Directionless, US climate negotiators head to UN talks

As Trump mulls over leaving the Paris agreement, US officials fly in to interim talks with no clear mandate

The UNFCCC plenary in Bonn (Photo: UNclimatechange)

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As UN climate talks prepare to resume in Bonn on Monday, records show the US state department has had little formal engagement with the process since Donald Trump assumed the presidency.

Governments from across the world, including the US’ key allies and adversaries, have been staking out their positions on matters at once arcane and consequential. Since the beginning of this year, 241 submissions have been made to the various work streams of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Just two are from the US – both pre-Trump.

One set of answers to a peer review, required under the process, was delivered this week in staccato responses that highlighted the US preference for jobs, rather than climate action.

A former US government official familiar with the talks said it was “quite unusual” for the US to have made no submissions in the lead up to a meeting.

“The US generally addresses all issues in detail in order to promote US interests. Other countries are also very interested in US views and ideas, so it’s disappointing,” the former official said.

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Trump continues to mull a decision to leave the Paris accord or not. This has left the US climate team, for much of the past decade an influential force at UN negotiations, arriving in Bonn with little direction, according to several former government employees interviewed by Climate Home.

Andrew Light, until 2016 a state department climate advisor, now working with the World Resources Institute (WRI), said the lack of US submissions was “most likely an indication that they have received very little, if any, policy guidance from the new Trump team at [the] state [department] since the inauguration”.

“That’s in some measure because none of the senior political positions with jurisdiction over the UNFCCC have been appointed yet at state,” said Light, noting that the Office of Global Change (OGC), which leads the US climate negotiations, was not an exceptional area of the state department in this regard.

At time of publication, the state department had not responded to Climate Home’s request for comment.

Negotiations are turning to the creation of a rulebook that will govern the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change. How will nations account for and report the progress they are making? How will the gap between commitments made so far and what the climate actually needs be closed?

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The Bonn “intersessionals” – regular UN climate meetings held in the middle of each year  – are technical affairs. Big political decisions are held until the end of the year Conference of Parties. Meaning the US’ lack of involvement is unlikely to affect wider progress at these talks, according to Light.

But it will undermine US interests as rivals seek to exploit US silence in the plenary hall, said Paula Caballero, global director of WRI’s climate programme.

“[US secretary of state] Rex Tillerson has said that he wants to keep at seat at the table and I think that this is the reason why. It will be key for the US to be sitting there when key rules are being developed and discussed on, for example, transparency and accounting,” she said.

Minus a few who have left of their own accord, the climate team at the OGC remains roughly the same as the one that negotiated the Paris accord under Barack Obama’s presidency. According to Light, the group that goes to Bonn will be led by Trigg Talley, who headed teams at Bonn half-year meetings throughout Obama’s second term.

Now, that group, once the centre of negotiations, is set to be an inert presence. A former government official said the US would probably assume an “observer-plus” role in Bonn; silent on many issues, but perhaps with specific instructions to become involved at certain points.

“At a minimum they would be listening to what other countries were saying,” they said.

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After the US decided not to participate in the Kyoto Protocol, state department officials were given instructions to only intervene on certain issues. The US position at these talks – and perhaps in future – may be similar.

A lot depends on whether Trump decides to stay within the agreement or not. Trump has said he will decide the matter within two weeks, meaning he could drop the news during the Bonn talks. Although timeframes in this White House are notoriously flexible.

In the early weeks of the new administration, E&E Climatewire reported that staff at the state department were awaiting Trump’s in-out decision in order to begin formulating suitable policy. Since that report, staff have been careful about speaking to reporters directly.

A US withdrawal has swung between likely and unlikely for months, according to rumours emerging from the White House about which advisors have the president’s ear. Some observers Climate Home spoke to expressed hope that Trump’s turn away from isolationist policy in Syria and toward Nato were signs of an unwillingness to burn his global bridges.

Until a decision is made, US officials are left treading water in a stream that will only flow faster.

“International leadership on climate is more diffuse than before and other countries are stepping up to lead,” said Caballero. These include China and the EU, major trading partners and economic rivals of the US.

“Whatever the Trump administration decides to do, in terms of whether it formally stays in the agreement, they are already doing a lot to undermine their credibility and their influence around the world,” said Light.

Report: G7 fails to agree Paris climate statement as US turns spoiler

At a recent G7 energy ministers’ meeting, the lack of White House climate policy direction was exposed by frustrated peers when US energy secretary Rick Perry refused to sign up to a statement that included a passage in support of the Paris Agreement.

The same G7 statement did include a reiterated pledge to phase out fossil fuel subsidies by 2025. Several experts have expressed privately to Climate Home that they believe this to have been the result of an oversight or lack of any overriding policy, given Trump’s repeated support for the fossil fuel industry.

But even by threatening withdrawal, Trump has already managed to influence the fabric of the Paris accord. This week saw the odd spectacle of the EU’s climate action and energy commissioner Miguel Arias Cañete arguing the US was able to “chart its own path”, intimating that its commitments to Paris could be watered down.

This is seen as a political necessity to keep Trump in the accord. But it exposes as voluntary a value at the heart of the negotiations. After the Paris deal was struck in 2015, Cañete said its credibility depended on “regular reviews to increase ambition over time”.

Karl Mathiesen will be attending the Bonn climate talks. Follow him on twitter @karlmathiesen and email tips to [email protected]

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