In Closed-Door Climate Showdown, It’s Jared and Ivanka vs. Bannon and Pruitt

With Trump threatening to pull the United States out of the Paris accord, moderates and ideologues are at loggerheads.

By Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and Dan De Luce
bannon ivanka

As President Donald Trump weighs a pivotal decision on whether to keep the United States in a global climate agreement, a fierce debate is playing out in the White House over the issue. But the debate has almost nothing to do with climate change.

With Trump due to take a decision as soon as Tuesday, former officials, policy experts, and congressional aides familiar with the White House deliberations describe a haphazard process dominated by political and ideological considerations. Trump excoriated climate change on the campaign trail as an expensive hoax,” and some senior aides and supporters want to see the president make good on his promise to dump the 2015 Paris deal.

“The words ‘climate change’ were hardly even uttered,” a former senior official familiar with the discussions told Foreign Policy. “I really just wanted there to be a rational policy process but … there was no policy process at all.”

Under former President Barack Obama, the United States helped craft the Paris climate conference, a landmark international accord designed to curb carbon emissions that are the main cause of climate change. But as a candidate, Trump threatened to withdraw the United States from what he has called a “bad deal,” arguing the accord would kill off jobs through its voluntary goals for curbing greenhouse gas emissions.

It’s unclear how Trump will come down on the issue, but for his inner circle, the battle lines are drawn. On one side are Trump’s daughter Ivanka, his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who are lobbying the president to keep the United States in the deal, several sources tell FP. On the other side of the argument: White House Chief Strategist Stephen Bannon and Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt, both of whom reject climate change science.

For the United States, pulling out of the Paris agreement could have broad diplomatic repercussions, after years of difficult negotiations in which the U.S. pressed for concessions from allies and partners.

Until a couple of weeks ago, supporters of the climate agreement were cautiously optimistic the administration would opt to stay in the accord, particularly given Tillerson’s comments suggesting Washington would be better off staying in and shaping the global agenda on climate. But on April 27, Trump’s inner circle met to debate whether or not to withdraw the United States from the Paris deal, and opponents of the deal presented a new argument to ditch the accord.

The White House general counsel asserted that the United States could be vulnerable to legal challenges in court if it stayed in the accord while scaling back the emission pledges it made in the negotiations. If accepted, the legal interpretation would almost certainly force Trump’s hand and prompt a U.S. exit from the deal.

Ivanka and others at the meeting argued for more time to consider the issue and the new legal interpretation. Experts outside the government are deeply skeptical that the United States could be successfully sued in court over an agreement that is nonbinding and allows each country to set its own voluntary emissions-reduction goals. When the Obama administration negotiated the deal, government lawyers did not warn of any serious risk of legal challenges.

The discussion at last month’s meeting centered on the unconventional legal reading of the accord and the possible political impact of withdrawing, not the pros and cons of the agreement itself, sources said. The meeting was “utterly content-free,” the former official said.

The absence of substance and expertise in the discussions has left some civil servants discouraged and despondent, several sources briefed on the meeting said.

Some key experts and senior officials inside the government have not been at the table for the discussions, and some have not been consulted for their view. Neither Defense Secretary James Mattis nor National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster were part of the White House principals meeting on the issue. Mattis has spoken of the dangers posed by global warming, and in written testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee in January, the retired Marine general said the U.S. military had to bear in mind the security challenges posed by the melting Arctic and droughts and famines in global hot spots.

Some White House aides, including Bannon, view a U.S. withdrawal from the agreement as a campaign promise to be fulfilled and an explicit rejection of an accord championed by Obama.

Three dozen conservative and climate change-skeptic groups penned a letter Monday urging Trump to withdraw, arguing failing to do so “exposes key parts of [his] deregulatory energy agenda to unnecessary legal risk.”

Announcing a U.S. withdrawal from the Paris deal close to the 100-day mark for the new administration would represent a symbolic political win for the president’s core supporters, even though opinion polls show a majority of Americans support the accord. (Public concern about climate change is at record-high levels, according to Gallup.) However, there is no formal, binding deadline that requires a decision. And even if Trump opts for an American exit, the withdrawal will not go into effect for about four years under the Paris agreement’s guidelines.

But an upcoming G-7 summit of world leaders later this month is concentrating minds at the White House, as U.S. allies are expecting Washington to clarify its stance.

“That’s a political deadline,” said Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists. “The other countries will be quite annoyed if the U.S. comes to that meeting and says it’s still under review.”

One scenario could see Trump seeking to use the Paris deal as leverage, promising to stay in the agreement in return for possible trade concessions with European or Asian governments, experts said.

Amid signs in recent months the administration would choose to keep the United States in the accord, Democrats in Congress and environmental organizations had sought to keep a low-profile on the issue, fearful that given the president’s unpredictable and impulsive nature, any comment could be interpreted as an affront and influence his decision on the issue.

“Our silence was very deliberate,” said one senior Democratic congressional aide. “It was a conscious decision.”

But that calculation has changed in recent days. With the U.S. position on the Paris deal hanging in the balance, foreign leaders, industry executives and even GOP lawmakers are making a last-ditch attempt to convince the president to stay in.

One of the president’s staunch supporters, Rep. Kevin Cramer (R.-N.D.), wrote in the Wall Street Journal on Monday that he had changed his mind about remaining in the agreement and urged the president not to withdraw.

Cramer said he and several other Republican lawmakers believe “the smart strategy is to try to work out a more beneficial deal for the U.S. under the Paris agreement rather than walk away.” Under the accord, the United States committed to lowering emissions by at least 26 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.

On Monday, a group of over 200 global investors with $15 trillion in assets published a letter to G-7 heads of state urging them to adhere to the deal ahead of their summit in Italy this month. “We believe that the mitigation of climate change is essential for the safeguarding of our investments,” the letter said.

Even some large coal companies have made the case to the administration that remaining in the Paris framework would help their industry safeguard its access to global markets and shape rules for lower-emission coal-fired power plants.

A U.S. withdrawal could damage the strength and legitimacy of the accord, which scientists say could be the last best chance to rescue the planet from the ravages of global warming. If America bowed out, experts warn it could encourage other governments to ease back on their Paris agreement pledges. As the world’s most powerful economy and the second-largest emitter of heat-trapping carbon emissions, Washington’s stance on climate carries significant global weight.

For years, the United States urged other big emitters, especially China, to work to curb carbon emissions. After failing to get China to cooperate on climate change at a big summit in 2009, the Obama administration finally succeeded in convincing Beijing to join the Paris accord.

Now, a U.S. withdrawal would likely anger allies and partners who spent years negotiating the first comprehensive, global climate agreement.

When the Bush administration pulled out of another climate agreement 16 years ago, the Kyoto treaty, White House officials at the time were taken aback at the angry response it provoked in foreign capitals.

“The U.S. needs only to look back to the world’s reaction when we dropped out of the Kyoto Protocol in 2001 to understand the consequences of shunning our responsibilities in addressing a global challenge,” said Christy Goldfuss, a former managing director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

For veterans of the climate change issue, there’s an added layer of irony to the debate: The key elements of the Paris deal reflect what Republicans had demanded after the Kyoto treaty.

The new nonbinding agreement lets each country set its own emissions targets and relies on “peer pressure” to succeed. It also includes nearly every country in the world — developing and industrialized states alike — a provision conservatives long pushed for in past agreements.

Photo credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer