July G-20 Summit Seen as Best Hope to Keep U.S. in Climate Pact

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By Dean Scott

Senate Democrats and climate advocates are viewing the next G-20 summit of world leaders in July as perhaps their last best hope to persuade President Donald Trump to stay in the Paris climate pact—if Trump can be convinced to hold off that long.

Whether Trump makes good on his campaign vow to withdraw the U.S. from the 2015 Paris Agreement is a top issue for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who holds the G-20 presidency this year and will host the July 7-8 summit of leaders from the 20 leading economies in Hamburg, Germany. “I think that the G-20 is the most important climate meeting of the year,” Andrew Light, a former State Department climate negotiator, told Bloomberg BNA.“It’s the only one where we know Trump is going to show up—he has given every indication he will—and where we know climate change will be on the agenda,” said Light, now a senior fellow at the World Resources Institute’s global climate program.

Getting some of the top leaders among the nearly 200 nations that signed on to the Paris deal to prod Trump to keep the U.S. in the pact isn’t the only strategy left, Light said, “but it does seem like the best case” can be made at the talks.

The groundwork for the July summit, which brings together leaders from top economies including Canada, China, India, Japan and the European Union, began this week with a preparatory meeting in Bonn of G-20 foreign ministers. They included U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has struck a more moderate tone than Trump on climate change.

Tillerson, the former ExxonMobil CEO, argues the U.S. should stay at the table in such international negotiations; Trump has labeled climate change a “hoax” and vowed to pull the U.S. out of a deal for fear it will hurt U.S. competitiveness, though he said in December he was keeping “an open mind” about the pact.

Tillerson May Get ‘Earful’

The Paris Agreement isn’t likely to be the hot topic for Tillerson’s Feb. 15-17 visit in Bonn, which included talks Feb. 16 with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov; the U.S. secretary said only that the two “had a productive meeting” with talks on “a range of issues of mutual concern” including Syria and Yemen. But Tillerson, in his first trip overseas as secretary of state, also is to meet with foreign ministers from nations including the U.K. and Saudi Arabia and UN officials, and climate pact supporters hope the U.S. secretary will hear pleas for the U.S. to stay in the Paris deal.

“My sense is that Tillerson is likely to get an earful ... and it will be clear that this is not a small environmental issue, but rather one with foreign-policy implications,” Jennifer Morgan, executive director for Greenpeace International, told Bloomberg BNA. But she added it’s “totally unknown” how much weight Trump will give to such comments before rendering a final verdict on the Paris pact.

Greenpeace Germany activists called on German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, who is hosting the Bonn ministerial meeting, to work for “clear and unified commitment” to the Paris Agreement. The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), told Bloomberg BNA it doesn’t appear Trump has put much thought of late into whether to stay in the climate deal. “You know, there’s nothing that they have to do right now” to decide its fate, particularly given other challenges such as getting Trump’s Cabinet confirmed, Corker said.

“So I think they may take their time before making a decision,” Corker said.

Trump Has ‘Lot of Fish to Fry’

The chairman, who hasn’t been an especially outspoken advocate for preserving the Paris deal, said he doubts Trump has had much time to weigh arguments for staying in or getting out of the Paris deal, the first in which developed and developing nations alike agreed to act on rising greenhouse gas emissions linked to increasing temperatures.

“They’ve got a lot of fish to fry right now,” Corker said, alluding to what many view as a rocky start for Trump’s first four weeks in office, from slow progress in getting his Cabinet confirmed to this week’s resignation of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and the withdrawal of labor secretary nominee Andrew Puzder.

The top Democrat on the Foreign Relations panel, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), said there’s reason “to be somewhat hopeful” that Tillerson’s interactions with other foreign ministers this week will be only the start of international pressure to keep the U.S. in the Paris deal. But he told Bloomberg BNA it’s still unclear whether the new administration even has an international climate policy.

“The concern I think many of us have is that we don’t have an articulated policy from the Trump administration” on climate change, Cardin said. “Now Mr. Tillerson obviously will have to carry out whatever the policy is. But we’re not exactly sure how Mr. Trump makes his policies,” Cardin said.

“And climate change is not without some controversy, as you may have heard,” the Democrat said.

Few Concrete Obligations Under Pact?

Cardin and many Senate Democrats argue that U.S. withdrawal from the deal would signal that the world’s second-largest emitter is walking way from helping to solve an issue already impacting some of the poorest developing nations. Withdrawal, they argue, also would upset delicate international relationships needed to pursue common interests on other issues, such as national security and combating terrorism.

Corker, the Foreign Relations panel chairman, continues to maintain the best argument for keeping the U.S. in the climate deal is that it doesn’t really require the U.S. to do all that much, either to cut its greenhouse emissions or combat climate change. “There’s no obligation that the United States has relative to the Paris Agreement anyway,” Corker said.

But Corker also pointed to comments from several now-confirmed Trump appointees, including Tillerson and Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and now Trump’s U.S. representative to the United Nations. Both have called for keeping the U.S. at the table in climate negotiations.

The suggestion from those nominees “is it might be important to [the administration] to have a seat at the table” at the UN negotiations to implement the Paris pact, Corker said.

In a departure from the Kyoto Protocol, which set binding targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions but only covered developed nations, the Paris deal was agreed to by developed and developing nations alike. But it is anchored in pledges voluntarily put forth by countries to address climate change.

The climate deal, which entered into force in November 2016, does include some binding elements, including transparency requirements to ensure countries accurately report their emissions and verify whether they are making progress on their pledged actions. But most of the obligations under the Paris Agreement don’t begin until 2020.

To contact the reporter on this story: Dean Scott in Washington D.C., at DScott@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

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