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The rumors that Trump was changing course on the Paris climate accord, explained

Fumbling, incompetence, and miscommunication, signifying nothing.

2017 Bastille Day Military Ceremony On The Champs Elysees In Paris
“You already set your own terms, yes? My English is correct?”
Photo by Thierry Chesnot/Getty Images

The latest round of rumors about the Trump administration and the Paris climate agreement has taken us to a strange place, a kind of linguistic Wonderland where words and meanings dance and shift before our eyes. Passions run high, but about exactly what, no one quite knows.

Let’s walk through it.

In June, Trump announced that the US would pull out of the Paris agreement, calling his decision a “reassertion of America's sovereignty.” In that announcement, he outlined the US position on the treaty: The US is open to “negotiations to reenter the Paris accord,” but only on more favorable terms.

Keep that position in mind. We’ll return to it in a bit.

A diplomatic game of telephone

On Saturday, American officials attended a meeting of 30 Paris signatories in Montreal. It seems they may have stressed the “open to reengaging” part a little too much, to the point that negotiating partners actually took it seriously.

Afterward, European Union climate commissioner Miguel Arias Cañete told Reuters, “they don’t intend to renegotiate the Paris agreement, but they will try to work on how to re-engage.” He added, "[I]t's a message which is quite different to the one we heard from President Trump in the past."

Is it? In response to the media hype following Cañete’s comments, the White House issued a statement:

There has been no change in the United States' position on the Paris agreement. As the President has made abundantly clear, the United States is withdrawing unless we can re-enter on terms that are more favorable to our country.

Uh ... right. Isn’t that what Cañete said?

Then later on Saturday, there was a Wall Street Journal piece with an attention-grabbing headline saying the administration “seeks to avoid” leaving the agreement. The White House shot that one down too.

On Sunday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson appeared on CBS, saying that Trump “is open to finding those conditions where we can remain engaged with others on what we all agree is still a challenging issue.” (Sounds familiar.)

Tillerson’s comments (like the WSJ story and Cañete’s remarks) are really just another way of rephrasing the US position — open to reengaging, but only on more favorable terms — while emphasizing the openness, as one does with diplomatic allies one is seeking not to (further) offend.

Still, it sounded a little soft, and the media persisted in framing it as some kind of shift, so on Monday, at an informal UN meeting with about a dozen ministers from other countries, Gary Cohn, head of the White House National Economic Council, made the administration’s position, in his words, unambiguous. “There was some confusion over the weekend,” he said, “and I think we removed all the confusion.”

That position? A White House official clarified yet again after Cohn’s meeting: “We are withdrawing from the Paris agreement unless we can reengage on terms more favorable to the United States.”


There are two absurd things about this game of diplomatic telephone. The first, as you have probably noticed by now, is that everyone keeps saying the same thing in slightly different ways, yet it keeps provoking new rounds of headlines and confusion, which your author cannot help but find darkly amusing.

This is in part because there’s no unity within the administration. International officials are clearly trying to soften the blow of Paris withdrawal, but the nationalists in Washington don’t want it softened — especially not right now, when Trump is already in trouble with the base for dealing with Democrats.

The core tensions within the administration have never been resolved, because the guy at the top is a gaping void. No one’s really in charge, enforcing consistency of language or tone or direction, so different audiences hear different things.

But it’s all absurd at a deeper level as well, because the position in question — the one everyone agrees on and keeps repeating — makes no f’ing sense.

The Trump administration has boxed itself in on Paris

The administration says it will reengage if it gets “more favorable terms.”

Imagine if, after days of exhausting negotiation with Trump, UN countries caved and said, “You know what, Trump? You win. Name your own terms. Seriously. Make any commitment on greenhouse gases that you want. Whatever you’re comfortable with, not a bit more. You’re the boss; you dictate the deal.”

Pretty good dealmaking on Trump’s part, right?

Except those are already the terms of the f’ing treaty.

Trump announces withdrawal from Paris, perhaps not fully understanding all the relevant facts.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Each participating country decides for itself what it is willing to pledge; each offers what’s called a “nationally determined contribution,” or NDC. (You can see 165 of them here.)

Obama decided on the US pledge (reducing carbon by 26 to 28 percent from 2005 levels by 2025). But Trump can revise that pledge to whatever he likes. There’s nothing in the agreement to prevent him. He could simply return to the table with a less ambitious NDC.

That’s probably what other countries thought the administration meant by “reengage.” Because ... what else could it mean?

But the US doesn’t need to withdraw from the agreement to do that. It can put forward a new NDC any time it wants, as favorable to the US economy as it likes. So why withdraw? Why not just submit a new NDC?

There is no coherent answer to that question. I don’t mean the answer is unwise — there is literally no answer that makes sense. You cannot insist on renegotiation of a voluntary agreement. “You decide the terms” is, by definition, the best possible terms, so “better terms” on Paris is the conceptual equivalent of word salad. It’s concept salad.

Because there is no coherent reason to withdraw (beyond raw, tribalist nationalism), the administration can offer no coherent account of what might induce it to stay in. Cohn “declined to elaborate on suitable terms that the US would consider to remain in the climate change pact,” because what could he possibly say? We already have the right to set our own terms. There’s nothing left to give us, even symbolically.

President Trump Departs White House En Route To Cincinnati, Ohio
Gary Cohn is on it.
Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

So the administration has no face-saving way of backing down now, even if the globalists did win out and convince Trump to engage on climate. They’ve postured their way into a corner, leaving us in this absurd situation where everyone keeps trying to restate their position in a way that makes sense, and they keep being forced to clarify, no, we’re sticking with the nonsensical position.

None of this matters domestically

It’s important to remember that none of this really matters with regard to Trump administration policy. Whether they leave Paris or win some imaginary renegotiation and stay, they are not going to act on climate change. That’s been made very clear, in word and deed.

Trump and his crew are handing over the government to fossil fuels — rolling back pollution regulations, defunding climate and clean energy work, and opening national monuments to oil drilling (seriously).

There is, indeed, no ambiguity in their position on climate change: They don’t care about it. They’re not going to do anything about it. They’re going to prevent the government, to the extent they can, from researching or talking about it.

Next to all that, their attitude toward Paris is inconsequential.