US presence at climate talks mirrors political rifts at home

Why We Wrote This

US withdrawal from its role as multilateral leader in global affairs is apparent at the COP24 climate summit. But local leaders and career officials are showing that there's more than one way to participate.

Grzegorz Celejewski/Agencja Gazeta/Reuters
Environmental activists interrupted a US-sponsored panel with chants of ‘keep it in the ground’ and ‘shame on you’ at the COP24 climate change conference in Katowice, Poland, Dec. 10, 2018.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 6 Min. )

In a way, there are many United States of Americas at the global climate summit in Poland. Trump administration officials are touting fossil fuel innovations while local representatives from individual states and cities offer a patchwork of grassroots dedication to climate action. A gulf of politically charged mistrust separates these opposing camps. A third element of career officials is attempting to sidestep US politics entirely and forge ahead as active participants in these collective negotiations. To be sure, the US role is significantly diminished compared with the negotiations leading up to the 2015 Paris Agreement. But if the US is a less visible presence at a federal level, there are still plenty of US leaders working to assure the world that America is not stopping the fight on climate change. A “We Are Still In” coalition of state and local US leaders remains committed to climate change, says Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists. That group, he says, offers “political hope … that a majority of Americans, and an increasing majority of subnational officials are committed to climate action.”

At the annual United Nations climate conference in Poland, the United States is, to say the least, a country divided.

The US may have formally announced its intention to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, but it’s still a significant presence – and absence – at the 2018 summit of the 24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, known as COP24. It remains to be seen just which part of its influence will hold the most sway as world leaders again convene to try to move forward on climate action.

The fractured nature of US presence here in Katowice reflects the sharply divided political climate back home, with Trump administration officials touting fossil fuel innovations and more local representatives from individual states and cities offering a patchwork of grassroots dedication to climate action. A gulf of politically charged mistrust separates these opposing camps. A third element of career officials is attempting to sidestep US politics entirely and forge ahead as active participants in these collective negotiations.

On the political side, Trump administration officials on Monday held a highly visible and controversial panel that was an unapologetic promotion of coal, oil, gas, and nuclear energy, and which was interrupted part-way through by protesters offering a heated response to that message.

Acting as a counterbalance to that official US stance, stands the “We are still in” coalition of subnational entities – states, cities, businesses, and other organizations – who are still committed to America’s Paris Agreement targets. These groups aren’t able to officially represent the US or negotiate on its behalf, but they’re a visible presence here, reminding the world that the Trump administration represents only one segment of America, and that much of the country is continuing to work on climate mitigation.

But more quietly a small US delegation is still actively participating in negotiations, helping to hammer out agreements on issues like transparency and finance as countries work to agree on a “rulebook” that lays out how the Paris Agreement will actively be implemented. Generally career civil servants, they’re working on technical issues where the US position remains relatively unchanged and they can serve a constructive role.

On the sidelines

To be sure, the US role here is significantly diminished compared with the negotiations leading up to the 2015 Paris Agreement.

“The part of the talks that is about ambition is a part that the United States is just disengaged from,” says Reed Schuler, a negotiator for the US during the 2015 Paris negotiations, referring to the critical issue of encouraging countries to make their emissions goals more rigorous.

“That’s the void the subnational delegation is filling. It’s filling the conversation of, ‘here is the climate action moving forward in the US, and we hope our partners internationally are being more ambitious back home,’ ” says Mr. Schuler, a senior policy advisor on climate and sustainability for Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee.

The pro-fossil fuels panel was the only event the US government hosted at this conference, and it drew significant attention from both the media and protesters, who filled the room to capacity and then interrupted it part-way through, chanting “keep it in the ground” and “shame on you,” in between brief speeches from youth and indigenous leaders, before filing out. “In the US, the policy is not to keep it in the ground, it’s to use it in a way that is clean and efficient,” responded P. Wells Griffith, a senior energy adviser to President Trump who presided over the panel.

“It is important to the overall climate discussion that we consider what’s realistic and pragmatic,” Mr. Griffith told the crowd according to Time. “Energy innovation and fossil fuels will continue to play a leading role.”

The panel drew broad condemnation from an array of climate experts, many of whom noted the irony of the US government touting “cleaner” fossil fuels even as they take steps to dismantle standards to prevent methane leaks and pollution from coal-fired power plants, but most observers here see it as a bit of political theater that plays to Trump’s base but is largely ignored by the rest of the world.

“They had a side show last year, and a side show this year,” says Todd Stern, the US special envoy for climate change under former-President Barack Obama, and the chief negotiator for the US at the 2015 Paris Agreement.

The biggest way the US withdrawal from Paris and its shift on climate policy is playing out on the world stage is simply the void in leadership that it leaves, says Mr. Stern.

“The United States played a really big role in the negotiating process during the Obama years,” says Stern. And now, “that whole political level is not there. The US as a country does not have credibility or leverage here.” Stern credits other countries with not following the US exit from the Paris agreement just a year and a half after it was signed – a scenario that was possible – but says there’s no way for anyone to really fill the void that the US departure leaves.

“It’s hard not to have a strong US role in international affairs, period,” he says. “Things happen when the US engages, and it’s hard to make consequential things happen with the US on the sidelines. Not to mention the US on the sidelines throwing spitballs.”

Dueling messages

Still, in terms of the actual technical negotiations going on this week, as country delegations work to develop the rulebook, most observers say the team sent by the US is generally respected and consists of career officials who have been involved in these negotiations for many years. The US, along with China, co-chairs the committee on transparency – an issue where it continues to be a strong voice pushing for more rigorous transparency. “That stuff is not very partisan,” says Schuler.

The one exception to that relatively steady policy at the technical level occurred over the weekend, when the United States allied with Russia, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia to block endorsement of the most recent report  from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, focusing on the consequences of exceeding 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F.) of warming.

Disagreement over a single word resulted in the omission of the passage entirely. Instead of signing onto a statement that would “welcome” the report, the four outlier countries only agreed to saying the conference “notes” the report – a subtle but important distinction that sent a message about the US rejection of the international scientific consensus on climate change, and placed the US with some odd bedfellows.

“This is not an attractive coalition,” says Andrew Steer, president and chief executive of the World Resources Institute think tank. “In some ways, the US is playing a constructive role [in the rulebook negotiations], but overall, this is negative. This is science. This is the best scientists in the world, coming out with a really thoughtful report, and how appalling it is that the country that’s won more Nobel prizes in science than any other country ... should say, ‘we don’t believe it.’ ”

But if the US is a less visible presence at a federal level, there are still plenty of US leaders here working to assure the world that America is not stopping the fight on climate change. In the area of the COP24 center, where countries have their own “pavilions,” the United States is a notable absence. But the “US Climate Action Center,” representing the “We Are Still In” coalition,” has a large and active space, with numerous events.

“It’s sort of the pocket US alternative center, also known as the old negotiators’ home,” Stern joked during a panel on Monday.

The members of that coalition, and their presence here, “gives hope on two levels,” says Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists. “One is that they’re doing things on the ground in terms of emissions reductions,” helping to keep the US on a path where, if it rejoins the Paris agreement, it can get back on track to meeting its goals. “And two, they’re offering political hope, because they’re showing that a majority of Americans, and an increasing majority of subnational officials are committed to climate action, and Trump really doesn’t represent America and the American public. That’s very helpful.”

This story was produced with support from an Energy Foundation grant to cover the environment.

 

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.