U.S. Climate Envoy’s Future Uncertain With Paris Pact in Doubt

Turn to the nation's most objective and informative daily environmental news resource to learn how the United States and key players around the world are responding to the environmental...

By Dean Scott

President-elect Donald Trump has vowed to back out of the Paris climate deal, but if he does he'll still have some key decisions to make on how the U.S. will interact with other nations on energy and even climate matters.

One early casualty could be the climate envoy his predecessor named to put the U.S. front and center in international climate negotiations.

Trump hasn’t offered much detail since Election Day on his campaign vow to “cancel” the Paris Agreement and roll back domestic climate rules, though he has promised a quick decision on the climate pact after taking office in January. But environmental groups as well as former Obama and Bush administration officials said even a Paris withdrawal won’t negate the need to address the complexities of climate and energy diplomacy, given that more than 190 nations would presumably remain committed to the climate accord.

One option for Trump would be to shift the responsibilities away from President Barack Obama’s climate envoy—the U.S. point person for United Nations climate talks for the past eight years—to elsewhere in the State Department. Another option: move most of these diplomatic efforts to more direct White House control, as was done under former President George W. Bush.

Bush’s approach brought coordination of international and domestic climate efforts under the chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, the president’s top environmental adviser. Jim Connaughton, who served as Bush’s CEQ chairman during both terms of his presidency, said it is crucial for Trump to continue to engage on climate and energy diplomacy regardless of the president-elect’s verdict on the 2015 Paris Agreement.

First to Ratify Treaty

Connaughton told Bloomberg BNA that he remains skeptical of talk that Trump will go even further and pull the U.S. out of the pact’s parent treaty, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which the Senate unanimously ratified in 1992. The U.S. was the first industrialized nation to ratify the climate treaty.

“The only thing that Trump said during the campaign was that Paris was a problem, and I just haven’t heard boo about the UNFCCC” being seriously considered for withdrawal, said Connaughton, who is frequently mentioned as a contender for various energy and environmental roles in the Trump administration.

The UN climate convention “is a ratified treaty, one [approved] by a substantial Senate majority,” and “participation in that exercise is something that we have committed to for nearly 25 years,” Connaughton said.

Scrapping the UN framework convention would avoid the four-year wait required for the U.S. to withdraw from the Paris pact; pulling out of the 1992 treaty would take only one year and would take the Paris pact down with it. But scrapping a Senate-ratified treaty “would be a big break ... a huge break” from climate diplomacy spanning the last four U.S. presidencies, Connaughton said.

More White House Control?

Beyond his threat to cancel the 2015 Paris climate deal, Trump has called climate change a hoax and warned that such international commitments would put the U.S. at a competitive disadvantage to China.

But the climate issue is interwoven in an array of diplomatic relationships and agreements beyond the Paris deal, including bilateral talks with rapidly developing nations such as China and India and interactions with other nations, such as at Group of Seven and Group of 20 summits. Moving U.S. climate diplomacy away from the State Department to more direct control under the White House has its own complications. It may not sit well, for starters, with Trump’s pick for secretary of state, ExxonMobil Corp. Chief Executive Officer Rex Tillerson.

Heather Zichal, a former White House adviser on climate to Obama, told Bloomberg BNA that Tillerson, who some see as comparatively moderate on climate given his statements accepting the role humans play in altering the Earth’s climate, presumably would resist such a transfer of power.

Climate Science Commitment Questioned

Zichal is skeptical of Tillerson’s commitment to climate science, saying it is impossible to ignore allegations by Senate Democrats, environmental groups and others that ExxonMobil spent decades undermining climate researchers even as its own internal research acknowledged links between human activity and climate change as early as 1981.

Under former President Bush, “Connaughton was able to drive a lot” of the climate agenda “because he was empowered by the president to manage and go make it happen,” Zichal said.

“I struggle to see how a former CEO of Exxon,” which has spent a lot of time funding climate deniers, is “going to be happy outsourcing the power to CEQ going forward,” she said.

