Key officials will meet at the White House on Thursday to discuss whether President Trump should make good on his campaign promise to “cancel” the Paris climate agreement, or allow the United States to remain a party to the global pact — confronting head-on an issue that has divided the administration and raised concern in the international community.
The meeting will bring together officials with sharply opposing views about the administration’s position on the historic agreement, signed by nearly 200 countries, which Trump as a candidate promised to cancel.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and senior adviser Jared Kushner, who may also participate, support remaining in the agreement.
Other attendees such as Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt and Energy Secretary Rick Perry are opposed. Pruitt has publicly called on the United States to exit the agreement. Perry has suggested renegotiating the deal, but it is unclear how that can be accomplished.
White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus will be at the meeting, and chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon may also participate.
Officials plan to discuss multiple scenarios, according to people who have been briefed on the matter but spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
These will include pulling out of the voluntary agreement, or remaining part of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. Those who advocate staying in suggest that the administration can scale back the amount of foreign climate assistance the United States has pledged to provide under the deal, and push countries such as China and India to commit to deeper emissions reductions. Opponents argue that that strategy is unrealistic.
The Trump administration has been under pressure to define its position on the Paris agreement ahead of upcoming international meetings, including of the eight-nation Arctic Council in Fairbanks, Alaska, and the G-7 in Italy, where international partners will inevitably be asking questions and seeking to adopt statements about it.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer has said that the administration will make up its mind about Paris “by the time of the G7 Summit, late May-ish, if not sooner.”
The much-anticipated meeting had been put off last week after several top Trump officials traveled with the president to Wisconsin.
Business groups are also divided on the agreement. On Wednesday, more than a dozen major firms, including Shell, BP, General Mills, Walmart, PG&E and Unilever sent a letter to Trump urging him not to abandon the accord. By contrast, the National Mining Association’s board of directors voted Tuesday to endorse a withdrawal from the climate agreement.
A number of climate experts have suggested they expect the White House will eventually decide to remain in the agreement. “I think there is a better than 50/50 chance that the Trump administration will stay in the Paris agreement. I think odds are they will stay in,” Al Gore told the TED conference in Vancouver Wednesday.
The internal administration debate about the U.S. position toward Paris was echoed on Capitol Hill on Tuesday when Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), who served as Trump’s energy adviser during the campaign, convened a panel to debate the merits of staying in, or departing from, the agreement.
The event showed surprising support for the “stay” position, including from conservatives.
Cramer said at the start of the meeting that he had been a Paris opponent, but had been swayed by Tillerson’s argument that there are things to be gained from the United States maintaining a “seat at the table.”
“The longer I think about it, the more I’ve spoken about it to people, the more convinced I am that there’s a lot of upside to staying in if we do this right,” Cramer said. In particular, he said, he thinks the United States could wield more influence.
Scott Segal, a lawyer with Bracewell LLC, argued that there was no contradiction between Trump’s plans domestically to roll back the Clean Power Plan and staying in the Paris accord.
“While Paris does encourage forward momentum to addressing our national contributions … it does not require a particular regulatory outcome. For example, it does not require the Clean Power Plan,” Segal said.
However, Christopher Horner, a lawyer with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, argued that environmentalists would use the United States’ participation in the deal in lawsuits to force climate actions, and that the ongoing negotiations would provide repeated opportunities for the rest of the world to criticize the United States for its overall carbon output.
“There are many rationalizations, we’re hearing more every day, for President Trump breaking his promise,” Horner said. “I think they are rationalizations, they aren’t reasons.”
One thing is clear: If the Trump administration does stay in the Paris accord, it seems unlikely that it would also be able to stick with the United States’ current pledge under the agreement to cut its emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.
The administration has set about dismantling many key Obama policies that made that pledge possible, and the economic consulting firm Rhodium Group has estimated that the elimination of those policies would mean the United States would cut its emissions by 14 percent by 2025 compared to 21 percent if they stayed in place.
So the Trump administration would have to revise that pledge downward, an act that surely would trigger international opprobrium. The Paris accord is aimed at getting countries to increase their ambition on emissions, not decrease it, over time.
But the U.S. could nevertheless do so under the bottom-up, nonobligatory structure of Paris, said Keith Benes, a former State Department attorney who is now a fellow at the Columbia University Center on Global Energy Policy and who also spoke at Cramer’s event.
“Nothing prevents the U.S. or any other country from communicating a different goal for emissions reductions,” Benes said.