Trump’s masterclass in climate deception

French President Emmanuel Macron welcomes President Donald J. Trump to the reviewing stand for the Bastille Day military parade in Paris, July 14, 2017 (Pic: Joint Chiefs Of Staff / Flickr)

Ignore what he says. Look at what he’s doing.

That’s long been the advice from US commentators when assessing Donald Trump’s stance on climate change — or anything else for that matter.

It’s advice French president Emmanuel Macron has studiously ignored — claiming last week he had reached an understanding with the 71-year-old US president on global warming.

“He understood the sense of my approach, notably the link that exists between global warming and terrorism. He told me he would try to find a solution in the coming months,” reported le Journal du Dimanche.

“We talked in detail about what could enable him to come back into the Paris accords,” Macron was quoted in the Times of London.

As delusions go, this ranks alongside the British government’s apparent belief it can leave the EU yet retain all its benefits and access to the free market.

But enough of Brexit, and back to Trump’s presumed volte-face on climate. Macron’s comments make Donald almost seem reasonable; happy to engage on the issue and chew the fat.

To believe this you must wilfully ignore the rapid rollback of US climate policy that has taken place since Trump took office, led by his god fearing environment chief Scott Pruitt.

A veteran climate sceptic, Pruitt recently announced a government-sponsored plan to challenge climate science, using what he termed “red team, blue team” exercises.

That heralds the start of an attack on the foundations of US climate policy, reported E&E News.

“Executives in the coal industry interpret the move as a step toward challenging the endangerment finding, the agency’s legal foundation for regulating greenhouse gases from cars, power plants and other sources. Robert Murray, CEO of Murray Energy Corp., said Pruitt assured him yesterday that he plans to begin reviewing the endangerment finding within months.”

Abroad, US officials are trying to ratchet up finance for fossil fuels, the New York Times’ Lisa Friedman tweeted this week.

A short note posted on the Treasury Department website marked a clear shift in policy from the Obama-era, pledging to use US voting rights at the World Bank to “help countries access and use fossil fuels more cleanly and efficiently.”

The move echoed US calls at the G20 to promote the use of cleaner coal, gas and oil, despite a longstanding commitment by the bloc to lead on promoting greener forms of energy.

Disagreement between the US and the other 19 members led to a bizarre piece of diplomatic chicanery — adding a footnote to the preamble on the G20 climate statement.

While the G19 pledged their support for the Paris Agreement, a small piece of text at the bottom added the US “continues to reserve its position on this document and its contents”.

The rollbacks are relentless: Democrat think tank Think Progress claims US climate agency NOAA is scaling back on its climate comms as a result of pressure from the administration.

And according to the New York Times’ Hiroko Tabuchi, growth in solar power is likely to come to a halt in 2017 after a “concerted and well funded” campaign from fossil fuel utilities.

“Prodded in part by the utilities’ campaign, nearly every state in the country is engaged in a review of its solar energy policies. Since 2013, Hawaii, Nevada, Arizona, Maine and Indiana have decided to phase out net metering, crippling programs that spurred explosive growth in the rooftop solar market. (Nevada recently reversed its decision.) Many more states are considering new or higher fees on solar customers.”

It’s true that Trump has said he’s open to renegotiating the Paris Agreement — a prospect most if not all veterans of UN climate talks regard as a giant dead-cat-on-table strategy.

“What is there to renegotiate? All he has to do is downgrade the US numbers [CO2 reduction commitment]. This is playing to the gallery,” a UN veteran with 25 years of scars from the talks told me.

It’s easy to forget that the 2015 Paris Agreement talks nearly collapsed on the final day because the US objected to a line that said richer nations were compelled to make CO2 cuts.

After hours of tense talks a word was changed — much to the anger of many developing nation envoys — allowing the US to argue Paris was not in any shape or form legally binding, rather a voluntary deal often espoused by Republicans.

Todd Stern, Obama’s envoy on point that day and a man who once left Pacific Island envoys in tears during talks at the 2012 UN climate summit in Doha (the US always played hard and fast) has little illusions on this score:

“Trump’s suggestion he is willing to renegotiate the deal to make it fairer to the United States doesn’t pass the straight-face test. The Paris agreement — for anyone who actually understands it — is entirely fair to the United States. The idea that 194 other countries will listen to Trump’s insulting Rose Garden blather and say, “Sure, let’s sit down and negotiate a new deal” is ridiculous.”

Even if Trump does want to deliver a new CO2 plan, he’ll need a strategy, something Amy Harder from the Axios news agency says doesn’t exist:

“The closest thing President Trump has to a climate and energy policy is actually a collection of contradictions. He touts natural gas as a carbon-cutting mechanism, but he also promises to bring back the carbon-emitting coal industry. He talks about “clean coal,” but his actions will make it harder for “clean coal” technology to make any headway. Misleading statements are nothing new in Washington. But these contradictions are becoming the Trump administration’s core policy framework.”

It’s possible Macron has a long game in mind, reckoning at 39 he’s likely to be in office longer than Trump, perhaps hoping to keep the US vaguely engaged till the 2020 US election, hoping for a new White House incumbent.

Despite legions of articles claiming otherwise, the US has not yet left the Paris Agreement. State Department diplomats took part in UN climate talks in Bonn this May, by all accounts engaging constructively.

Perhaps keeping Donald sweet may ensure US envoys don’t trash delicate talks on the “rulebook” for the Paris deal, which will resume later this year and must be finalised in late 2018.

The rules are vital: covering everything from measuring, reporting and verifying CO2 cuts to transfer of technology, and how countries will be held accountable at the UN for their climate efforts.

It’s possible that the economic case for renewables and advancements in clean energy technology will be such in the next four years that Trump has to wake up and smell the roses.

But don’t count on it, and don’t get suckered into thinking he’ll be strong on climate because he now wants the Mexico border wall to be solar-powered.

This is an administration where words mean little, and are actively used to deceive. On climate, ignore the tweets, follow the policies, follow the money.

Update 20/7: In an interview with the New York Times Trump doubled down on his Paris exit, insisting “the people that love me, love that I got out”, before mocking President Macron for holding his hand. “People don’t realise he loves holding my hand. And that’s good,as far as that goes,” he said.

Tracking international climate diplomacy since 2010 | Trustee @LewYouTheatre | Also at @sportandclimate