President-elect Donald Trump’s suggestion yesterday that he has an “open mind” about the Paris climate agreement is a sign that he’s adapting to the realities of leading a world power, rather than a campaign, according to observers.
His comments to The New York Times struck a softer tone than the one he conveyed in a May energy speech, when he promised to “cancel” the international pact. That steadfast position now appears in flux, at least rhetorically. At the same time, Trump refused to be pinned down on the scientific consensus that humans are warming the planet, invoking debunked information about emails stolen from climate scientists in 2009, American factories burdened by regulations and his engineer uncle.
“You can make lots of cases for different views,” he said before repeating, “I have a totally open mind.”
The possible shift on the Paris Agreement comes as Trump is having introductory discussions with world leaders to begin the process of forming relationships on a dizzying array of issues. It’s likely that some foreign dignitaries have politely talked about climate change in their congratulatory phone calls, according to people in international climate circles.
Those experiences might be leaving the impression with Trump that he can use the United States’ status in climate diplomacy to find other benefits, like retooled trade agreements. Or maybe it was Trump’s plan all along to threaten to withdraw from Paris and then offer to stay—for something in return.
Stephen Eule, who represents the U.S. Chamber of Commerce at U.N. climate talks, said that threatening to leave the Paris deal is “a pretty good bargaining chip.”
“He is the author of ‘The Art of the Deal,’ so it would not surprise me if he were setting up some kind of negotiation,” Eule said. “He may not know Washington, but he knows the way the game is played.”
Of course, that would mean Trump preserves the nation’s role in the agreement. That could lead to other problems, like reneging on a campaign promise that was celebrated by many in the energy sector. Republican lawmakers might also be upset.
Eule said Trump could retool the Paris Agreement by submitting new commitments for greenhouse gas reductions, for instance. The U.S. Chamber has said that the Senate should vote on Paris.
Others suggest not reading too much into his words.
To Marlo Lewis, senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, Trump’s comments mark a natural evolution in someone who went from a political candidate to a world leader over the last two weeks.
“I think he has a duty to keep an open mind as the president and that means that there is the possibility that someone might persuade him to do something differently than he intended to do when he was campaigning,” Lewis said. “But I don’t think people should assume that he’s signaling that he’s going to reverse course. I think all it means is that now he’s talking like a president, rather than a candidate.”
Trump was asked about climate change while being interviewed by multiple reporters and columnists with The New York Times. He expressed deep concern about the climate agreement and a willingness to consider its value.
The contradictory comment came in response to a question by columnist Thomas Friedman, who asked Trump how he will approach the Paris Agreement.
“I’ll tell you what. I have an open mind to it. We’re going to look very carefully. It’s one issue that’s interesting because there are few things where there’s more division than climate change,” Trump said. Pressed later to clarify whether he will in fact pull out of the accord, Trump said, “I’m going to take a look at it.”
Environmental organizations described his comments as rhetorical snowflakes that could melt and reform with a different meaning.
“Prove it, President-elect. The world is watching,” said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, in a statement.
But others say Trump’s wording could be directed at a smaller audience. His comments came days after representatives from around the world met in Morocco at a climate summit organized by the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.
“The Trump administration has far more to gain from staying in the Paris Agreement than getting out of it,” said Nigel Purvis, who served as a deputy assistant secretary of state for environment under President George W. Bush when the United States signed but failed to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. Bush subsequently declared Kyoto “dead.”
“I saw firsthand how America’s go-it-alone approach on climate made it harder to secure international support for President Bush’s foreign policy priorities,” Purvis said. “Rejecting Paris now would undermine the president-elect’s goals on trade, migration and terror, which presumably he cares more about than walking away from an innocuous climate agreement.”
Elliot Diringer, executive vice president at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, said Trump’s comment is “only a hint, but a hopeful one.”
“He’s hearing from other nations and from business leaders that U.S. leadership on climate change is vital,” he added. “It seems like maybe they’re getting through.”
Yet Trump also appeared dismissive of threats some foreign officials like former French President Nicolas Sarkozy made to impose tariffs on goods from the United States if it becomes the only country to flout the carbon reduction agreement.
“I think that countries will not do that to us. I don’t think if they’re run by a person that understands leadership and negotiation they’re in no position to do that to us, no matter what I do. They’re in no position to do that to us, and that won’t happen, but I’m going to take a look at it,” he said.
Maybe humans are warming the Earth, after all
Trump was also asked yesterday whether humans are contributing to global warming.
