Trump and the Paris Agreement: What Just Happened?

The United States affirmed it’s definitely leaving the treaty—but not yet.

U.S. President Donald Trump talks to President Emanuel Macron of France in Paris in July.
U.S. President Donald Trump talks to President Emanuel Macron of France in Paris in July. (Yves Herman / Reuters)

On Friday afternoon, the Trump administration struck an unusually Augustinian tone as it continued to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change. We’re definitely, completely, undoubtedly leaving the accord, said the U.S. State Department in a statement. Just not yet.

The announcement didn’t contain any surprising news, but it answers a few outstanding questions about how the United States would formally withdraw from the international agreement. There were essentially three big developments—and you can mentally file them as news, news, and psuedo-news.

First, what actually happened is that the State Department sent a formal communication to the United Nations that the country would leave the accord as soon as possible. President Donald Trump announced the country’s intention to do this more than two months ago, but the United States hadn’t yet filed the paperwork. Now it has.

But only kinda. It’s unclear what the United States accomplished by emailing the UN on Friday. Under the terms of the Paris Agreement, no country was supposed to be able to give notice of its departure until November 4, 2019, which is three years to the day after the treaty entered force. And no one was supposed to be able to leave the agreement until November 4, 2020—which is, by the way, exactly one day after the next U.S. presidential election.

And that’s the secondary—albeit somewhat strange—bit of news in Friday’s announcement. Even as the United States ignores this first provision, cavalierly sending in its intention to depart two years early, it’s still going to honor the departure rule. An American delegation will attend all the Paris-related meetings between now and 2020.

According to the State Department’s statement:

The United States will continue to participate in international climate-change negotiations and meetings, including the 23rd Conference of the Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, to protect U.S. interests and ensure all future policy options remain open to the administration.

That’s news: We did not know for sure that the United States would continue to attend climate negotiations between now and 2020.

American diplomats will even have some responsibilities at these meetings. Thanks to the Obama administration, the U.S. delegation will co-chair a panel on transparency at the climate conference this fall. Historically, American diplomats have pushed for more transparency at these talks—transparency here means that developing countries must reveal how much carbon dioxide they emit, perhaps even allowing outside inspectors to measure local levels—and stringent transparency rules were considered critical to the “name and shame” mechanism which supposedly makes the Paris Agreement work.

We don’t yet know if the Trump administration will value transparency as highly as its predecessors—nor do we know how much negotiating power it will have, given that it’s already announced that the party is lame and it intends to leave it soon.

Finally, the pseudo-news. Friday’s statement repeats a line that the president first used when he announced withdrawal in the first place: that he is open to renegotiating the Paris Agreement to more favorable terms.

As the President indicated in his June 1 announcement and subsequently, he is open to reengaging in the Paris Agreement if the United States can identify terms that are more favorable to it, its businesses, its workers, its people, and its taxpayers.

Plainly, this makes no sense. If the Trump administration feels hamstrung by the emissions-reduction commitment that President Barack Obama made two years ago, then he is allowed—under the terms of the Paris Agreement—to announce a new and weaker commitment. There is nothing keeping him from doing this. Nothing needs to be renegotiated, even: He can do it unilaterally, without Congressional approval. This is because very little of the Paris Agreement is actually legally binding for the United States. (The Obama administration worked hard for this, knowing that a legally binding climate treaty could never pass a Republican-controlled Senate.)

In fact, the only parts of the Paris Agreement which Trump can’t unilaterally adjust are the parts he is complying with. Paris makes certain legal demands on the United States, but they encompass requirements like “show up to the annual meeting.” Today, Trump announced he would be showing up to the meeting. So it’s unclear what he would be trying to negotiate in Paris—unless it’s just grandstanding.