Part VI: Justice Delayed — Stop Saying That: President Trump Can Still Mess with the Paris Agreement

Date line: October 5, 2016

Over the past few days my in-box has been overflowing with hopeful news about the Paris climate agreement.  Today hope became promise.  As of Wednesday evening, 72 nations responsible for 56.8 percent of global emissions formally filed their ratification papers.

Major polluting polities China, the U.S. and India had ratified the agreement earlier. Recent ratifiers include EU member nations, Bolivia, Canada, Mexico, Nepal and the United Arab Emirates.  The Paris Agreement will enter into force on Nov. 4, four days before the national election in the U.S.

Image: Obama Promising DiCaprio A Rose Garden. Credit:

Concerns have been growing in recent months over the Donald’s possible occupancy of the Oval Office.  Given that Trump has labelled climate change a hoax, perpetrated by Beijing to make U.S. manufacturing more competitive, there is reason to worry.

China’s using climate change to ruin American manufacturing is mere prattle—a disconnect of mind and mouth.  The real threat to combat global climate is Trump’s vow to:

  • Revoke every executive order in support of the development and deployment of clean energy technologies; and
  • Remove all regulations impeding the unbridled operation of the coal, oil and gas industries.

Donald’s version of a little R&R should send shivers down the backs of every clean energy and environmental stakeholder, including many world leaders.  Success for Trump translates into trashing the Clean Power Plan and shredding the presidential directive upon which it stands.

The many business and government leaders who gathered in NYC during Climate Week 2016 were openly leery of a Donald administration.  Not simply a matter of U.S. politics, anti-establishment victories in Britain, Germany, Italy and other countries have raised     warning flags—possibly portending a reversal in the global march towards sustainability.

Retraction of the U.S. pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent could easily prompt other nations to follow the leader.  Victory by reactionary forces in the U.S. and Europe would virtually guarantee that developing nations would be denied needed assistance.

For many nations, climate change is already threatening their existence.  Rising sea waters, droughts, increases in the intensity and number of devastating climate occurrences all mean time is of the essence—both for developing and developed nations.

You’re probably asking about now what the title of this tale is all about?  Accompanying the good news about the Paris Agreement are overly loud sighs of relief by those who believe they’ve won the game of: duck the possibility of a Donald in the White House.

Anyone following my public musings knows I’m not on the short list to win this year’s blue bird of happiness trophy.  The reality of the situation is that the notion of an enforceable agreement is ludicrous.

President Obama agrees with me.  Standing in the Rose Garden with his new BFF Leonardo DiCaprio, Mr. Obama said about the ratified accords:

If we follow through on the commitments that this Paris agreement embodies, history may well judge it as a turning point for our planet.

What?  You didn’t see the word “unenforceable” anywhere?  Look again—only this time stop at the word “IF.

I don’t mean to rain on anybody’s parade—I really don’t.  Trust me, I share your enthusiasm over what has just happened; yes—it was a great job—a truly historic day—whatever.

Don’t defy reality by believing the agreement can take a Trump bullet and not deflate.  I can think of five nearly foolproof ways that Donald can walk us back from our pledged nationally determined contributions (NDCs).

His options are to:

  1. Wait a year and abandon the 1992 international environmental treaty negotiated at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro;
  2. Wait until the end of his first term as president and abandon the Paris accord;
  3. Revoke all executive orders having to do with renewable energy and energy
  4. efficiency mandates;
  5. Remove all environmental regulations from the books; and
  6. Get the Congress to zero out or substantially lower executive agency budgets, i.e., EPA, DOE, HUD, et. al.

Can he do any of these things?  You bet he can.  What should be most frightening to we climate advocates is the dark irony of it all.  Very little of what Donald promises he will do, can he do.  These things he can—and quickly.  

Executive orders are not laws, they are the written whims of the White House.  Just as President Obama has exercised his authority to put us on the right environmental path, a President Donald can take us off of it.

