What George Stephanopoulos Gets Wrong About Climate Policy

The reporter's interview with H.R. McMaster was a missed opportunity.

George Stephanopoulos stands in Trump tower and carries a newspaper.
George Stephanopoulos departs after meeting with Donald Trump at Trump Tower in late November 2016. (Lucas Jackson / Reuters)

This weekend, we got a great view into the broken way that the American political media covers climate change. Many people sense that U.S. politics reporters don’t always cover global warming in the most substantive or evidence-grounded way. This weekend provides a good example of how their coverage is also frequently negligent and just plain silly.

On Sunday, George Stephanopolous hosted H.R. McMaster, the president’s national-security adviser, on ABC’s This Week. Amid a discussion that touched on many aspects of the Trump administration’s foreign policy, Stephanopolous asked McMaster about the Paris Agreement.

At the time, The Wall Street Journal was reporting that Trump might not withdraw from the climate pact; the paper has since more or less backed off that report. But even though the news has gone stale, the exchange remains revealing. Here it is, in full:

Stephanopoulos: A pretty stunning headline in The Wall Street Journal right now. I want to put it up on the screen. It says, “The Trump Administration Seeks to Avoid Withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord, International Climate Officials Say.”

Here’s what the article says. “Trump administration officials said Saturday the United States would not pull out of the Paris agreement, offering to reengage in the international deal to fight climate change, according to multiple officials at a global-warming summit.”

So is it indeed possible the United States is not going to withdraw from the Paris climate-change agreement?

McMaster: So what the president has said is that we are withdrawing from the Paris Accord. He left the door open to reentering at some later time if there can be a better deal for the United States.

To cut in for a second: McMaster is right here. This has been Trump’s line since his original announcement, in June, that the United States would leave the treaty. But there’s a glaring problem with this framing that I’ll get to below.

I mean, the president’s objection to Paris was not that he’s against the environment or the climate. In fact, he made a pledge—if you go back to his speech, he said, we are renewing our commitment to have the cleanest air, the cleanest water, to address issues associated with the environment and global warming.

But that—that agreement was not good for the environment. It gave the biggest polluters, the biggest carbon emitters, a free ride. And so we also want to emphasize energy security. And then also clean fossil fuels. Clean fossil fuels continue to lift millions of out poverty around the world.

So what the president wants is a more effective approach to energy and the climate.

Stephanopoulos: Right. But it—but the president was very clear in that statement. He said the United States will withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord. Of course, that withdrawal can’t take place until 2020.

So you’re saying if you can renegotiate better terms before 2020, the United States will not withdraw?

McMaster: I would just go back to what the president said. And, of course, he’s open to any discussions that will help us improve the environment, that will help us ensure energy security and will advance our prosperity and the prosperity of American workers and American businesses.

Stephanopoulos: So it is possible the United States would stay in if you can get a new agreement?

McMaster: If there’s an agreement that benefits the American people, certainly.

I wasn’t the only climate reporter who found themselves immensely frustrated by this back-and-forth. The most charitable reading here is that Stephanopoulos asked an uninformed question over and over again. The more likely reading is this: McMaster tells an untruth over and over again, and Stephanopoulos lets him get away with it.

Why? Because contrary to what the Trump adviser repeatedly says, the United States can get better terms under the Paris Agreement whenever it wants.

As has been ceaselessly noted since last year, the Paris Agreement is nonbinding. Most experts agree that it allows each signatory nation to change their national carbon-reduction commitment at any time. If the Trump administration feels that developing nations are getting a free ride, then the United States is allowed to exert its diplomatic power and lower its own commitment.

The only part of the Paris Agreement that matters, economically, to the United States—that is, how much it promises to reduce its carbon emissions—can be unilaterally changed by the U.S. Department of State at any time. (And these promises are themselves separate from the domestic policy that will make the cuts a reality.)

McMaster never nods to this possibility in his answer—but you wouldn’t expect him to, because he’s parroting a line used across the Trump administration. What’s frustrating is that Stephanopoulos never challenges the frame of McMaster’s answer, either. In fact, he adopts the frame in his own questions, when he asks: “So you’re saying if you can renegotiate better terms before 2020, the United States will not withdraw?”

This is a meaningless question, as the United States can already renegotiate its terms. A better question might be: Most experts believe the United States can renegotiate its own commitment, why don’t we do that instead of withdrawing? But that question doesn’t get asked—and the end result is that Stephanopoulos not only lets an untruth about climate policy go unchallenged; he tacitly certifies it as true.

I should attach a note of caution. It’s always easy for a fellow journalist to second-guess these high-profile interviews. (I say that as both a second-guesser and a second-guessee.) I even think I know what happened in this interview: Stephanopoulos had access to an administration official, and he wanted to see if he could get him to confirm the Journal’s report.

Yet his insistence on following this one line of questioning to the detriment of all else led him to endorse an empty talking point—and an empty talking point, moreover, that’s been used by the White House for the last four months.

It’s even possible that McMaster and the White House agree with a small group of legal scholars who argue that the Paris Agreement doesn’t allow countries to unilaterally reduce their carbon-reduction goals. (It all depends on how you interpret a 12-word phrase in the document.) But because Stephanopoulos accepts McMaster’s frame tacitly, he doesn’t get an answer on that, either.

This kind of negligent framing isn’t rare. It will continue as long as reporters treat global warming as a domestic wedge issue, where all answers are either “serious” or “controversial” or “surprising,” and not as a complicated domestic- and foreign-policy crisis that demands a strategic and long-term response. This is why so many questions ask some variant of “does the president believe in global warming?” No one asks the president where he believes in Hurricane Irma or Ebola virus or nuclear tritium. It’s no longer enough to demand an answer about whether global warming exists; political reporters must ask what politicians plan to do about it.