Conservatives are goading President Trump to deliver a death blow to the Paris climate accord.
Trump’s withdrawal from the pact—a move that reached its first anniversary Friday—falls short of that goal, according to groups such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute and Heartland Institute, both staunch allies of the president.
But a Senate ratification vote, which would almost certainly fail in dramatic fashion, would put the pact in the rearview mirror for good, the groups say.
“The best way to ratify the withdrawal is to follow the Constitution and allow the Senate to reject it, as it certainly would if brought up for a full vote,” Tim Huelskamp, president of The Heartland Institute, said in a statement. “The Paris climate agreement deserves to be all dead, not just mostly dead.”
The terms of the Paris pact allow the U.S. to formally bow out on Nov. 4, 2020—one day after the presidential election. President Obama bypassed Congress and acceded to the agreement in 2016, pledging to, by 2025, reduce U.S. carbon emissions by 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels.
That decision sparked a vigorous debate, which endures today, over whether the agreement qualifies as a treaty. Treaties need two-thirds support in the Senate to take effect. The Obama administration determined that the accord didn’t qualify as a treaty, citing its nonbinding and unenforceable character.
Since Trump took office, conservatives have floated a ratification process in order to showcase lawmaker opposition. But now, some conservatives are emboldened by the influx of hawkish personnel in Trump’s inner circle. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, National Security Adviser John Bolton, and National Economic Council chief Larry Kudlow all oppose the deal, in sharp contrast to their predecessors.
“Our chances have improved tremendously,” said Myron Ebell, the top CEI environment analyst and the former head of the Trump transition team at the Environmental Protection Agency. “We will be pushing it in the months ahead, and we hope they’re much more receptive than the previous crew.”
Ebell, Huelskamp, and other Paris critics may have reason to worry. A former top assistant to the president on international energy and environment policy, George David Banks, who departed the administration in March after a security-clearance rejection, predicts Trump will reenter the agreement ahead of the 2020 election.
“The answer is politics. If the president believes that ‘renegotiating’ a better deal produces political benefits that exceed the costs, he may very well change his mind,” Banks, now an adjunct research scholar at Columbia University, said in an op-ed. “I place the odds of greater than 60-40 that President Trump, the dealmaker, scores a Paris political victory shortly before the 2020 election, thanks in large part to the flexibility that his predecessor gave him.”
Ebell is convinced that a ratification vote would prevent that.
“It means once the Senate has voted it down the next president [in] two or six years can’t get us back into it just by sending a letter, saying, ‘See it’s not really a treaty. President Trump agreed with that,’” he said. “The next administration would be legally or constitutionally prohibited from getting back into Paris without going back to the Senate and getting them to reverse their vote.”
The State Department is continuing to dispatch delegations to United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change summits, doing so as recently as late April. But the department is juggling hot-button issues, such as the fallout from the Iran nuclear deal withdrawal and a potential summit between Trump and North Korean head of state Kim Jong-un.
The White House declined to comment on its position on a ratification putting the Paris accord before the Senate.
“The Trump administration, after conducting an interagency policy process, concluded that withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord was the best decision for the United States and for the American people,” Deputy Press Secretary Lindsay Walters said in a statement. “One year later, there has been no change in the U.S. position.”
But the legal conversation surrounding ratification and its tangible impacts is squishy. Another former Trump EPA transition team member, Steve Milloy, said the vote would be little more than theatre.
“I think the Senate should go on record and say, ‘We reject this,’” said Milloy, who runs JunkScience.com. “But that’s more of a political way to look at it. As far as Trump is concerned, we’re out. If Trump is not reelected—let’s say a Democrat takes the White House in 2021—well, they’re just going to say, ‘We’re part of the Paris agreement’ again.’”
Trump is showing no signs that he’s interested in scaling back U.S. carbon emissions. The administration is, however, aggressively scaling back energy and environment regulations and going beyond that.
On the Paris withdrawal anniversary, the White House announced that it would step in to save struggling coal and nuclear plants from financial ruin. Bloomberg News broke that story late Thursday. Coal emits the most greenhouse gases in the power sector.
The pact’s supporters are alarmed by the threat of ratification, despite Milloy’s dismissal of its significance.
“It would be a disaster if they did that. First of all, the considered view of the career legal staffers in the State Department is that the Paris agreement was not a new treaty but that it was an extension of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change,” said Andrew Light, a fellow at the World Resources Institute and a climate envoy under Obama.
“Any country sitting down with the United States to negotiate anything would be essentially potentially wasting their time because the vast majority of U.S. agreements internationally are these executive agreements, not treaties,” he added.
U.S. emissions continue to decline, and states and municipalities, along with corporations, are pledging in droves to meet the Paris reduction target despite Trump’s withdrawal. California and the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, an alliance of Northeast states, are moving ahead with cap-and-trade programs, and many states are putting in places renewable-energy-procurement mandates. Natural gas is also edging out coal economically.
But without federal action like the Clean Power Plan, which the Supreme Court stayed and the EPA under Trump is aiming to discard and replace, the U.S. likely will fall short of the 26-28 percent reduction goal.