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COP23: Trump team leads ‘surreal’ coal-gas-nuke climate summit panel

  • The only U.S. presentation to be offered at the COP23 climate summit was led by Trump administration energy advisors, along with coal, natural gas and nuclear industry representatives.
  • The panel argued that fossil fuel production at high, subsidized levels is vital to “energy security and economic development.” Panel members made only infrequent references to climate change, and they made no mention of the dire impacts from burning fossil fuels.
  • The presentation was likely one of the most uproarious in the history of COP. Two U.S. state governors burst in at the start to give impromptu speeches, attacking Trump’s climate denialist policies.
  • A memorable highlight occurred when a chorus of young people arose en masse during the panel’s opening remarks, and to the tune of Lee Greenwood’s patriotic hit “God Bless the USA” sang: “So you claim to be an American. But we see right through your greed.” Their song lasted seven minutes, after which they peacefully departed the hall.
The panelists, from left: Dave Banks, a Trump international energy adviser; Francis Brook, a Trump energy adviser; Barry Worthington, a Trump energy adviser and head of the U.S. Energy Association; Amos Hochstein, a former Obama energy adviser who now consults for the natural gas industry; Holly Krutka, an engineer with Peabody Coal; Lenka Kollar, an engineer with NuScale nuclear power company. Photo by Justin Catanoso

BONN, Germany – On Tuesday evening, 13 November, Trump administration energy advisers along with coal, natural gas and nuclear power industry representatives conducted an hour-long panel at COP23 during which they prioritized international “energy security and economic development” above climate mitigation.

To those in the audience, the presentation seemed wildly out of touch and “surreal,” in a world whose climatic balance has tipped dangerously out of kilter due to human-caused global warming. “Promoting coal at a climate summit is like promoting tobacco at a cancer summit,” said former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is leading the U.S. subnationals delegation representing U.S. states, cities, companies and colleges dedicated to climate action at the COP23 summit.

Given that the U.S. is now the world leader in oil and gas reserves due to fracking, and now stands ready under President Trump to ramp up exports, the self-serving nature of the event seemed obvious to many in the audience, as the presenters emphasized their deep concern for developing nations having sufficient fossil fuels to meet their future energy needs.

Trump-approved panelists also spoke of their concern for poor nations’ prospects for prosperity, at a time when the White House has proposed drastically cutting foreign aid to those very countries. The panel explained that Trump sees the Paris Agreement as a killer of traditional manufacturing jobs, even though the U.S unemployment rate is low, at 4.4 percent, with the solar and wind industries the fastest-growing job sector in the U.S. economy. The presenters also claimed the existence of a rising demand for “clean coal,” at a time when international demand for coal of any kind is plummeting, and carbon capture, which could reduce coal emissions, remains prohibitively expensive and a largely failed technology.

This out-of-synch message came at the 23rd United Nations Climate Summit (COP23) where delegates from 195 nations — other than the United States — remain committed to reducing carbon emissions worldwide to save the planet from catastrophic global warming. If that goal isn’t accomplished in the next few decades, delegates agree, “energy security and economic development” will be irrelevant.

A long, long line of people waiting to get into the Trump administration event. Most were turned away, but many stayed outside to chant and protest loudly. Photo by Justin Catanoso

The core message conveyed by the Trump administration’s only public presence at the two-week summit was this: the world’s growing population, and the developing world’s determination to reduce poverty, will create greater energy demands. And even with the rise of renewables, much of that demand will be met by the continued burning of coal and natural gas. The panelists agreed that this would be good for business, while never mentioning once the ongoing devastation of storms, drought and sea-level rise tied to climate change.

When juxtaposed against the emissions-reduction and forest-saving negotiations occurring in every other meeting at the summit, it was about all Alex Doukas could take.

Doukas, a senior public-finance official with Oil Change International in Washington, stood to ask a question at Tuesday’s raucous, circus-like, up-is-down press conference. But first he felt compelled to challenge some of what he had just heard:

“It’s a bit of a shame to have this event here promoting fossil fuel use when we know that the United States has far more reserves of fossil fuels than we can afford to burn under the Paris Agreement,” Doukas said. “And Mr. Worthington [Barry Worthington, a Trump energy advisor and head of the U.S. Energy Association], you say U.S. finance institutions have an anti-fossil fuel bias, which I find pretty incredible.