Obama, in contrast to Bush’s more centralized approach, delegated much of the U.S. negotiating authority in the UN climate talks to Todd Stern, a former Clinton administration negotiator who was awarded the new title of U.S. special envoy for climate change.

But over the course of the past eight years, Obama also drew from “a very tight-knit team” elsewhere on international climate matters, from Secretary of State John Kerry and others at the State Department to various advisers at the White House and the National Security Council.

Paris Deal: Now What?

A U.S. withdrawal from the Paris pact could well spell the end for the special climate envoy office, which was announced in 2009 by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to signal the U.S. return to the table for a truly global climate deal.

Stern, who negotiated for the U.S. in Kyoto Protocol talks in the 1990s, stayed in the climate envoy job for Obama for the nearly seven years it took to clinch the 2015 climate deal in Paris, the first to commit developed and developing nations alike to addressing the climate issue.

Stern departed the envoy post in the spring, handing the baton to former Energy Department official Jonathan Pershing, who has since led efforts to implement a climate deal that nations speedily entered into force in less than a year.

Christo Artusio, who has worked international climate issues at the State Department since the earliest days of President George W. Bush, said the incoming administration has yet to signal whether it plans to retain the special climate envoy office.

Structure in Question

“In terms of the structure, I obviously have no idea of how the new administration will [organize] things, or if it will use the special envoy or some other arrangement” for such diplomacy, Artusio, who heads the State Department’s Office of Global Change, said at a Dec. 12 Environmental & Energy Study Institute forum.

A State Department spokeswoman said this week that there is no sign the incoming president-elect has begun wrestling with how to navigate international climate and energy diplomacy.

“No indication as of yet on our end,“ she said.

Options Abound for Reshuffling

Former Obama administration officials argue that whether Trump continues to use a climate envoy or not won’t matter much if he essentially ends U.S. negotiations on the matter.

“There are a number of ways to structure” climate diplomacy going forward, “but how you structure it is less critical than what posture the [next] administration takes toward climate change and international commitments,” said Nat Keohane, a former White House special assistant for energy and environment who worked in Obama’s National Economic Council and Domestic Policy Council.

“The key is making sure you have someone in that role empowered” to fully negotiate on behalf of the U.S., said Keohane, now the Environmental Defense Fund’s vice president for international climate.

Stern’s position, which was elevated to the ministerial level to put him on par with the top negotiators from China and other key nations at the negotiating table, ensured the envoy was “speaking for the U.S. as well as the president on the issue,” which was critical to clinching the Paris deal, Keohane said.

Need for Climate Envoy?

But even without Trump’s victory in November, there would have been the question of whether the climate envoy position should live on, Keohane said, given that its reason for existence—getting the Paris climate pact done—had been accomplished.

“Now, is that as necessary going forward? I’m not sure it is,” Keohane said, adding that an argument could be made for moving implementation issues outside the State Department to the Treasury Department, for example, given how central international climate funding is to the Paris deal’s implementation.

“Seeing it through—that could well be done for Paris with another structure, perhaps integrated more with economic policy at home,” he said. But those different approaches would require Trump to actually want to implement the Paris pact, Keohane noted, which at the moment appears to be a long shot.

Move to ‘E Team?’

Connaughton, the former Bush official, said there are several alternatives that Trump could consider, including keeping climate and energy negotiations mostly within the State Department, for example, but under the direction of an undersecretary rather than within the special envoy’s office. That is reminiscent of Bush’s approach; he relied on Paula Dobriansky, then-undersecretary of state for democracy and global affairs, to head the U.S. negotiating team at the UNFCCC talks.

“If you wanted to look traditionally and conventionally, the Trump people [could] restore the climate office under” the global affairs undersecretary and mirror Bush’s approach, Connaughton said.

“That would be a perfectly understandable and acceptable organizational change and should generate no meaningful criticism,” he said, but “undoubtedly would” anger environmental and other groups that would view any change as hostile to continued U.S. commitment to climate action.

A “more interesting” idea, he said, would be to reshuffle the climate issues to the State Department’s “E team,” formally, the Office of the Undersecretary for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment. In 2011, the office was elevated to oversee multiple State Department bureaus, including the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, the Bureau of Energy Resources and the Office of the Science and Technology Adviser.

“Implementation of Paris is a subject matter arguably more relevant to that E division,” Connaughton said. “Because at the end of the day, climate change implementation is energy, transport, land management—subjects core to the E Bureau.”

Wary of Prejudging an Administration

Artusio, the State Department office of global change official, said it’s far too early to assume that Trump’s election will bring about a full-fledged U.S. retreat from the global climate stage.

The same was said of President George W. Bush, Artusio said, even though his administration’s views and policies evolved over time: Bush campaigned to regulate carbon dioxide, for example. He also reversed himself in early 2001 and disavowed regulating carbon; within weeks he essentially withdrew the U.S. from the Kyoto Protocol.

The international backlash that followed prompted his administration to spend a year developing a climate action plan that called for cutting U.S. greenhouse gas intensity—essentially the ratio of emissions for each unit of economic output. The Bush administration, which still had little use for United Nations climate talks that bogged down year after year, would go on to launch partnerships and talks with small groups of countries, from the 2004 Methane to Markets Partnership to the 2006 Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate.

In 2007, Bush launched the Major Economies Meeting on Energy Security and Climate Change, a summit of the world’s major emitters. Obama essentially rebranded it the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate, which was used to move developing and developed nations closer to a global climate deal. “I think it is fair to say that policy approach of the Bush administration changed over those eight years, just as the approach of the Obama administration changed over the last eight years as well,” Artusio said. “This speaks to the point of not prejudging an administration when it comes in.”

Retrenchment Poses Worse Threat Today

But environmental and other groups that hailed the Paris Agreement as a historic first step toward curbing greenhouse gas emissions and addressing climate impacts said there is far more at stake today than when Bush left office.

Withdrawing the U.S. from a deal between nearly 200 nations—one that was developed in large part to address concerns voiced by the Bush and Obama administrations—could threaten to unravel the global deal in years to come, they said. The Paris Agreement includes China, India and other rapidly developing nations, which the U.S. insisted it should, and relies on pledges and not binding emissions reduction targets, mandatory cuts the U.S. also resisted.

But environmental groups said the world doesn’t have the luxury to wait another eight years for the U.S. to resume its leadership role on the international climate stage, citing increasingly worrisome reports from scientists suggesting the Earth is warming and sea levels are rising faster than earlier predicted.

“We’ve been to this rodeo before, but the bull is bigger,” said Alden Meyer, who tracks the UN climate negotiations for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Temperature Rises Expected

Even with the Paris climate pact, the world is on track to see temperatures rise this century between 2.9 degrees and 3.4 degrees Celsius (between 5.2 degrees and 6.1 degrees Fahrenheit), according to a November report by the UN Environment Program.

Meyer said he is skeptical that Trump will ultimately leave the Paris deal untouched. But he is hopeful the president-elect might yet be persuaded by world leaders to reverse course when they meet at key world summits in early 2017: the G-7 meeting of top industrialized nations in Italy in May and the G-20 meeting in Germany in July.

Those, as well as preparatory ministerial meetings held beforehand, “will be early tests of that interaction,” said Meyer, the UCS’s director of strategy and policy.

Twenty years ago, Meyer said, President Bill Clinton wasn’t viewed by other world leaders, including German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and U..K Prime Minister Tony Blair, as particularly committed to the climate challenge. Then came the U.S.-hosted Group of Eight summit in Denver in 1997.

Clinton Put Stern on Case

There, the other leaders urged Clinton to join in addressing climate change “as a threat of the highest order,” Meyer said.

Clinton’s response? He soon after put Todd Stern, later to resurface as Obama’s special climate envoy but then a White House adviser to Clinton, “on the case in the run-up to the Kyoto summit,” Meyer said, which produced the 1997 climate protocol.

“Now, whether the summits next year will be an education process for Trump the way the Denver summit was an educational process for Bill Clinton—well, we can only hope,” Meyer said.

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

Copyright © 2016 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Try Environment & Energy Report