The Paris Agreement Dispute Is A Distraction. The Real Battle Is Playing Out In The EPA.

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BY: Kate Aronoff 09.20.17

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For anyone who’s been following the fate of the United States’ involvement in the Paris agreement, the main question surrounding it recently has been pretty clear: Will he or won’t he?

Conflicting reports over the weekend — sparked by a vague Wall Street Journal story on Saturday — alleged that the Trump administration was reconsidering its June decision to withdraw from the landmark climate deal. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster denied it, only to be upstaged Sunday morning by Secretary of State and former Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, whose department would theoretically oversee either a renegotiation or a withdrawal. On this week’s Face the Nation, Tillerson said that President Donald Trump was “open to finding those conditions where we can remain engaged with others on what we all agree is still a challenging issue.”

In what’s being taken as a for-now final word on the matter, chief economic adviser Gary Cohn emphasized Monday that the U.S. will leave the agreement “unless we can re-enter on terms that are more favorable to our country,” doubling down on the line the administration has held since its initial withdrawal announcement.

This weekend’s mixed signals kept reporters busy. Confusion around the agreement may even have put climate change in the news more than the string of hurricanes that have battered the Caribbean and southern United States in recent weeks, the strengths of which can be linked to rising temperatures and sea levels. Materially, though, the Paris agreement’s future in the U.S. may be one of the least important aspects of Trump’s climate policy. It may not even have that big of an impact on the agreement itself.

As conflicting messages shoot back and forth, other members of the administration are quietly unraveling a slew of policies, precedents, and regulations in ways that could make it much more difficult to plan for a low-carbon future after they’re gone. Considering the U.S. accounts for around one-fifth of global emissions, these moves could also make it harder to curb warming worldwide.

Even if Trump is eager to bail on Paris as soon as possible, the United States won’t technically be able to make an official exit until November 2020, the tail end of Trump’s first — and, with any hope, last — term. What he can do is start the process to make that happen, which will be routed largely through a State Department that might still lack the proper staffing to carry out the job.

Effectively, nothing has changed; since the Rose Garden announcement about the decision to bail on the agreement earlier this summer, the White House’s line has always been that it would stay in if it could somehow negotiate a better deal. Multiple countries have also said that the underlying language of the deal won’t change no matter what the White House does.