A slightly patient president can wait for the available windows of inopportunity to open up.   Donald can give notice that the U.S. intends to withdraw from the climate treaty negotiated at the first Earth Summit in Rio.  A year after notice is given, the withdrawal would enter force.

Cancelling the nation’s subscription to the 1992 treaty is really a twofer. According to the terms of the Paris agreement, withdrawing from the first is tantamount to leaving the second.  The second abandonment would automatically kick in four years from the date of cancellation.

The power of a president to unilaterally cancel treaty commitments has been tested before.  Both presidents Carter and G.W. Bush took the U.S. out of defense related treaties.  SCOTUS refused to hear a congressional challenge to Carter’s withdrawal.  If not a presumptive precedent, it is certainly sufficient to start a long, drawn out battle.

A lot has been written about the enforceability of the Paris agreement.  Think about it though.  What can really be done about it?  Drag the U.S. before an international judicial body for a scolding?  Issue a fine—how would they collect on it?

International pressure is the usual threat.  Do you honestly believe that Trump and company would really care?  He would face the nation and tell everyone how smart he is.  You have to care enough to feel embarrassed, and Donald don’t!

Legal niceties aside, political maneuvering will work just as well as options 1 thru 4.  Donald may be the biggest mouth in the deniers’ chorus—he certainly is not the only one.  Congressional pooh-poohers are a sufficient force to keep clean energy and environmental funding down and annual appropriations in limbo.

Unless there was a sufficiently super Democratic majority to override any veto, President Trump and allies like Senator Sessions (R-Ala.) and Representative Upton (R-Mich.) could keep pro-environmental dogs chasing their collective tails for the next four years—eight if he wins twice.  

A Trump victory would make moderate Republicans too scared to challenge the new president.  It would equally make the Democrats more determined than ever to oppose the big D and to keep him from making good on any of his pledges requiring constructive congressional action.  We know what polarization does to the political system.

Holding hope that the private sector can and will do this on their own is misplaced. Inevitable though its movement towards sustainability may be, it is likely to prove insufficient.  Combatting climate change must occur on a massive scale; a scale that can only be achieved when sectors combine forces.  The loss or languor of one will be the failure of all.

My final dose of disappointing reality is this—Donald and the gang wouldn’t even have to acquire their targets of less regulation, renegotiation and revocation of executive orders to win.  Time is of the essence.  The promise of Paris can be defeated simply by slowing things down.

The world is already behind the curve to keep temperatures from rising above 2 degrees Celsius, let alone meeting the need to lower the threshold to 1.5 degrees Celsius.  We have seen Justice Delayed because of legal challenges to the Clean Power Plan.  For it to be denied, President Trump needs only to do what he is good at doing—declaring bankruptcy and breaking contracts.

So please stop saying there’s light at the end of the tunnel.  It’s likely a train named Trump.

This article was originally published by and was republished with permission.

Read more in this series:

The Clean Power Plan: Justice Delayed

Part II: The Clean Power Plan: Justice Delayed — For Whom the Rule Tolls

Part III: The Clean Power Plan: Justice Delayed — The Juvenile Justice League

Part IV: Justice Delayed — Will Politics Trump Justice in the Case of the Clean Power Plan?

Part V: Justice Delayed and The Clean Power Plan — A Different Kind of Justice

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Joel Stronberg, Esq., of The JBS Group is a veteran clean energy policy analyst with over 30 years’ experience, based in Washington, DC. He writes about energy and politics in his blog Civil Notion ( ). Joel recently returned to private practice after serving as the Executive Director of the Biomass Thermal Energy Council.  He has worked extensively in the clean energy fields for public and private sector clients at all levels of government and in Latin America. His specialties include: resiliency; distributed generation and storage; utility regulation; financing mechanisms; and, sustainable agriculture; and human behavior. He has recently taken on the duties of managing partner for LAC Solar Light, Inc. a B-type corporation working in the Americas. Joel can be contacted at .

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