The Trump administration used its only public forum at the United Nations climate talks in Bonn, Germany, on Monday to promote fossil fuels and nuclear energy.
On a panel organized by the US delegation, an executive from Peabody Energy, the largest private coal company in the world, spoke alongside an executive from NuScale Power, a company developing small modular nuclear reactors, another representative of the fossil fuel industry and a Trump adviser.
The discussion was a side event at this week’s 23rd Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, known as COP 23, the first set of international climate talks since President Donald Trump announced his plans in June to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement.
The US was a major player in bringing 195 countries together in 2015 under the Paris accord, the largest international climate change treaty ever. But now Trump wants out, leaving US diplomats in an awkward position at the talks, which are intended to get countries to work together to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Since the United States cannot legally withdraw until 2020, it still has a seat at the table. But rather than sending high-level Cabinet secretaries to the meeting as the Obama White House did, the US delegation is being led by Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas A. Shannon, Jr.
And rather than trying to convince countries to adopt more aggressive climate change targets, delegates are trying to run interference for Trump and explain away some of his past statements on climate change, including his contention that it’s a Chinese hoax.
— Amy Harder (@AmyAHarder) November 13, 2017
Activists met the Monday panel discussion with protest songs, jeers, and a walkout. The panel infuriated several other participants at the talks, including New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who has made climate change a tentpole of his philanthropic work. “Promoting coal at a climate summit is like promoting tobacco at a cancer summit,” he said in a statement.
Meanwhile, Bloomberg and other US business leaders, activists, and state legislators used the climate talks to try to make the case to other countries that many Americans are still committed to fighting climate change.
Bloomberg and California Gov. Jerry Brown presented this message under the banner of America’s Pledge, an initiative to mobilize states, cities, and companies to comply with the US commitment to cut carbon dioxide emissions in the Paris agreement. So far 20 states and more than 50 cities and 1,400 businesses have signed.
Looming over the talks is the growing urgency to avert the worst-case climate change scenarios after the Global Carbon Project released a report on Monday showing that greenhouse gas emissions are on track to rise this year, the first increase in four years.
This backdrop is part of what’s driving an aggressive messaging offensive in Bonn against the White House from other US government officials. However, the words need action to match, and what states and cities can muster to keep warming in check may still not be enough.
Bloomberg and other climate advocates are trying to upstage Trump officials in Bonn
The counternarrative was on full display in Bonn as Bloomberg and Brown made their case to other countries with the help of a “Climate Action Center” pavilion, as New York Times reporter Lisa Friedman observed.
— Lisa Friedman (@LFFriedman) November 10, 2017
— Lisa Friedman (@LFFriedman) November 10, 2017
The America’s Pledge pavilion was meant to tell the rest of the world that many in the US are still working to cut greenhouse gas emissions — even though the United States is the only country in the world trying to exit the accord, now that Syria has declared its intent to join.
In a report released over the weekend, the group notes that it represents states like California and cities like Pittsburgh that, when combined, encompass almost half of all Americans and add up to 54 percent of total US domestic product, making the coalition the third-largest economy in the world.
After President Trump announced his plans to withdraw from the Paris accords in June, Bloomberg himself pledged $15 million to the fight against climate change. He also announced last week a $50 million initiative to wean the world off coal.
“It’s pretty clear the White House has fumbled on pulling out of the Paris agreement and the rest of the country has picked up the ball and is running down the field,” said Daniel Firger, who is leading the America’s Pledge effort for Bloomberg Philanthropies. “The question isn’t so much what happens to the rest of the world if the US walks away; the question is what happens to us.”
Under the agreement, the United States said it would cut its greenhouse gas emissions between 26 percent and 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. Though as Vox’s David Roberts explained, the commitments made by countries as part of the deal are nowhere near enough to keep the planet from warming more than 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.
While being in the Paris agreement is “absolutely essential” to keeping global greenhouse gases in check, Firger noted that in the United States, the rubber hits the road at the state and local levels, since the federal government actually doesn’t have much say in which energy sources are used and how much to limit carbon dioxide emissions.
As such, much of the progress the United States has made in cutting greenhouse gases will likely be preserved and much of the country is on a trajectory to reduce them further.
Trump’s Paris debacle may nudge some states to take more aggressive climate action
Five Democratic senators also attended COP 23 and made a similar case to other countries, namely that while the executive branch is ignoring its own science on climate change, the US legislature still has the power to act.
“States are going to band together so that any action by the Trump administration will be fought and fought vigorously,” Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) told reporters on a call from Bonn.
After elections last week, Virginia has signaled its interest in joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative carbon trading pact and New Jersey has indicated it will rejoin.
And states already in RGGI announced in August that they would cut emissions from the power sector by another 30 percent by 2030 relative to 2020 levels.
With Democrats winning the legislature in Washington State, Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee’s proposal for a joining a carbon trading system with California, Quebec, and Ontario also received a boost.
But even so, America’s Pledge noted in its report that all these efforts are still not enough.
“Given the stated policies of the present U.S. administration, currently committed non-federal efforts are not sufficient to meet the U.S. commitment under the Paris Agreement to reduce emissions 26-28 percent below 2005 levels,” according to the report.
That means more states and cities need to step in, current targets need to become more aggressive, and the federal government may still need to act.
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