He could simply ignore it, but the smarter option is to send it to the Senate for a vote.
Conservatives are giddy at the prospect of President Trump’s undoing much of President Obama’s agenda with “a pen and a phone.” Near the top of the list sits last year’s Paris Agreement on climate change. Trump previously vowed to “cancel” the Paris Agreement, but seemed to backtrack on that promise in an interview with the New York Times earlier this week, saying he was “looking at it very closely” and keeping “an open mind.”
It is, by any standard, a bad, lopsided deal for the U.S. It obligates China, India, and other large, greenhouse-gas-emitting, developing countries — not to mention Russia — to do precisely nothing until at least 2030. Meanwhile, it commits the U.S. to a 26–28 percent reduction from 2005 emissions levels by 2025, which is unachievable and would lead energy prices to, in then-candidate Obama’s words, “necessarily skyrocket,” devastating America’s industrial revival.
Trump would thus be wise to kill the agreement. And if he is serious about doing so, he has two main options: He could just ignore it, since the pledges to which it commits signatories are largely voluntary, or he could submit it to the Senate for a vote with the recommendation that it be rejected as not in the national interest. The latter option has three advantages over the former: It would demonstrate that President Trump will adhere to constitutional norms; it would permanently kill U.S. participation in the agreement; and it would put red-state Democrats up for 2018 reelection in a political bind.
When the Senate approved the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1992, it did so with the proviso that any future agreement containing emissions targets and timetables pursuant to UNFCCC must be subject to Senate ratification. Secretary of State John Kerry thus connived to make the Paris Agreement “Senate proof” by making as much of it voluntary as he could. In this he didn’t completely succeed: There are still several provisions in the agreement committing the U.S. to actions that would require Senate approval. For example, the Nationally Determined Contributions in Article 3 and the mitigation commitments in Article 4 unequivocally require future U.S. administrations and Congresses to develop and put forward increasingly stringent targets and timetables, many elements of which would need to be legally binding and thus approved by the Senate.
In short, the constitutionally proper course of action would be for Trump to submit the agreement to the upper chamber for a vote, urging that it be killed there. And that option would have the additional advantage of foreclosing any opportunity for a future Democratic administration to revive the agreement, invoking it as cover for more job-killing regulations. Perhaps anticipating a Hillary Clinton presidency with an intransigent Republican House, green groups devised a legal theory that the reciprocal promises in the Paris Agreement would allow the EPA to bypass Congress and implement what is essentially a national cap-and-trade system under the Clean Air Act. Allowing the Senate to kill the agreement would make that much more difficult. (Green groups could fall back on the UNFCCC itself, but that would be a much harder sell.)
It would also have political advantages for the GOP. There are several vulnerable Democratic senators from energy-producing, industrial states that voted for Trump who are facing reelection in 2018. A vote on the agreement would force them into the politically difficult choice between their states’ economic interests and the entreaties of climate-change activists.
One of the biggest mistakes made by George W. Bush was not submitting the Kyoto Protocol on climate change for Senate ratification. Kyoto had been negotiated by Bill Clinton, but he didn’t submit it to the Senate because he knew it would be rejected. Because he failed to submit the agreement to the Senate, Bush got blamed for unilaterally walking away from it. Trump can avoid the same mistake by sending the Paris Agreement to the Senate with a recommendation to reject it. This would put the onus on the Senate to act.