Even as President Donald Trump defiantlywithdrewthe United States from the Paris climate agreement, he described it in contradictory terms.
"As of today, the United States will cease all implementation of the nonbinding Paris Accord and the draconian financial and economic burdens the agreement imposes on our country," he said June 1.
An agreement cannot be both nonbinding and draconian at the same time. It’s one or the other.
Trump continued to blur the difference when he compared the obligations of China and the United States under the deal.
"China will be allowed to build hundreds of additional coal plants," Trump said. "So we can’t build the plants, but they can, according to this agreement."
We asked the White House to tell us what part of the Paris agreement gave China permission to build coal-fired plants and what part banned them for America. We did not hear back.
What’s really in the Paris agreement
The international declaration is big on the word "should" and light on the word "shall."
As Boston College law professor David Wirth wrote in2016, the distinction is crucial.
"Even the most cursory review of thetext of the Paris Agreementdiscloses a careful, purposeful alternation between the mandatory 'shall' — indicating a binding obligation governed by international law — and the hortatory 'should' — nonbinding statements of strictly political intent without legal force," Wirth wrote.
The agreement says nations shall say publicly how much they will aim to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and they shall report their progress. It’s up to each country to come up with its own plan, called a Nationally Determined Contribution, to meet the overall goal to limit the world’s temperature to 1.5 degrees centigrade over pre-industrial levels.
But then it says signatory countries "should strive to formulate and communicate long-term low greenhouse gas emission development strategies."
In other words, the public plan and reporting is a must-do, but the actual doing is optional.
Of importance to Trump’s comparison, the agreement treats developed and developing countries differently:
"Parties aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible, recognizing that peaking will take longer for developing country parties."
Comparing Trump’s words to the agreement
Wirth told us that Trump’s words are technically inaccurate.
"Nobody is allowing China to do anything, and nobody is prohibiting China from doing anything," Wirth said. "And the same is true for the United States."