How the Bonn climate talks survived Trump
BONN, Germany — The White House goaded activists at the international climate talks by pushing coal and other fossil fuels. But behind closed doors, U.S. negotiators stuck to their Obama-era principles on the 2015 Paris deal — despite President Donald Trump’s disavowal of the pact.
State Department negotiators at the U.N. conference that ended Saturday hewed to the United States’ long-established positions on the details of how to carry out the Paris agreement. And that’s the U.S. role that most foreign political leaders sought to highlight, despite the low expectations inspired by Trump’s “America First” agenda and his dismissal of human-caused climate change as a hoax.
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“You couldn’t have expected more,” said German Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks, who described the U.S. delegation as constructive and neutral. “Its diplomats who are working here, they act professionally.”
White House energy adviser George David Banks portrayed the outcome in even more glowing terms, saying the U.S. had been “indispensable in thwarting efforts by some countries to get a free pass” under the Paris agreement.
The American negotiating team, Banks said, had “led across many issues, promoted U.S. national interests, and protected U.S. taxpayers and businesses.”
Among the contentious issues that arose were efforts by poorer nations to allow them to use less arduous systems than wealthier countries to ensure they are measuring their greenhouse gas emissions. China had led that push, which the European Union and U.S. have long opposed, though ultimately the issue was left largely unsettled.
Negotiations at the conference, which began Nov. 6, wrapped up Saturday morning after developing nations launched an 11th-hour campaign to require wealthier nations to outline in advance how much climate funding they will provide — a sticking point for countries like the U.S. that amend their budgets each year.
Although observers said the U.S. made no effort to disrupt the talks, former Obama administration climate diplomat Todd Stern said Washington was “not in the negotiations with the same credibility as before.”
“It’s not that the U.S. isn’t there, but it’s not the same,” said Stern, who had led the U.S. negotiators in Paris nearly two years ago. “It’s the EU, the U.K. … New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Japan, etc. They don’t weigh as much as the U.S. did, but they can be very important.”
The State Department sent fewer than 20 staffers, a far smaller delegation than it has sent to other climate gatherings in recent years.
Some observers said a U.S.-sponsored panel discussion earlier this week that promoted coal, natural gas and nuclear power appeared designed to please Trump’s political base and energy industry supporters in the U.S. At the event, which provoked a high-profile protest, Banks told the audience that the U.S. would support “universal access” to affordable and reliable energy, which for many places in the world meant coal.
Andrew Light, who was part of Obama’s delegation and is now a fellow at the World Resources Institute, said bringing that pro-fossil fuel event to the climate talks showed that the U.S. can remain a party to the international talks without substantively changing its positions.
“This administration can continue telegraphing its core beliefs, whether or not anyone one believes that with them,” Light said. “In the long run there’s everything to be gained from an environment where the United States does cooperate with other parties on whatever they want to cooperate on.”