“Between 2013 and 2015, U.S. public finance institutions provided $6 billion in public finance for fossil fuels and about $1 billion in public finance for renewables. That situation is repeated all over the world. The idea that you want more handouts [for fossil fuels], that you’re sitting here in front of this crowd when we need more climate finance to help vulnerable nations adapt to the impacts of climate change, and you’re here begging for more handouts for your dirty industry is absolutely shameful and embarrassing.”

Protesters gather outside the meeting room where a Trump administration panel discussion on fossil fuels and climate change mitigation is about to start. Photo by Justin Catanoso

A meeting like no other

In keeping with the core spirit of this head-spinning event, Worthington refused to answer Doukas’ question regarding how exactly the fossil-fuel industry has suffered any sort of public-finance bias when it has enjoyed billions in U.S. taxpayer subsidies for decades under Republican and Democratic administrations.

Every COP (Conference of the Parties) has scores of press conferences, panel discussions and side events. But it’s likely that in the 23 year history of those meetings, none has been like Tuesday’s event titled “The Role of Cleaner and More Efficient Fossil Fuels and Nuclear Power in Climate Mitigation.”

More than 500 people lined up outside a meeting room only capable of holding 150 people; nearly everyone was there to rage against the Trump Administration. White House officials tried to limit the number of reporters allowed into the room (including this one) but largely failed.

Governors Kate Brown of Oregon and Jay Inslee of Washington State charged into the press conference just before it started to denounce President Trump to the global media assembled inside. Photo by Justin Catanoso

Then, just before the start, two U.S. governors barged in and offered an impromptu address to the assembled global media denouncing the president and his policies:

“The reason that the world and our states have rejected the president’s climate denial is that denial is a dead end,” said Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, “and going backwards in time to old industries and old jobs is not going to solve this problem of climate change. Donald Trump can tweet his fingers off. But he cannot stop us. He cannot stop my rule to reduce carbon pollution in my state.”

Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat from Oregon added: “We’re showing you can do both – move forward in tackling climate change and grow your economy. We in Oregon have the top job-growth rate in the United States and we’re doing this by investing in energy conservation and renewable energy jobs.”

After the event began, those who couldn’t get in could be heard just outside chanting loudly. Then, during Worthington’s opening remarks, a group of about thirty young adults halted the discussion by standing in unison and singing to the tune of Lee Greenwood’s patriotic hit “God Bless the USA.” They changed the opening lines to: “So you claim to be an American. But we see right through your greed.”

The six panelists could do nothing but wait out the seven minutes of singing, after which the young people turned and filed out of the room peacefully to trailing applause.

All talk, no change?

Panelist Amos Hochstein, an Obama administration energy adviser who is now a natural gas industry consultant, tried to salvage the moment by saying:

“We are only going to move forward if we’re able to have these kinds of conversations. We can actually listen to someone without agreeing with them… I think we miss something at the COP if we just have a circular conversation and pat ourselves on the back about how great we are on climate change and haven’t convinced a single person to change their position on anything.”

However diplomatic and conciliatory Hochstein’s statement may appear, the 2015 Paris Agreement clearly represented the turbulent accumulated changing of minds on climate action, achieved after many decades of stalemate. In Paris, leaders from 196 nations, including the United States, agreed to voluntary carbon-reduction targets to prevent global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100 compared to 1900.

The crowd at the entrance of the event. Initially, a White House official said the press area was filled and that several dozen reporters who had been waiting an hour would not get in. Most of us did. Photo by Justin Catanoso

Things deteriorated again during the meeting’s question-and-answer period. A Canadian student asked Trump energy adviser Dave Banks to justify the president’s intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement; Banks dodged the question. Then a Chinese journalist reminded the panel that Trump tweeted that climate change was a hoax perpetuated by the Chinese to steal American jobs. The room erupted in laughter.

Regardless of the strangeness of fossil-fuel promotion at a climate mitigation summit, Andrew Steer, president of World Resources International, noted earlier in the day that U.S. State Department staffers who made up the administration’s small negotiating team remained true to a U.S. priority — transparency and accountability in measuring actual carbon emissions against countries’ voluntary pledges.

“This has been a U.S. issue for years, through changing administrations, and they are doing well,” Steer said. “No one is saying to them [because of Trump], ‘You don’t have the authority to participate.’”

Justin Catanoso is a regular Mongabay contributor and a professor of journalism at Wake Forest University in North Carolina in the United States. Follow him on twitter @jcatanoso

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