The Donald Trump administration told countries around the world in writing last week that the United States is reconsidering its existing climate change rules and that it will not consider new ones that could hurt the economy or impact energy production at home.
Responding to questions from China, the European Union and others about how the U.S. plans to meet its near-term climate goals, Trump officials repeatedly wrote: "The Administration is reviewing existing policies and regulations in the context of a focus on strengthening U.S. economic growth and promoting jobs for American workers, and will not support policies or regulations that have adverse effects on energy independence and U.S. competitiveness."
The officials steered clear from strong language declaring a preference for fossil fuels or renewable energy sources. But reading between the lines, the U.S. responses were consistent with how the Trump administration has framed its motivations for rolling back Obama-era environmental rules and expanding fossil fuel production.
This exchange between America and key players in the United Nations climate talks quietly played out in a corner of the U.N. website devoted to what's called the "multilateral assessment." This is a platform for countries to keep each other accountable on their progress toward meeting individual climate pledges.
Under this system of transparency, the Obama administration in January filed a report on its progress toward reaching the nation's short-term climate goal of reducing emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. Since then, several countries have submitted questions about that report, as well as about President Trump's climate plans. The U.S. delegation to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change responded to them all on April 28.
When asked by the European Union about how the U.S. would ensure it could meet its 2020 goals or by China about what new policies it would consider to hit the 2020 goal, the U.S. offered the same boilerplate response, quoted above.
In response to a question about the country's climate plans post-2020, the United States responded that the issue was "outside the scope" of this review.
Trump's cabinet and top officials are deeply divided about whether the U.S. should exit the Paris climate agreement. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt and strategic advisor Steven Bannon argue that the U.S. should quit the accord. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and others favor keeping "a seat at the table."
The administration could announce a decision soon. American officials will be expected to present the country's progress toward the 2020 goals at an international climate meeting starting Monday in Bonn, Germany, and they're likely to face additional questions.
"Taking the U.S. at its word about its concern for U.S. jobs and energy independence suggests the U.S. should double down on climate action, not backtrack," Alex Hanafi, a climate expert at the Environmental Defense Fund, told InsideClimate News. "U.S. businesses large and small support U.S. climate leadership because they know investing in clean energy technologies means American jobs and innovation at home, and better access and competitiveness for their products abroad."
On the U.N. website, Japan requested details about how the United States was pursuing funding and progress on clean energy. Sidestepping the question, and avoiding the term "clean energy," the U.S. wrote a generic sentence about how to make effective progress in research and development.
And when China asked whether the U.S. had any preliminary thoughts on the use of carbon trading schemes in what could be seen as a possible opening for cooperation, the U.S. responded, "no." The United States is the second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, surpassed only recently by China.