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Climate Change

Published on May 13th, 2017 | by Tina Casey


Trump Breathes New Life Into Paris Climate Change Accord With Arctic Mic Drop

May 13th, 2017 by  

Will he or won’t he? In a sequence events worthy of standard television reality fare, President Trump has been building suspense over a final decision on the Paris climate change accord. During his presidential campaign Trump promised to “cancel” US participation in the historic agreement and the clock is still ticking.

Unfortunately for President Trump, his own Secretary of State Rex Tillerson pulled the rug out from under the surprise. He dropped a huge spoiler last week during a meeting of an important multinational body, the Arctic Council.

climate change Paris Tillerson Arctic

And the CleanTechnica Prediction (So Far) Is…

Before we get to Tillerson’s spoiler, let’s pause for a look at where things stand now.

If the Paris decision-making process follows the same script as Trump’s first 100 days in office, one of two outcomes are likely.

One is that the President will sign an Executive Order that purports to withdraw the US from the Paris climate change accord but is really just another sop to his core supporters, and is actually not intended to withdraw the US. He will pose for photos and claim victory — and the US will continue holding up its end of the accord.

For an example of one of these “no discernable policy outcome” photo ops check out Trump’s recent Executive Order on religious liberty.

The other possibility is that the President will sign an Executive Order that really is intended to withdraw the US from the Paris accord. He will pose for photos and declare victory, but the US will continue participating in the accord, at least technically, while the Executive Order is challenged in court by US climate activists.

Trump’s “Muslim Ban” executive orders provide a good example of this type of photo op.

In addition to domestic pushback, internationally recognized legal obstacles prevent the US from summarily withdrawing. The withdrawal timeline ranges from one to four years depending on which option Trump exercises, and a lot can happen in one year.

Paris Or Not, US Businesses Take Action

Aside from issues of legality and global leadership, the US could potentially meet — or exceed — its Paris climate change goals without participating in the agreement.

Despite Trump’s advocacy for coal miners, industry stakeholders agree that US coal jobs are never coming back.

As if to poke Trump in the eye, during the President’s first 100 days in office several US energy companies announced major coal shut-down plans.

That includes the operators of the nation’s largest coal fired plant, the Navajo Generating Station.

Aside saving on carbon emissions, the economics for coal just aren’t working. That’s primarily due to competition from cheap natural gas but renewables are beginning to come on strong.

One example is the Florida energy company JEA, which stands to shave a full one-third off its carbon footprint by shutting down its St. Johns River Power Park.

The company already has some renewable energy in its portfolio and is planning to expand its share.

In explaining the reason for the coal plant closure, the company’s CEO Paul McElroy summed up the problem for coal in six words:

“It’s at its economic life’s end.”


Energy companies are just one feature in a broader decarbonization movement in the US that involves hundreds of leading US and global companies along with scores of mayors and a round dozen US governors.

Natural Gas Hearts The Paris Climate Change Accord…

Into this mix walks US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. As the former longtime CEO of ExxonMobil, Tillerson was a fierce advocate for natural gas at the expense of coal, so his appointment to the Trump Administration is one hint that the US will stay in the Paris agreement one way or another.

Tillerson has advocated for staying in the agreement, as has Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who is an enthusiastic cheerleader for renewables despite President Trump’s pro-coal rhetoric.

It’s also worth noting that among the many leading companies advocating for the Paris agreement are oil companies that have extensive interests in natural gas. That would be ExxonMobil as well as Chevron, Shell, and BP.

…And The Arctic Council, Too

That finally gets us around to the Arctic Council. The 20-year-old organization is the main platform for international cooperation in the region.

Including the US, its members are Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, the Russian Federation, Sweden, and six organizations representing indigenous peoples.

As the push for climate action heats up, companies like ExxonMobil have an opportunity to ramp up their gas operations in the region while pushing out coal.

So, it’s no surprise that at last week’s meeting of the Arctic Council, Secretary Tillerson strongly endorsed continued US participation in the organization.

In an official statement of the US position, Tillerson hedged on the Trump Administration’s climate change position:

…we are currently reviewing several important policies, including how the Trump administration will approach the issue of climate change. We are appreciative that each of you has an important point of view, and you should know that we are taking the time to understand your concerns.

But he quickly went on to affirm that the “Arctic Council will continue to be an important platform as we deliberate on these issues.”

That’s one heck of a nudge nudge, wink wink considering the position of the Arctic Council on climate change:

Combating climate change is an urgent common challenge for the international community and requires immediate global action.

Tillerson’s statement also included a short list of highlights during the US tenure as chair of the Arctic Council. Topping his list was US participation in the third iteration of a binding — yes, binding — agreement on scientific cooperation:

The signing of the Agreement on Enhancing International Arctic Scientific Cooperation will facilitate the movement of scientists, scientific equipment, and importantly, data sharing across the international boundaries of the Arctic.


The real kicker is that at the meeting, Tillerson went ahead and signed the US on to something called the The Fairbanks Declaration.

By signing, the US agreed — bindingly! — to recognize this:

…activities taking place outside the Arctic region, including activities occurring in Arctic States, are the main contributors to climate change effects and pollution in the Arctic, and underlining the need for action at all levels…

And, this:

…the Arctic is warming at more than twice the rate of the global average, resulting in widespread social, environmental, and economic impacts in the Arctic and worldwide, and the pressing and increasing need for mitigation and adaptation actions and to strengthen resilience…

And this, too:

…the entry into force of the Paris Agreement on climate change and its implementation, and reiterating the need for global action to reduce both long-lived greenhouse gases and short-lived climate pollutants, and Reaffirming the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and the need for their realization by 2030…

Did anybody just hear a mic drop?

The question now is whether or not this binding agreement in effect prevents the US from withdrawing from the Paris climate change accord.

Those of you with a legal background can give us a hand by dropping a note in the comment thread.

Image: Rex Tillerson by William Munoz via flickr.com, creative commons license.

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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

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