As Trump wavers over Paris climate accord, European leaders give him an earful

With President Trump balking on his vow to shred the Obama-negotiated Paris agreement on climate change, the last place the pact’s staunch opponents wanted to see the president is where he will be this weekend — meeting other world leaders unanimous in their warnings that withdrawal from the accord would seriously damage America’s economy and world stature.

Trump has repeatedly delayed fulfilling his campaign pledge to move against the agreement. The longer the White House deliberates over Paris, the more Trump seems to be searching for a face-saving excuse to walk back his previous position.

The White House indecision over the climate accord — which has the support of every nation except Syria and Nicaragua — reflects a deeply divided worldview in a Trump inner circle now packed with establishment Republicans.

The issue also presents yet another policy reckoning for Trump. On the campaign trail, he vowed to strike blows against the existing world order. But on the Paris agreement, as on other matters, he is finding that political backup for such pledges can fade quickly when the moves lack robust support from major U.S. companies or majority voting blocs.

In a meeting Wednesday at the Vatican, its secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, urged Trump to stay in the accord. He made clear he is considering doing so, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters.

“The president indicated we’re still thinking about that, that he hasn’t made a final decision,” Tillerson said.

The lobbying continued Thursday when Trump met with European leaders at a NATO meeting in Brussels. Newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron said he pushed Trump to stay in the accord, an interaction the White House omitted from its readout of the meeting to reporters.

The pressure is almost certain to persist through the weekend meeting of the G7 — the developed world’s major economic powers — in Sicily.

Diplomats from the G7 countries were still working Thursday on the joint declaration that the leaders customarily issue during the meeting. Those talks may continue as late as Saturday as negotiators try to bridge differences between the U.S. and its partners on climate change as well as trade issues.

The talks have been made more complicated by the White House’s indecision about whether the U.S. should stick with the Paris accord, which President Obama hailed as one of his major achievements when the agreement was reached in December 2015.

The Paris accord aims to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius (about 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels. Although some environmental advocates consider it weak on enforcement, the agreement is one of the most far-reaching international environmental pacts in history.

Trump’s struggle with whether to withdraw from the agreement is a reminder of how little input his campaign had from other Republicans who understood the intricacies of such policy.

“He had been living in an echo chamber hostile to international institutions and imagining all these institutions do is create constraints and costs on the country,” said David Victor, a professor of international relations at UC San Diego.

“Now he’s learning that these agreements are vital to our economy and international relations.”

The administration’s hand-wringing over Paris has been notably prolonged and public. The nationalist wing of the White House staff, led by strategist Stephen K. Bannon, is pushing for Trump to follow through on a promise to quit the agreement.

Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt, a favorite of the free-market think tanks leading the effort against the Paris accord, has said publicly that the U.S. should exit. A legal opinion floating around the White House backs the push. It warns that Trump’s effort to dismantle Obama-era climate regulations could be complicated in court if the Paris agreement remains intact.

But those arguments are getting little backup from the big energy firms and other industries which Trump said would get a boost from exiting the pact. They overwhelmingly favor staying in.

Some of their lobbyists assert the White House legal opinion is wrong. Drafters of the Paris agreement planned for political shake-ups exactly like the one the U.S. is experiencing, they say. The accord leaves flexibility for countries to shift how they meet their obligation and retreat on climate actions like the Clean Power Plan, the signature Obama action to confront global warming which Trump has ordered scrapped.

“Even if you don’t like the accord’s implications, it has very few teeth,” said Eli Lehrer, president of the R Street Institute, a right-leaning energy think tank. “I don’t know of a single Fortune 500 fossil fuel company that is pushing for withdrawal.”

The pact is mostly good for energy businesses, which tend to have holdings in natural gas and clean tech projects, and are dealing with public pressure to do something to address climate change, he said.

When Trump railed against the Paris agreement on the campaign trail, he was echoing the sentiment of many Republicans in Congress who had declared it an outrage. They challenged Obama’s authority to enter it, and pilloried the agreement as the product of extreme environmentalists.

Those voices have quieted down substantially now that Republicans find themselves in a position to actually pull the U.S. out of the deal.

A letter released by GOP senators Wednesday calling on Trump to withdraw had 22 signatures — fewer than half the Republicans in the chamber and 18 fewer senators than signed on to a dueling letter from Democrats calling for the U.S. to stay in.

“This is so typical of what is happening on so many issues with this White House,” said an energy industry representative opposed to withdrawing, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss dealings with the administration.

“They picked an extreme point of view and spoke a lot about it. I’m not sure how much those people writing the speeches and talking points really knew about it.”

Trump is getting an earful from concerned voices inside his White House, including his own son-in-law and his climate-conscious daughter — Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump — who are cautioning about the unintended consequences of getting out. Tillerson, the former ExxonMobil CEO, is advising that U.S. interests could suffer if international climate actions move forward with no U.S. involvement.

Some major companies share that worry. Europe is determined to carry on regardless of what Trump does, as is China. Both those economic powerhouses threaten to usurp America’s leadership role in energy innovation.

The worry corporations are registering with the White House reflects the extent to which their businesses rely on regulatory certainty not just in the U.S. but abroad. Many are concerned that they will get whipsawed as different administrations pull in and out of global agreements.

Career diplomats warn that the consequences of the U.S. casually tearing up a worldwide agreement it brokered would be long-lasting and deeply damaging to its influence internationally.

Trump once promised his mind would be made up before he left for the G7 summit. Then the White House announced that Trump’s mind would not be made up by then.

Other world leaders are plotting to tread cautiously on the topic, those involved in climate discussions say. They have seen the U.S. president be impressionable and swayed by a convincing argument — as was the case when he backed off his plan to withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement — but they have also seen him be impulsive and punitive when backed into a corner.

“With his personality type, a group trying to push him toward some decision could be counter-productive,” Robert Stavin, director of the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements, said in an email.

A small delegation Trump sent recently to climate change talks in Bonn, Germany, sent a worrisome signal when it announced the administration has no plans, for now, to keep paying down the $3 billion it has pledged over four years to the Green Climate Fund. The fund was created as part of the Paris accord to help poor nations adapt to global warming.

The move was another reminder to climate activists that Trump sticking with Paris would be a mixed blessing for them, as he could work to undermine it from within.

The better news of late for backers of the Paris accord has come in the form of polling. Only 28% of Trump’s voters want the U.S. out of the Paris agreement, according to a poll by the Yale Program on Climate Communication.

While the most fervent Trump loyalists may detest the accord, said program director Anthony Leiserowitz, “he cannot win again if he only has the hard-core Trump supporters who showed up at his rallies voting for him.”

Special correspondent Tom Kington in Taormina, Italy, contributed to this article

evan.halper@latimes.com

Follow me: @evanhalper

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UPDATES:

12 p.m.: This article was updated with a comment from French President Emmanuel Macron.

9:47 a.m.: This article was updated with information about Trump’s meetings.

The article was originally published at 3 a.m.

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