“I think there is some connectivity,” Trump responded. “Some, something. It depends on how much.” He also joked about what rising sea levels would mean for his properties.
“I read your articles,” he told Freidman, who invoked the vulnerability of Trump National Doral Miami in a recent column imploring the president-elect to act on climate change.
“Some will be even better because actually like Doral is a little bit off ... so it’ll be perfect. [inaudible] He doesn’t say that. He just says that the ones that are near the water will be gone, but Doral will be in great shape,” Trump said.
He then engaged in a back-and-forth conversation with Friedman, publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., and editorial page editor James Bennett:
Sulzberger: Well, since we’re living on an island, sir, I want to thank you for having an open mind. We saw what these storms are now doing, right? We’ve seen it personally. Straight up.
Friedman: But you have an open mind on this?
Trump: I do have an open mind. And we’ve had storms always, Arthur.
Sulzberger: Not like this.
Trump: You know the hottest day ever was in 1890-something, 98. You know, you can make lots of cases for different views. I have a totally open mind.
My uncle was for 35 years a professor at MIT. He was a great engineer, scientist. He was a great guy. And he was ... a long time ago, he had feelings—this was a long time ago—he had feelings on this subject. It’s a very complex subject. I’m not sure anybody is ever going to really know. I know we have, they say they have science on one side but then they also have those horrible emails that were sent between the scientists. Where was that, in Geneva or wherever five years ago? Terrible. Where they got caught, you know, so you see that and you say, “What’s this all about?” I absolutely have an open mind. I will tell you this: Clean air is vitally important. Clean water, crystal clean water is vitally important. Safety is vitally important.
And you know, you mentioned a lot of the courses. I have some great, great, very successful golf courses. I’ve received so many environmental awards for the way I’ve done, you know, I’ve done a tremendous amount of work where I’ve received tremendous numbers. Sometimes I’ll say I’m actually an environmentalist and people will smile in some cases and other people that know me understand that’s true. Open mind.
Bennett: When you say an open mind, you mean you’re just not sure whether human activity causes climate change? Do you think human activity is or isn’t connected?
Trump: I think right now ... well, I think there is some connectivity. There is some, something. It depends on how much. It also depends on how much it’s going to cost our companies. You have to understand, our companies are noncompetitive right now.
They’re really largely noncompetitive. About four weeks ago, I started adding a certain little sentence into a lot of my speeches, that we’ve lost 70,000 factories since W. Bush. Seventy thousand. When I first looked at the number, I said: ‘That must be a typo. It can’t be 70, you can’t have 70,000, you wouldn’t think you have 70,000 factories here.’ And it wasn’t a typo, it’s right. We’ve lost 70,000 factories.
We’re not a competitive nation with other nations anymore. We have to make ourselves competitive. We’re not competitive for a lot of reasons. That’s becoming more and more of the reason. Because a lot of these countries that we do business with, they make deals with our president, or whoever, and then they don’t adhere to the deals, you know that. And it’s much less expensive for their companies to produce products. So I’m going to be studying that very hard, and I think I have a very big voice in it. And I think my voice is listened to, especially by people that don’t believe in it. And we’ll let you know.
In the past, Trump has called global warming “bullshit,” and at a rally in December he described it as a “hoax.”
His comments yesterday are more accommodating of the impacts of greenhouse gases from cars, power plants and buildings, but they don’t show an urgency to address the risks of rising temperatures, said Alex Bozmoski, director of strategy and operations at republicEn, a conservative group that supports taxing carbon.
“I think there’s good reason why no head of state has the luxury of climate skepticism,” he said of Trump. “He’s going to be the boss of the greatest research establishment in the history of mankind. I mean he’s going to be hearing on the regular basis from NASA and [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] and the Pentagon about the acute risks that face America because of climate change.”
Trump wasn’t alone in presenting a softer side on climate.
Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, who’s overseeing U.S. EPA transition under Trump, issued a statement that described human-driven warming as real, but weak.
Ebell has fought against climate policies for years, and he often suggests that climate scientists are working to advance their careers by promoting alarmist research that exaggerates the pace of climbing temperatures.
“I agree that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, that greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere are increasing as a result of human activities—primarily burning coal, oil, and natural gas—and that this means the global mean temperature is likely to rise,” Ebell said in the statement released by CEI yesterday. “Where we disagree with global warming alarmists is whether this amounts to a crisis that requires drastic action.”
Reprinted from ClimateWire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at www.eenews.net.