Trump’s Climate Change Denial Is Already Complicating the Paris Climate Deal

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(Photo: Gage Skidmore / Flickr)

Donald Trump first shared his analysis of the climate crisis in a now infamous 2012 tweet-rant: “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive,” he claimed.

The Republican presidential hopeful has since dialed back the rhetoric, calling that earlier claim a joke. But — as in other areas of critical domestic and international concern— he’s fallen short when pressed for specifics on what a Trump presidency would mean for energy and the climate. It seemed his oft-repeated phrase “trust me, I’ll get the best people” was as close as the American public was going to get to details.

Until now.

The best Trump could find turns out to be climate denier and staunch fossil fuel backer Kevin Cramer, a two-term Republican congressman from oil- and coal-rich North Dakota. As a newly tapped energy adviser, Cramer recently handed the Trump campaign a four-page policy paper urging the candidate to scrap the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, among other regulations introduced by the EPA to curb pollution from the energy sector.

According to an interview with Cramer, his plan also calls for ramping up energy production using an “all of the above, America-first” approach. The plan recognizes the growing commercial importance of wind and solar, but keeps oil, coal, and gas squarely in the mix.

Sound familiar? That’s basically what the Obama administration’s been peddling, urging subsidies for wind and solar even as it opens up new offshore drilling sites.

Taking It Global

But the Obama administration also pledged that the United States would cut its emissions as part of the Paris climate deal, a treaty painstakingly negotiated with 194 other nations to avoid some of the worst consequences of climate change.

Cramer says he’d “just pull out” of the Paris accord, which aims to keep planetary warming as close to 1.5 degrees Celsius as possible and to provide funding to developing countries to support their transition to clean energy. And as world leaders met in May for the first time since Paris to nail down specifics on implementing the agreement, Trump agreed with Cramer that at a minimum he’drenegotiate the climate deal.

“At a maximum,” the candidate asserted with characteristic ambiguity, he “may do something else.”

The problem with the Paris deal, according to Trump, is that it’s “one-sided” and that no other countries yet adhere to it (never mind that countries only started officially signing the accord in April). He singled out China, which eclipsed the United States in 2007 as the world’s most climate polluting country, for not adhering to the Paris agreement.

Actually, China has promised to peak carbon emissions by 2030, restrict its coal consumption, and lower the intensity of its carbon pollution by up to 65 percent. That’s not ambitious enough to meet targets in the Paris agreement, but according to experts that track countries’ climate action, those commitments actually rate well above the U.S. plan.

And because the Chinese government still follows comprehensive five-year plans, we can feel fairly confident they’ll do what they say, even if that falls short of what’s needed. Given the widespread climate denialism of the Republican Party, that may be more than the U.S. itself can boast.

Ironically, Trump’s worry that the U.S. will forge ahead alone comes at a time when the keystone of our own carbon-cutting commitment, the Clean Power Plan, is frozen in the courts. Indeed, the U.S. may be the only country legally barred — for now — from delivering what it promised in Paris.

It gets better. Among the power utilities, industry associations, and fossil fuel-rich states suing the EPA to dismantle rules for the energy sector is North Dakota. Yes, the same North Dakota that Trump’s new energy adviser represents in Congress — and where Trump was scheduled to address a petroleum conference shortly after Cramer released his plan.

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Worryingly, Trump’s circular logic may ultimately prove itself right.

If Washington reneges on the Paris deal, it could irreparably harm the delicate balance achieved between China, the United States, small island nations, and major oil-producing countries in the final hours of negotiations.

No wonder leaders abroad have watched Trump’s rise with dismay. Laurent Fabius, for example — the former French foreign minister and president of last year’s climate talks — pointed out that there are “risks associated with reluctant countries.”

One such risk? Other large emitters may hold back on implementing their own climate commitments before learning the fate of clean energy regulation in the United States, which could hinge on our presidential elections.

After all, if the United States — the largest historical emitter and today’s wealthiest economy — halts the main program it planned to use to keep its word, why should we be surprised if other countries pull back, too? This hasn’t happened yet, but you can bet it’s the topic of many corridor conversations in foreign capitals.

Whether Trump wins in November or not, his “evolving” views on climate suggest that even as the effects of climate change are becoming increasingly evident, the American electorate is divided on how to make sense of the transition needed.

For now, other countries are moving forward with the implementation of the global climate treaty, with all the political maneuvering one might expect. But the looming specter of a climate denier in the White House is certainly casting a noticeable shadow.

Janet Redman directs the Climate Policy program at the Institute for Policy Studies.