The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why Trump’s idea of ‘renegotiating’ the Paris climate agreement is so bizarre

Donald Trump. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

This story has been updated.

In an interview with Reuters on Tuesday, likely Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump made what appeared to be some of his most extensive comments yet about international climate change negotiations.

In particular, Trump said he didn’t like the Paris climate agreement, recently signed by 175 countries, including the United States, and would either renegotiate it or do something more than that.

“I will be looking at that very, very seriously, and at a minimum I will be renegotiating those agreements, at a minimum. And at a maximum I may do something else,” Trump told Reuters. “But those agreements are one-sided agreements and they are bad for the United States.”

U.S. and 170 other nations sign historic climate agreement

The main reason given, in the Reuters story about the interview, was that Trump didn’t believe other countries would comply with what Paris requires. “Not a big fan because other countries don’t adhere to it, and China doesn’t adhere to it, and China’s spewing into the atmosphere,” he said.

While the White House press secretary Josh Earnest dismissed the remarks Wednesday — “I don’t know if there’s anyone losing sleep here at the White House,” he said at a press briefing regarding Trump’s plans — environmental groups quickly denounced the statements. However, Trump’s words in many ways appear less a rehash of Trump’s overall climate change skepticism and more just baffling.

Consider some of the things that don’t make much sense about what Trump appears to be saying, in light of what the Paris agreement actually is and how it works.

Trump: ‘I’m not a big believer in man-made climate change’

Trump suggests the agreement is “one-sided” or “bad” for the United States. It’s not entirely clear why he thinks that, but if the implication is that it imposes something on us from outside, that isn’t how the agreement works. Under Paris, each country makes its own individual commitments to reduce emissions. The United States sets its own targets, in pledges made to the United Nations, and like every other country, it is supposed to increase them over time. Thus, in the end, the United States does as much as it can or wants to under Paris.

In fairness, the agreement certainly does assume that all countries are earnestly committed to cutting emissions. The current U.S. pledge, to reduce emissions 26 percent to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, is fairly ambitious, and without such a pledge by the world’s second largest emitter, the Paris agreement would have been harder to reach.

Equally surprising is Trump’s assertion that China “doesn’t adhere” to the Paris agreement.

As the planet flashes warning signs, U.S. and China pledge hasty signing of climate accord

China’s commitments, too, are self-generated under the agreement, but no less significant for that reason. Getting on the same page with the world’s top emitter, as President Obama did in late 2014, was key to setting the world on the road to achieving Paris. And if China did balk at those commitments — a commitment, principally, to have its greenhouse gas emissions peak by 2030 and to “make best efforts to peak early” — that would pose a problem just like any balking by the United States would.

For the agreement to work, countries individually must live up to what they say they’re going to do — which then gives the entire agreement credibility in the eyes of its many parties. That’s the nature of the Paris game. And there will be many tests ahead to see whether this all works as intended.

But we don’t really have any reason to think China isn’t serious about the Paris accord. If anything, there is evidence suggesting that China could have its emissions peak, and start reducing them, well before 2030. The country is striving to burn less coal and increase the production of renewable electricity, and also to electrify transportation.

Apple’s big bet on China is also a bet on driverless cars

It is, in fact, leading the world in both areas. Last year China invested more than any other country — and twice as much as the United States — in clean energy, at $ 110.5 billion, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. And more plug-in electric vehicles were sold in China last year than in any other country.

Most of all, though, the problem with Trump’s statement it that it isn’t clear what renegotiating the Paris agreement would even mean, or look like. The agreement is the result of a multi-year process under the United Nations’ Framework Convention on Climate Change, and one that 195 countries already agreed to after assembling their negotiators in Paris in an enormous, long-planned event. You don’t just suddenly pull them all back into a room and require changes.

Indeed, if ongoing ratification efforts move fast enough, it’s possible that the agreement could come into force this year, binding a future hypothetical president Trump to comply with it. Even if he wanted to, Trump then couldn’t completely withdraw, once the agreement is in force, for four years.

Obama’s rapid move to join the Paris climate agreement could tie up the next president

“Countries gave considerable thought in Paris to creating a durable agreement that would outlive occasional lapses in political will,” Nigel Purvis, the president and chief executive of Climate Advisers, said in an April interview with The Washington Post.

Among all these hurdles to renegotiating the Paris agreement, there’s also this: Trump would be negotiating with, among others, Patricia Espinosa, the new executive secretary of the United Nations’ Framework Convention on Climate Change. Espinosa was previously the minister of foreign affairs for Mexico under then-President Felipe Calderón, who has slammed Trump for his pledge to build a “huge” wall on the Mexican border and make the Mexican government pay for it.

Calderón said of Trump: “We won’t pay a single cent for that stupid wall. It’s pathetic. . . . Trump is completely demagogical.”