Author: SARA STEFANINI, ANDREW RESTUCCIA
European diplomats are carefully crafting a strategy for dealing with Donald Trump on climate change, fearful of provoking a backlash from the mercurial president if they push too hard for U.S. cooperation.
Germany, France, Italy, the European Commission and others see two high-profile gatherings of world leaders — this summer’s G7 and G20 summits in Italy and Germany — as the perfect opportunities to push the Trump administration to take a stance on climate, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit to the White House this week as a potential prelude. Merkel was supposed to fly to Washington on Tuesday but her flight was postponed because of a snowstorm. It has been moved to Friday.
But the Europeans are still unsure how to approach a president who has questioned the value of U.S. alliances and dismissed climate change as a hoax.
“The challenge with the G7 and G20 is that we want to use this as a way to put pressure on the U.S., but not to ruffle their feathers,” a European official told POLITICO.
Many European diplomats still don’t know what to make of Trump.
“He’s an unknown, and people want to be careful so it doesn’t blow up right in their faces,” said Michael Werz, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress specializing in foreign policy and the European Union. “The stakes are fairly high. There will probably be an attempt not to provoke the White House into saying outrageously stupid things.”
Climate advocates and European officials see Merkel’s visit as the first opportunity to lay the groundwork to persuade Trump to keep the U.S. in the landmark Paris climate agreement, and to back a joint G20 leaders’ declaration emphasizing their commitment to limiting greenhouse gas emissions.
Trump vowed during the campaign to “cancel” the Paris agreement, which the U.S. and nearly 200 other nations backed in 2015, and top advisers like Stephen Bannon are seen as opposing the deal. But other advisers, including the president’s daughter Ivanka Trump, are quietly considering a plan to stay in the agreement, while weakening former President Barack Obama’s pledge to slash U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
Although global warming is undoubtedly a priority for Germany’s “climate chancellor,” it’s not certain that the issue will make it onto the agenda during Merkel’s visit, which could also include issues like NATO, trade and EU relations, sources said.
“Leaders at this point tend to be a little cautious and pick their fights,” an EU source following the international climate talks said. “Will Merkel do it? I don’t know, but if she doesn’t it wouldn’t surprise me.”
POLITICO spoke to more than a dozen current and former European and U.S. officials in Washington and Brussels on condition of anonymity about efforts to lobby the new White House to stick with commitments on climate change, while figuring out how to fill the leadership void Obama left.
“We are still trying to figure out who has influence,” a Western European diplomat in Washington said. “There are a lot of moving parts.”
EU game plan
EU members are therefore meeting regularly to coordinate their approach to Trump. France, Germany and Italy are especially active, as hosts of the 2015 Paris summit and this year’s G20 and G7. The key, diplomats said, is to tailor the message to an administration that cares less about saving the planet for the planet’s sake and much more about boosting the American economy.
“The button they have to push is jobs,” a second Western European diplomat in Washington said. “Talking about climate change on its own doesn’t help the issue. You have to talk about economic opportunities.”
While the Trump administration has yet to comment publicly on whether the U.S. will ditch the hard-fought Paris agreement, or even the 1992 United Nations climate change convention that led to the 2015 deal, the expectation both in Washington and European capitals is clear: The United States, the world’s second-biggest greenhouse gas emitter, will be a laggard at best, or a disruptor at worst.
With that in mind, Europeans are quietly forming a coalition of like-minded countries that support ambitious action to curb global warming. They’ve made early entreaties to Canada and China, as well as African, Latin American and small island states most at risk from global warming.
The EU’s climate action and energy commissioner, Miguel Arias Cañete, visited Canada earlier this month to strategize, and will go to China in the next couple of months with the aim of preparing an announcement on stronger climate cooperation during the EU-China summit in early June.
“Despite all the current geopolitical uncertainties, the world can count on Europe to maintain global leadership in the fight against climate change,” Arias Cañete told POLITICO. “We will stand by Paris, we will defend Paris, and we will implement Paris.”
Inside the White House
Meanwhile, efforts within the administration to keep the U.S. in the Paris accord are slowly gaining support inside the White House, although sources said they could still be scuttled by aides who oppose the agreement.
The plan envisions Trump weakening Obama’s pledge for steep cuts in U.S. carbon emissions by 2025. While that would disappoint climate advocates — who are already mourning the loss of Obama’s leadership in pushing nations to do more on the issue — it wouldn’t cause the same furor as walking away from Paris altogether.
“Staying in is not hard. You just have to show up and file some paperwork. Leaving, on the other hand, will cause a huge diplomatic uproar,” said Paul Bodnar, a former international climate adviser to Obama. “Trump’s team have bigger fish to fry internationally, whether on trade or national security.”
The U.S. could also use the uncertainty over Paris to gain leverage in broader energy discussions with other countries, people familiar with the administration’s internal discussions told POLITICO. One possibility: Reducing emissions from fossil fuel production by offering incentives for carbon capture and storage technology.
A final decision on whether the U.S. will remain in the Paris deal might not come for weeks or months, sources said, because a quick verdict might rid Trump of a bargaining chip.
“I don’t see why he’d give up the leverage of Paris,” one Republican close to the White House said. “He can use it as a carrot.”
George David Banks, a White House senior adviser on international energy and environmental issues, has had early discussions about the Paris agreement with several European officials, according to people who have spoken with him. European officials have reached out to Banks in an effort to gauge where the U.S. stands.
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, who said last week that carbon dioxide emitted from human activity is not the primary driver of climate change, is also expected to talk to European officials in the coming weeks. A Pruitt spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.
Looking to Merkel
Meanwhile, outside groups are pressuring Merkel — who faces re-election in September — to take a stand on climate when she meets Trump. They’re frustrated that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and British Prime Minister Theresa May ignored the issue during their visits with the U.S. president.
“It’s time for a leader who meets with Trump to make a public statement,” said Susanne Dröge, a senior fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
A senior Trump administration official told reporters it’s “quite possible” that the Paris deal will be discussed during Merkel’s visit.
German news reports say Merkel has been doing her homework on Trump, watching his speeches and public statements.
“We’re living in a new era,” Werz said. “It is mostly a policy-free White House when it comes to international engagement, so people go back to the basics and try to understand a very volatile personality.”