Three weeks after President Donald Trump pledged to pull the United States out of the Paris climate agreement and negotiate a better deal, foreign allies and U.S. officials alike remain perplexed about the White House’s plans going forward.
Two U.S. officials told POLITICO that senior White House aides, who are prioritizing health care legislation and increasingly preoccupied by the expanding Russia probe, have had very few internal conversations about the administration’s Paris strategy since Trump’s announcement. One official said the administration likely won’t begin mapping out its next moves until after the July G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany.
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Interviews with a half-dozen foreign officials and veteran climate negotiators show the international community is deeply uncertain in the meantime about how to interpret Trump’s June 1 Rose Garden speech, in which he vowed to “begin negotiations to re-enter either the Paris accord or an entirely new transaction, on terms that are fair to the United States.”
“Nobody has a clue what the administration is thinking,” said one foreign diplomat, who like others quoted in this story requested anonymity to discuss the issue. “The announcement is so vague. Nobody knows what it means.”
Left unsaid in Trump’s speech: What will it take for the U.S. to re-enter the Paris agreement? What exactly would a new negotiation entail? Will the U.S. cease participation in United Nations climate negotiations altogether? Is Trump even interested in staying in the agreement if he wins concessions?
The deep divide within the administration over the Paris deal makes it nearly impossible for foreign diplomats, who have had sporadic contact with U.S. officials, to know who is best articulating Trump’s current thinking on the issue. White House National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Ivanka Trump and others all argued for staying in the agreement, while chief strategist Steve Bannon and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt pressured Trump to withdraw altogether.
Diplomats said their early communications with the United States about next steps on Paris have yielded little new information. One well-connected foreign diplomat explained that he’s heard “nothing from a unified voice of the administration that suggests they have a cohesive policy.”
A White House spokeswoman declined to comment on Trump’s strategy, saying only that the administration continues to “engage with our international counterparts about shared environmental goals.”
Amid all the uncertainty, one thing is increasingly clear: there is almost no chance other countries are going to agree to reopen the Paris deal itself, which was the product of decades of diplomacy and won the support of nearly 200 nations when it was finalized in 2015.
Within hours of Trump’s announcement, France, Germany and Italy declared in a statement that the agreement can’t be rewritten. “The Paris agreement is here to stay and the 29 articles of the Paris agreement are not to be renegotiated,” EU Climate Commissioner Miguel Arias Cañete told reporters earlier this month.
Conservative opponents of the agreement, who hope Trump’s announcement portends the permanent end of U.S. involvement in the Paris deal, are thrilled that the other countries have ruled out renegotiation.
“The Europeans in particular are not going to renegotiate Paris, and therefore, it’s really just kind of a PR exercise,” said Myron Ebell, a vocal critic of climate change science who led the Trump transition operations EPA team, of Trump’s pledge to negotiate a better deal.
Ebell put the odds of the U.S. remaining in the Paris deal at 50 to 1. “I just don’t see how we can do it,” he said.
Any effort by Trump to remain in the agreement would be met with fierce opposition from conservatives, who mounted a months-long behind-the-scenes campaign to pressure the president to withdraw. Hardline critics of the agreement, including Pruitt and Bannon, have no intention of allowing for a path back into the accord, said an administration official familiar with their thinking.
But those in the administration who argued vehemently in favor of remaining in the agreement see some wiggle room in Trump’s remarks, according to the administration officials.
Some U.S. and foreign climate experts are beginning to privately make the case to the administration that even a minor concession from other countries — or a weakening of former President Barack Obama’s domestic climate change target — could be enough to declare victory and stay in the deal. The tough talk in the Rose Garden is enough to satisfy Trump’s base, they argue.
Yet since Trump’s speech the White House’s most powerful figures have again disengaged, turning their attention to health care, tax reform and other policy issues – while the government’s climate policy experts are increasingly disempowered.
“The people who have the keys to the ignition aren’t driving the car, and the people who want to drive the car don’t have the keys,” one diplomat quipped.
The recent meeting of G7 environment ministers gave the international community little hope that the U.S. is open to finding a middle ground on climate change. While the environmental ministers of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United Kingdom signed on to a joint statement reaffirming their “strong commitment” to the Paris deal, Pruitt abstained.
It also remains unclear what role Trump administration negotiators will play in future climate talks. Since the U.S. has not formally withdrawn from Paris yet, the State Department can still participate in future Paris-related discussions, including a high-profile summit in Bonn, Germany, in November. The U.S. also co-chairs a United Nations working group tasked with increasing transparency as countries comply with the Paris deal.
Noting that the U.S. is still a member of the United Nations treaty that governs international climate talks, a State Department official told POLITICO the administration “will participate in international climate change meetings consistent with its national interests,” but declined to offer any specifics.
During the G20 summit, foreign officials will be watching closely for signs of whether Trump is serious about trying to find a way to stay in Paris.
Trump could also find more like-minded foreign leaders among the G20’s broader group of participants. Though nearly every G20 country has signaled its intention to remain in the Paris deal, some nations are seen as being less committed than others. The Europeans have privately raised fears that Trump could team up with countries like Saudi Arabia to form a coalition of nations that are less focused on climate change, blowing up an effort by the Germans to show unity when it comes to the global commitment to reduce emissions.
But, at least in public, European officials remain confident that other countries aren’t wavering in their commitment to tackling climate change.
“Clearly, we regret that the United States has decided to take a different path so early in the life of this agreement,” David O’Sullivan, the European Union’s ambassador to the United States, told members of Congress this week during an event hosted by House Democrats. “But we are reassured that the Paris agreement will live on as the other signatories show unity and resolved in pursuing collective action to ensure the future of our planet.”
Tara Palmeri contributed to this story.