The news reported by the Wall Street Journal over the weekend that the Trump administration is not actually planning to pull out of the Paris climate accord—but will instead “review the terms on which they could be engaged under this agreement”—is probably not momentous news for the environment. The story notes that these new terms are “likely to entail a significant reduction in the U.S.’s ambition to curb greenhouse-gas emissions.” But the change of heart still matters politically. U.S. withdrawal would have weakened the accord and given other countries cover to withdraw.
A White House spokesperson told the Journal that there had “been no change in the U.S.’s position,” which is technically true. Under the terms of the agreement, the earliest the U.S. could formally give notice to withdraw is November 2019, and the actual withdrawal wouldn’t take place for another year—right after the next U.S. presidential election. According to a cable leaked in August, the State Department had already told diplomats to be coy about whether the U.S. would re-engage with the agreement.
The news came a few days after reports that the administration would sign off on sanction waivers to keep the U.S. in compliance with the Iran nuclear deal. Despite early signs to the contrary, the administration is now avoiding any steps to dramatically upend the U.S. foreign-policy status quo, even if that means leaving the hated Obama-era agreements in place.
Of course, this cautious approach is not exactly reflected in the president’s public statements. Trump began his Sunday by taunting North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on Twitter, writing, “I spoke with President Moon of South Korea last night. Asked him how Rocket Man is doing. Long gas lines forming in North Korea. Too bad!” “Long gas lines” might indeed be a serious worry for Kim if he were up for re-election soon, or ever. Still, while military options are as always “on the table,” there are few signs at the moment that the U.S. actually plans to back up Trump’s earlier threats of “fire and fury”—even as North Korea fired another missile Friday over Japan—and is relying instead on diplomatic pressure and sanctions.
The next date to watch is Oct. 14, the next 90-day deadline for Trump to certify to Congress that Iran is in compliance with the nuclear deal. Trump has made clear that he wants to find a way to declare Iran noncompliant, and Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley gave a preview of how he might go about it in a speech this month. “You’ll see what I’m going to be doing very shortly in October,” he said on Air Force One a few days ago, again calling the agreement “one of the worst deals I’ve ever seen.”
What he actually will do is anybody’s guess, but given his recent statements, if he does recertify Iran (which he hopefully will), it will be the best indication yet that his public statements have little bearing on actual U.S. policy.