After two days of clarifying its stance, the Trump administration has made one thing perfectly clear: It is withdrawing from the Paris climate accord unless the deal is changed to the United States' advantage.
And in response, climate ministers from top-emitting countries, including Canada, have laid down a definitive marker of their own: They will not renegotiate the breakthrough agreement that was hammered out nearly two years ago and ratified by enough countries to bring it into force last year.
On Monday, top Trump adviser Gary Cohn met with energy and environment ministers, including Canada's Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, and reiterated the Trump administration's stand that it will withdraw from the Paris agreement unless it can "re-engage on terms more favourable to the United States." He gave no indication of what those terms might include.
The question looms: Is there a path by which U.S. President Donald Trump can be persuaded to remain in the Paris accord over the course of the four years it will take for the withdrawal process to be completed?
Some U.S. officials sowed a degree of confusion on the weekend as they stressed the possibility that Washington could remain in a revamped agreement, even as 34 climate ministers hosted by Ms. McKenna in Montreal on Saturday insisted the deal was "irreversible and non-negotiable."
While the Paris accord represented a major breakthrough, the U.S. decision on whether to withdraw or stay in the deal is, in fact, a secondary consideration.
The Trump administration could bow to pressure to remain in the Paris agreement and still refrain from taking actions needed to meet its commitments while promoting the expanded production of coal, oil and natural gas. Key elements in the deal are non-binding; there are no international climate cops to enforce its compliance.
Alternatively, it could withdraw from the Paris accord and still pursue efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions, although it has given little indication to date of a serious commitment in that regard. Many states, cities and U.S. business leaders have committed to the Paris deal and are pledging to take action to reduce GHGs.
Still, the foreign governments and business leaders are looking for clarity on how the Trump administration intends to engage with the international community on what is clearly a global challenge.
In the statement after the Cohn meeting, the White House said Mr. Trump wants a "balanced approach" that focuses on supplying affordable fossil energy as well as reducing the emissions that result from its production and consumption.
In a call with reporters on Monday, Ms. McKenna said Mr. Cohn indicated the United States would reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by improving efficiency of fossil-fuel use, but would also focus on energy security and economic growth.
"I think Mr. Cohn was just clear that their intention is to withdraw unless they get terms more favourable, and people expressed disappointment with that position," she said. "But we share the view that you can reduce your emissions, that you can grow your economy and that the market has moved toward cleaner technology and a cleaner future."
She said he provided no guidance in the meeting on what terms the Americans are seeking or how they intend to re-engage with partners in the Paris accord. The administration has publicly criticized commitments for emission reductions and financial climate assistance made by then-president Barack Obama.
Under the Paris Accord, 197 countries committed to reduce GHG emissions and limit the rise in average global temperature to well below 2 C in order to avert the worst impacts of a warming climate. The deal sent a powerful signal to the corporations, consumers and financial markets that the world is embarked on an irreversible transition from a fossil-fuel-based economy to a low-carbon one based on energy efficiency and renewable sources.
However, many of the national commitments in the agreement are non-binding, including the targets for emission reductions and the amount each developed country should contribute to developing countries.
In the United States, the Paris accord is a potent symbol for so much of what Mr. Trump's supporters loath: humanist science that clashes with fundamental Christianity; "world government" as embodied by the multilateralism of the United Nations; and government activism that results in higher taxes and more regulation. Layer on top of those views Mr. Trump's own penchant for denouncing any agreement negotiated by a predecessor – Democrat or Republican – as a "bad deal."
Still, with the exception of some hawkish conservatives in the coal and oil industries, most corporate leaders in the United States have acknowledged the threat of climate change and the need to confront it. Many business organizations urged the United States to remain in the Paris accord, in part to ensure the country would have a large voice in how the rules of the game are to be shaped. That was the view espoused by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson before Mr. Trump gave the formal notice of withdrawal.
So the President has essentially two options: He can maintain his populist, unilateralist approach and follow through on his election pledge to tear up "bad deals." Or he can be influenced by the more pragmatic officials in his administration and look for compromises.
Currently, it seems the plan is to operate on the sidelines of the Paris agreement while remaining active in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change under whose umbrella the deal was negotiated. The lengthy withdrawal process gives some breathing space, but in the meantime, the United States will remain an outlier in the international effort to combat in climate change.