Trump risks ‘lasting damage’ if US pulls out of Paris climate agreement

By Sophie Yeo, The Washington Post - May 23, 2017

The Trump administrations risks causing “lasting damage” to relations with key European allies if the United States abandons the Paris climate agreement, a key German official has warned.

Shortly before President Donald Trump is due to join G-7 leaders for a summit in Sicily, Germany’s environment minister Barbara Hendricks said in a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt that the U.S. would face serious repercussions if it chooses to leave the landmark deal.

The letter, seen by the Washington Post, comes amid growing pressure on Trump to reconsider his campaign promise to “cancel” the deal agreed by nearly 200 countries to fight climate change.

U.S. President Donald  Trump  in Washington, DC, U.S. April 26, 2017.  (Kevin Lamarque/ Reuters)
U.S. President Donald Trump in Washington, DC, U.S. April 26, 2017. (Kevin Lamarque/ Reuters)

“I am very concerned that a U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement would cause lasting damage to the long-standing mutual trust and close cooperation between our two countries and between the U.S. and other countries in Europe and elsewhere,” Hendricks wrote in the May 5 letter.

The Trump administration remains deeply divided over whether the U.S. should remain in the Paris agreement – but has promised a decision after the G-7 summit, which opens in Sicily on Friday.

Diplomats attending the meeting are in “daily contact” with the Trump administration in an effort to secure its commitment to the accord. Hendricks has offered to talk to Pruitt at any time about the future of the agreement, German officials said.

In her letter, Hendricks argued that it would economically prudent for the U.S. to remain a party to the deal, as the world makes progress on renewable energy, creating jobs and other opportunities.

Hendricks also noted the U.S. could help shape the details and implementation of the deal, and had latitude to adjust its own targets, without having to withdraw from the deal.

With the White House and Cabinet split over the future of the Paris agreement, diplomats from G-7 countries remain optimistic they can persuade the Trump administration against withdrawal.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and senior adviser Jared Kushner support remaining in the agreement.

Pruitt and Energy Secretary Rick Perry are opposed.

“We are not pessimistic or resigned to the fate of the U.S. position,” said one G-7 diplomat close to the process. “We are exploring every way possible to communicate with the U.S. and to express our key interest for the U.S. to stay involved in the climate negotiation process. There are many channels we are utilizing.”

Jochen Flasbarth, state secretary at the German environment ministry, speaking at the conclusion of a United Nations climate conference held in Bonn earlier this month said, “We work very hard together with many other friends of the world to convince the U.S. that staying in the Paris Agreement is the right way to go.”

The administration is likely to face further pressure this week at the Petersburg Climate Dialogue, an annual ministerial event hosted by the German government. The U.S. will number among the 35 nations present in Berlin, expected to be represented by a low-level official.

At a March 6 meeting between Tillerson and Japanese foreign minister Fumio Kishida, the two nations agreed to “continue to communicate” regarding the Paris agreement.

Despite the weight of international pressure, the Trump administration is remaining tight-lipped about its position.

Diplomats left the United Nations climate headquarters in Bonn last week with no further indications of where the U.S. might land on the issue. The head of the U.S. delegation was “actively engaged, participating in the discussions” while repeating that their position remained under review, said Patricia Espinosa, the U.N.’s climate chief.

Meanwhile, efforts on the part of the Italian hosts and other G-7 members to craft a climate-friendly communique to conclude the Sicily summit are faltering, as nations struggle to find the compromise language acceptable to all participants.

“The climate part is still much under discussion and we don’t have something particularly concrete to work on at this juncture,” said the diplomat.

The U.S. successfully weakened language on climate change in the recent Fairbanks Declaration of the Arctic Council, leaked drafts of the document show, and gave no hints as to their position on the Paris accord. The U.S. requested six last-minute changes to the statement on climate change, seeking to downplay the implementation of the Paris agreement and the impact of warmer temperatures on the Arctic, according to InsideClimate News.

The move by the U.S. to weaken the document was seen as a test case for larger international meetings dealing with climate change.

Announcing that their decision would only be taken after the summit could indicate obstinacy in the face of international pressure, suggests Andrew Light, a senior fellow at the World Resources Institute, and former climate specialist at the State Department. “They want to make this decision for themselves, rather than having a position forced on them,” he said.

Success on climate change could depend on how far the other G-7 members are willing to make trade-offs on other issues important to Trump, such as security and the economy – although the diplomat said each issue will be discussed on its “own merit” and that such compromises could be a “hard sell” – as well as Trump’s willingness to make peace with his peers abroad amid domestic difficulties.

“It really depends on how far the Italians in particular, and how far the other European parties are willing to go, in terms of denying other sorts of language that Trump might want to see come out of the communique on other issues entirely,” said Light.

Meanwhile, eyes are pivoting to China – not a member of the G-7, but the country most likely to fill the vacuum of power left by the U.S. on climate change – and the European Union.

Donald Tusk, Jean-Claude Juncker and Chinese prime minister Li Keqiang are said to have been preparing a statement on climate change since February, to be released at a summit in Brussels on June 1, covering topics such as E.U.-China cooperation and international policy.

“They are really trying to meet in the middle, and that doesn’t really happen that frequently between the E.U. and its member states with China. It has traditionally been the E.U. trying to reach a hand, but the reception was not always as smooth,” said Li Shuo, senior climate and energy policy officer at Greenpeace China.

“The very clear sense that I’m getting in Beijing is that there is a very clear intention from the climate policy community in the country that the vacuum left in the U.S. is an opportunity, and the importance of maintaining the Paris Agreement momentum is clearly registered by them,” he said.