Fiji’s prime minister Frank Bainimarama, the incoming president of the next major climate meeting in November, closed talks in Bonn on Thursday with a call for solidarity.
In the past fortnight, UN negotiators continued writing the rules for an agreement designed to change the global energy system. At the same time, they have been faced with the potential withdrawal of the US – the world’s largest economy – from that process.
“The ball is being passed to Fiji this year at a very critical time,” said Bainimarama, whose tiny island nation will not actually host the next meeting. Instead talks will recommence in Bonn later this year, presided over by the Fijians.
Despite the inevitably more inclement weather, Bainimarama promised the meeting would be infused with a Fijian spirit of “inclusiveness, friendliness and solidarity”.
You can also be sure the islanders will highlight how exposed they are to the increasingly intense cyclones, rising sea levels and acidifying oceans that come with global warming.
“We who are most vulnerable must be heard,” said Bainimarama, making a point to include residents of Miami and New York in a list of those in peril. “We must speak out for the whole world – every global citizen – because no-one, no matter who they are or where they live, will ultimately escape the impact of climate change.”
When negotiators reconvened in Bonn last Monday, the session was predicted to be – depending on whom you asked – dull as a day with no sun or total mayhem.
US president Donald Trump was fulminating in the White House over whether to withdraw from the 2015 Paris Agreement. The US team, for years a lynchpin of the negotiations, was arriving with no mandate.
And yet, when the plenary hall filled up last Monday morning, with media standing at the back like vultures waiting for a battle, nothing much happened. The great cogs of a process that has run for more than two decades clunked back into gear and the whole show creaked on.
In the world outside, a cascade of announcements bolstered the political, legal and economic case for the Paris accord.
Trump’s imminent decision was addressed in the first call from France’s newly elected president Emmanuel Macron. He was quickly joined by China’s president Xi Jinping. India’s energy minister also reaffirmed that critical nation’s commitment to the deal.
The business community across the world, especially in the US, rallied. Corporations, many of whose leaders sit on Trump’s business council, took out letters in major newspapers urging Trump to remain within the agreement.
In Bonn, the head of the UN’s climate secretariat Patricia Espinosa told the press that the Paris agreement, and the process itself, had “an incredible amount of support”, evinced by the number of ratifications on the books – now 146 out of 197 parties.
Meanwhile, delegates warned darkly of diplomatic and trade consequences for the US if they did upset the apple cart.
To the extent that he might withdraw from the process during the meeting in Bonn, the Trump threat had all been a merry dance. By last Tuesday, news had come from Washington DC that the president would put off the Paris decision until after the G7 in late May.
On Thursday, as the second week of talks wrapped up, observers were satisfied the train remained on the rails. Two weeks of technical discussions ultimately threw up little political dust.
Thoriq Ibrahim, environment minister for the Maldives and chair of the Small Island States negotiating bloc said in a statement: “Even with uncertain politics hanging over the meeting here, the international community showed it is determined to press on.”
NGOs, who coordinate their messaging carefully around these talks, were all on song.
“We’ve seen about as much progress here as you could reasonably expect in the best circumstances,” said Elliot Diringer, executive vice president of the Centre for Climate and Energy Solutions, a US NGO. “The process is proving remarkably resilient.”
Former French diplomat Laurence Tubiana, who helped to craft the Paris accord and now leads the European Climate Foundation said: “The Bonn negotiations have shown that countries remain committed to international collaboration, and that they will advance the Paris Agreement no matter what.”
Tubiana noted that leaders of the G7 – including Trump – would soon gather in Italy and it had been important to demonstrate that the world was aligned on climate action. “The signal coming out of Bonn is clear: it is in the interest of all countries to commit to the Paris Agreement, and to work together to ensure its implementation,” she said.
Yet the spectre of US withdrawal – or for that matter continued participation – is not irrelevant. Negotiators told Climate Home that contingencies for a US withdrawal were being discussed “in the margins”, if not openly in meetings. “No-one knows how to deal with that,” said one.
In the face of US upheaval, many have asked whether China and the EU – uneasy bedfellows over so much else – could join forces to spearhead the next phase of global climate negotiations, which aim to write the rules that will govern the Paris accord.
But the so-called “rule-book” being discussed in Bonn contains measures around transparency that China has been trying to water down. The US has proven the only nation able to stand up to the Chinese on this matter. As a group of 28 nations that represents a multiplicity of views, the EU is inherently compromised.
Further, limiting concerns to the health of the UN process is to ignore what this is all about – cutting greenhouse gas pollution in the real world.
If the US pulls out of the agreement, “there is a risk of a corrosive effect on global ambition,” said Diringer. He said other countries may be less inclined to pursue aggressive policies at home, even if they remain constructively engaged in the talks.
If Trump stays in the agreement, it is inevitable his administration’s domestic climate policies will be less ambitious than those of his predecessor Barack Obama. That alone could water down other nations’ resolve, when in reality their commitments to the Paris accord remain undercooked.
“Whether the US is in or out, that’s not an issue,” said Gebru Jember Endalew, the chair of the least developed countries negotiating group. “What the issue for us is the concrete action that they are taking on the ground. Are they really contributing towards addressing the issue of climate change on the ground or not? That should be the focus for us.”
The rules that govern that action are to be hammered out back in Bonn in November. There, aligned against the forces of nationalism and insularity, will be talanoa.
This, according to Bainimarama, is a Pacific islander “process of inclusive, participatory and transparent dialogue that builds empathy and leads to decision making for the collective good. It is not about finger pointing and laying blame but is about listening to each other”.
Such a traditional negotiating device – the Zulu and Xhosa concept of indaba – was used at the Durban climate talks, and returned to in Paris in 2015.
At this fortnight’s meeting, there was little to test the solidarity of participants. But in November there will be real political questions to be answered over the Paris rules. Then, with the US position clarified and ministers getting involved, Bainimarama’s talanoa will truly be tested.