World / Politics

Internal U.S. State Department memo strengthens case to stay in Paris climate accord

Bloomberg

An internal U.S. State Department memo says the Paris climate accord imposes few obligations on the United States, bolstering the case for Trump administration officials who want to stay in the deal.

The document, marked as a draft, makes no explicit recommendation about whether the U.S. should remain part of the pact. It circulated ahead of a scheduled meeting of top administration officials Thursday to discuss whether President Donald Trump should fulfill his campaign pledge to exit the deal.

While there are some binding provisions in the agreement, those “legal obligations are relatively few and are generally process-oriented,” the three-page memo said. Under terms of the agreement, the U.S. couldn’t formally exit until 2019. It faces no specific reporting requirements until 2021, the document says.

Trump’s decision on the Paris accord, signed by more than 190 countries, is viewed by foreign leaders, corporate executives and environmental advocates as a test of how far the new president will go to dismantle his predecessor’s efforts to address climate change.

The administration is slated to decide what to do about the deal by late May, when world leaders gather for the Group of Seven summit in Italy, White House press secretary Sean Spicer has said. White House staff met to discuss the issue Tuesday, and cabinet members and other high-level officials are set to follow suit Thursday, according to a person familiar with the plans.

That person, who spoke on condition of anonymity, also confirmed the veracity of the State Department memo. A White House spokeswoman didn’t respond to emailed questions about the document, and a State Department spokesman declined to comment on it.

Administration officials are divided over the wisdom of keeping the U.S. in the pact, with environmental chief Scott Pruitt and top strategist Steve Bannon pushing for a pullout as White House adviser Jared Kushner and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson advocate sticking with the agreement. Energy Secretary Rick Perry told the Bloomberg New Energy Finance conference on Tuesday he wouldn’t advise Trump “to walk away from the Paris accord” and instead thinks “we probably need to renegotiate it.”

Under former President Barack Obama, the U.S. promised to pare greenhouse gas emissions at least 26 percent from 2005 levels by 2025. That U.S. pledge joined an array of widely varying “nationally determined contributions” from other countries.

But none of those commitments are binding, according to the State Department memo, which appears to dispel the most common arguments made by Paris agreement foes — including concerns that staying in the global pact would undermine the Trump administration’s efforts to unwind Obama-era regulations.

“The agreement does not dictate any particular domestic measures a party must take to achieve its” goals, the memo says. Countries also have wide latitude to amend their planned reductions.

The U.S. also isn’t required to fulfill its pledge to donate as much as $3 billion to a Green Climate Fund designed to help developing countries deal with the effects of a warming planet.

Opponents of the agreement, including Marlo Lewis, a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and Chris Horner, a senior legal fellow with the Energy and Environment Legal Institute, warn that if the U.S. stays in the deal, it would hand legal ammunition to environmentalists fighting to preserve climate regulations.

With anything short of a complete withdrawal, “domestic and foreign opponents of Trump’s energy policies and possibly activist courts can continue to invoke this ‘international commitment,’ and any future U.S. administration will have free rein to pick up where Obama left off,” Lewis and Horner wrote in an April 17 blog post.

Opponents also say that the U.S. would be reneging on a promise — and incur worldwide shame — for staying in the deal while simultaneously flouting its pledge.

Trump can’t pull the U.S. out of the worldwide pact immediately, though he could begin a four-year process of doing so. One possible tactic: shifting the decision to the Senate by interpreting the accord as a treaty that requires the support of two-thirds of the chamber’s members to be ratified. That’s currently an insurmountable political hurdle.

The document cautions against taking that Senate-based strategy, explicitly affirming the Obama administration’s view that the accord is an “executive agreement,” not a treaty that requires ratification. Sending it to the Senate now could jeopardize Trump’s ability to ink other bilateral and multilateral agreements by suggesting “the existence of new limits on the president’s constitutional authority,” the State Department said.