President Trump is expected as soon as next week to order the Environmental Protection Agency to rescind its Clean Power rule that is blocked by the courts. But the President faces another test of political fortitude on whether to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate accord.
That’s suddenly uncertain. Mr. Trump promised to withdraw during the presidential campaign, correctly arguing that the accord gave “foreign bureaucrats control over how much energy we use.” His transition team even explored strategies for short-cutting the cumbersome, four-year process of getting out of the deal.
But the President’s is now getting resistance from his daughter, Ivanka, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who are fretting about the diplomatic ramifications. No doubt many countries would object, and loudly, but this risk pales compared to the potential damage from staying in the accord.
President Obama committed as part of Paris to cutting U.S. emissions by 26% compared with 2005 levels by 2025. Even Mr. Obama’s climate regulatory programs—all imposed without Congressional votes—would only achieve about half that commitment. Mr. Trump is killing those Obama programs, which means the U.S. may not reach that Paris promise. Why stay in an agreement that the Trump Administration has no interest or plan for honoring?
Another risk is that the U.S. might at some point be coerced into compliance. Mr. Obama joined the accord without congressional assent and endorsed the lengthy withdrawal process precisely to bind future Administrations to his climate priorities. Since Mr. Trump’s election, the international climate lobbies have debated ways to muscle the new Administration to comply.
These include imposing punitive tariffs on U.S. goods or requiring the U.S. to hit targets in return for other international cooperation. Mr. Tillerson might consider that Paris will be used as leverage against him in future international negotiations.
Lawyers and domestic environmental groups are also exploring how to use lawsuits to enforce the deal. Greens are adept at finding judges to require environmental regulations that Congress never intended. Such sympathetic judges today pack the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals and include Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, who in 2007 joined four liberals to redefine the Clean Air Act to cover carbon as a pollutant.
Remaining in the Paris pact will invite litigation to impose the Paris standards and direct the EPA to impose drastic carbon cuts that would hurt the economy. Energy companies are aware of this threat, and despite Exxon’s recent pledge to pour $20 billion into Gulf Coast facilities, other companies remain wary of U.S. regulation. They will be warier if Mr. Trump looks like he’s waffling on his climate positions.
Mr. Trump’s best bet is to exit the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which could be done in a year and would result in a simultaneous withdrawal from Paris. That would quickly end the litigation risk.
Mr. Tillerson said at his confirmation hearing that he believes the U.S. should remain in the Paris pact to have a “seat at the table” for the climate debate. But the U.S. doesn’t need Paris to have a say in global energy policy.
America has already done more to reduce CO emissions with its natural-gas fracking revolution than has most of the world. Many of the Paris signers want to use the pact to diminish any U.S. fossil-fuel production. Mr. Tillerson will also be on the back foot in Paris discussions as he tries to overcome his past as an oil company executive.
The best U.S. insurance against the risks of climate change is to revive economic growth that will drive energy innovation and create the wealth to cope with any future damage—if that day arrives.
Policy details aside, the worst part of Mr. Obama’s climate agenda was its lack of democratic consent. He failed to persuade either a Republican or Democratic Congress to pass his regulation and taxes. So he attempted to impose that agenda at home through the EPA and abroad via Paris to use international pressure against domestic political resistance. One certainty: The diplomats at Turtle Bay and in Brussels didn’t vote for Donald Trump.