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President Donald Trump is unlikely to reverse his position to pull out of the Paris climate agreement, despite the White House line that he is open to renegotiating the international deal to tackle global warming, energy policy experts from both ends of the political spectrum say.
The latest bout of uncertainty over the U.S. role in the Paris Agreement stems from a report that the United States would consider revising its goals under the accord, rather than simply quitting it altogether. The White House and Cabinet members denied the report, but continued to place an asterisk on the official position: that the United States could remain a party to the deal under the right terms.
Washington insiders and policy analysts say little has changed, and the administration is simply maintaining the ambiguity Trump planted when he announced the withdrawal in the White House Rose Garden in June.
During the speech, Trump said the United States would start negotiations to "re-enter either the Paris accord or an entirely new transaction on terms that are fair to the United States."
"What appears to have been restated in the wake of this weekend's various, seemingly conflicting reports is that the administration holds to that which was said by the president of the United States on the first of June," said Jonathan Elkind, former assistant secretary for the U.S. Energy Department's Office of International Affairs under President Barack Obama.
"I perceive that we, at the end of the weekend, know that that ambiguity has been reaffirmed," he said.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Saturday tweeted that Trump is "withdrawing unless we get pro-America terms." Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the United States could stay "under the right conditions." In national security advisor H.R. McMaster's words, the country could "certainly" remain a party if "there's an agreement that benefits the American people."
European leaders have rejected renegotiating or replacing the Paris Agreement, which aims to prevent global temperatures from rising by 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
Multiple sources involved in climate talks in Montreal on Saturday told The Wall Street Journal that comments by White House senior advisor Everett Eissenstat led them to believe the United States would consider staying in the agreement.
Myron Ebell, who led the Environmental Protection Agency's transition team through Trump's inauguration, said it was a mistake to leave "wiggle room" in the withdrawal announcement. In his view, it has allowed elements within the White House and State Department that do not agree with the president to cause "mischief."
Ebell, a prominent skeptic of climate science, said he believes The Wall Street Journal report was not based on a miscommunication between Eissenstat and foreign counterparts. He thinks it signals an attempt to prevent a full U.S. withdrawal by pro-Paris Agreement elements in the administration.
"I think they are going to create mischief, and I think this little trial balloon was an example of that mischief," he said, referring to the Montreal meeting.
"The president has spoken, but he hasn't enforced discipline, and so I think we will continue to see these outbreaks until he does," said Ebell, director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a libertarian think tank.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Paris Agreement issue reportedly split the Trump administration. National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn and Tillerson reportedly supported staying in the deal, while EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon were among the leave camp.
The Trump administration could work with foreign partners on specific issues related to climate change, but a comprehensive effort that aligns with the Paris Agreement appears to be out of the question, said David Konisky, associate professor at Indiana University Bloomington's School of Public and Environmental Affairs.
"There are no policies that would make that happen. Everything we've seen has been retrenchment," Konisky said.
The White House has systematically dismantled Obama-era climate initiatives that underpinned U.S. Paris Agreement goals and plotted a course to "energy dominance" on the back of fossil fuel development.