at all. INDC fulfilled!

Apart from the absence of an enforcement mechanism, notice as well that the agreement contains no actual target for global reductions in GHG emissions. Instead, the agreement simply lumps together the dubious INDCs submitted by the individual governments, which again may or may not represent actual future emissions reductions.

Not to worry, say the proponents: The agreement puts in place a review process and recalibration of targets every five years. That means, obviously, that the initial promises might not be met; precisely how is it that the revisions five years from now, and five years after that, ad infinitum , will prove any more meaningful than the "landmark" promises just made?

What is blatantly obvious is that this "review" process has nothing to do with emissions reductions; it is instead a mechanism guaranteeing endless meetings and Conferences of the Parties and permanent employment for the climate industry into the indefinite future. That is the deeper implication of the administration intent to "continue this conversation."

Precisely what does a "better deal" mean in this context? Any forced reduction in emissions by definition means more expensive energy, an outcome utterly at odds with Mr. Trump's consistent stance on energy policy.

It means no change, literally, in future temperatures and climate phenomena.

Does the administration believe the Chinese and the others will agree to more stringent controls on their emissions — that is, higher energy costs — as a tool with which to enhance US international competitiveness? If so, the administration is deceiving itself, and how would any such agreement be enforced anyway?

Ironically, it is the US alone against whom this agreement, whether renegotiated or not, will be enforced. As surely as the sun will rise, the left-wing environmental groups will find a judge who will order the enforcement of the US Paris promises under section 115 of the Clean Air Act.

What is actually clear is that by failing to withdraw from the agreement, the Trump administration is shooting itself, and all Americans, in the foot.

Benjamin Zycher is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI)and a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute.