Trump sends mixed messages on Paris climate agreement

American diplomats have indicated that the U.S. might not be able to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. Trump’s economic director Gary Cohn is now set to negotiate with other major economies around the world to reduce emissions. John Dyer reports from Boston.

President Trump’s recent moves to negotiate remaining in the Paris climate accords is shocking the climate change deniers who helped vote him into power. (Image credit: Peg Hunter via Flickr)

U.S. president Donald Trump is pulling the United States out of the Paris climate accord – or maybe not.

The director of the White House’s National Economic Council, Gary Cohn, is leading an effort to potentially keep the US in the 2015 pact if he can bring greenhouse gas emissions targets between the U.S. and developing countries like China and India closer in alignment.

Economic director leading talks

Cohn was slated to meet with foreign dignitaries in New York on Monday, when Trump was due to deliver an address to the opening of the General Assembly of the United Nations.

“The plan is for Director Cohn to consider other ways in which we can work with partners in the Paris climate accord,” said U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on a Sunday morning television news show. “We want to be productive. We want to be helpful.”

The bombshell announcement signalled hope for environmentalists and shocked climate change deniers who are an important political base for Trump and his Republican allies in Congress.

“It’s a message which is quite different to the one we heard from President Trump in the past,” European Commissioner for Energy and Climate Action Miguel Arias Cañete told AFP.

Trump has time to renegotiate

Fulfilling a campaign pledge to “make America great again” and formerly maintaining that climate change was a Chinese-perpetrated hoax, Trump announced that he would pull the U.S. out of the Paris accord in June, saying its restrictions would hurt U.S. manufacturing.

But he acknowledged at the time that it would take two years to officially end U.S. participation in the deal once Washington formally withdraws – which technically has not occurred – giving him time to renegotiate.

The outlines of Cohn’s mission became clearer during a meeting in Montreal on Saturday with European, Canadian and Chinese ministers, where one of Cohn’s deputies floated the possibility of remaining in the 2015 pact if they might renegotiate its terms.

Tillerson on Sunday defended those moves, saying they did not amount to a reverse in policy.

“If you recall, the president also said, ‘Look, we are willing to work with partners in the Paris climate accord if we can construct a set of terms that we believe is fair and balanced for the American people and recognizes our economy – our economic interest relative to others’,” said Tillerson.

On Fox News Sunday – a popular show among conservatives – National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster made similar comments, emphasizing that Trump always said he could return to the Paris accord under the right conditions.

“The president decided to pull out of the Paris Accord because it was a bad deal for the American people and because it was a bad deal for the environment,” said McMaster.

Concern for economic ramifications

It’s not clear why Cohn and his colleagues were suddenly discussing the Paris accord, though recent events suggest some reasons.

Major hurricanes have devastated Houston and south Florida in recent weeks. The bill to rebuild is certain to reach hundreds of billions of dollars. The storms have also shone a light on how Texas and Florida have done little to prepare for higher sea levels and more intense storms as their Republican leaders have rejected the reality of climate change.

Tensions between Cohn and Trump have also been heightening after the president’s seeming defence of neo-Nazis and White supremacists who caused civil unrest in Virginia last month that resulted in one death. Cohn is Jewish and a registered Democrat.

Designating Cohn as the point man on climate change issues also suggests that the White House is concerned about the economic ramifications of leaving the Paris accords.

Trump’s climate change policies have alienated traditional U.S. trade partners. European countries and China, for example, have drawn closer to one another on the issue while leaving the US behind.

In Montreal on Saturday, China’s top climate change official, Xie Zhenhua, said his people were more than happy to curb carbon emissions.

“Climate actions are not a burden to us, but the internal impetus for the sustainable development of our country,” said Xie.

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