Conservation news

COP23: Trump, U.S. govt. seen as irrelevant to global climate action

  • COP23, the 23rd United Nations Climate Summit got underway on Monday, with 196 nations attending, and only one, the United States publically reneging on its Paris Agreement commitments. Syria, the final holdout announced its plans to become a Paris signatory.
  • Trump’s denialist position and the isolation of the U.S. federal government was underlined by two reports released as the Bonn summit got started: the Fourth National Climate Assessment, and a World Meteorological Organization report — both of which issued dire warnings about the ongoing impacts of rapidly escalating global warming.
  • “Sub-nationals,” U.S. mayors, state governors and top corporate leaders are ready to step into the void Trump created. Representatives from fifteen U.S. states, 300+ cities, and 150+ businesses are at COP23 to show America’s continuing commitment to the Paris Agreement.
  • “The Trump administration is a fossil fuel marionette show – it has no credibility in these talks and is here negotiating in bad faith.” – Jesse Bragg, spokesman with Corporate Accountability International, at COP23.
The negotiating hall at COP23 in Bonn, Germany. The main goals of this year’s summit are to increase the carbon reduction pledges of developed nations like China, India and the European Union, and raise billions for climate adaptation for vulnerable nations like Fiji, the summit’s official host. Photo by Justin Catanoso

As leaders from 196 nations convened in Bonn, Germany, this week for the 23rd United Nations Climate Summit (COP23), two exhaustive reports on climate – released three days apart — make it startlingly clear that global warming is worsening, and that its consequences are upon us.

Both reports undermine the Trump administration’s hostile denialist stance on climate action and take a toll on the international credibility of the United States, at least at the federal level, at a moment of escalating environmental crisis on land, air and sea.

“The truth is undeniable,” said Jennifer Morgan, Greenpeace international director. “These numbers again expose the dire threat to people on the frontlines of climate change.”

In the U.S. on Nov. 3, thirteen federal agencies released their congressionally mandated review called the Fourth National Climate Assessment. Global temperatures, they concluded, are at their highest levels in human history, the “unambiguous” trend is upwards. And humans themselves, through a combination of deforestation and the burning of fossil fuels for energy and transportation, are almost entirely at fault.

The only surprise surrounding the report, which detailed dire climate-change impacts from the Atlantic to the Pacific coasts, was that it was approved for release by the Trump administration, and by a president who labels climate change “a hoax.” A White House spokesman dismissed the agencies’ conclusions, saying, “The climate has changed and is always changing.”

Jonathan Pershing, a climate expert, was the Obama administration’s lead negotiator in Marrakesh last year. This year, the U.S. delegation is said to be made up of small group of State Department staffers with little experience in high-level climate negotiations and no direction or support from the White House. Photo by Justin Catanoso


Now that Syria has decided to sign the Paris Agreement, the U.S. is truly a rogue nation, having rejected and belittled the global consensus.

Meanwhile, on Monday, the opening day of COP23 in Bonn, the World Meteorological Organization (WRO) reported that 2017 is set to be in the top three hottest years on record, with the accumulated impacts being “catastrophic hurricanes and floods, debilitating heatwaves and drought” as “sea-levels rise and ocean acidification continue unabated.”

U.S. citizens suffered greatly this year due to the federal government’s failure to adapt to escalating climate change, with a string of economically devastating, record hurricanes — Harvey, Maria and Irma — along with catastrophic fires that savaged California’s wine country.

Extreme weather events and disasters are undercutting food security for millions around the world, especially among poor developing nations, the WRO wrote, adding that 23.5 million people were displaced in 2016 by weather-related disaster, creating a flood of climate refugees throughout Europe, Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America. Worse: this is merely a harbinger of things to come.

“If the Trump administration had any credibility coming into these talks, these two reports made quick work of that,” said Jesse Bragg, a spokesman with Corporate Accountability International, who is in Bonn. “Case in point: Exactly one week from now, while nations focus on how to spark the rapid, just transition to renewables our planet needs, Trump’s negotiators will make a pro-fossil fuel presentation to the UNFCCC. The Trump administration is a fossil fuel marionette show – it has no credibility in these talks and is here negotiating in bad faith.”

Gov. Jerry Brown of California was a keynote speaker in Paris at COP21 (shown here). His state represents the sixth-largest economy in the world and often gets nearly half of its electrical needs from solar energy. He will lead a delegation of “sub-nationals,” U.S. mayors, governors and business executives in Bonn at COP23 who will express their commitment to upholding the voluntary U.S. carbon-reduction pledges made in the Paris Agreement. Photo by Justin Catanoso

To Bragg’s point, strong climate action leadership was provided in the recent past by the Obama Administration and by top U.S. climate negotiators such as Todd Stern and Jonathan Pershing. Secretary of State John Kerry made appearances each year at COP summits to convey the United States’ growing commitment to aggressive climate action, coaxing China – the world’s leading emitter of greenhouse gases — into the policy arena in 2014 at COP20 in Lima, Peru, and setting the stage for the breakthrough Paris Agreement at COP21 in 2015.

Last year’s election of Donald Trump didn’t just end the U.S. role as climate action leader, it shoved the world’s leading economy and second largest carbon emitter into reverse.

Trump announced in June his intention to pull the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement, the only country in the world with stated plans to do so. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, former CEO of Exxon Mobil, has no plans to attend COP23. Mid-level State Department staffers with neither experience, nor clout, nor White House support, will play an uncertain, largely irrelevant, role in Bonn.

Meanwhile, Scott Pruitt, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency director, is straining to undo Obama-era environmental regulations, including the Clean Power Plan, while actively promoting the economic fortunes of U.S. oil, gas and coal companies. He has said that he doesn’t believe carbon dioxide – the most prevalent greenhouse gas – is a “primary contributor” to global warming. More than nine out of 10 climate scientists disagree.

Entrance to COP22 in Marrakesh in November 2016 where world leaders reacted first with caution, then something akin to horror, at the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president, and to his near-immediate vow to pull the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement. The same flags fly at COP23, but only one nation has announced plans to walk away from the agreement. Photo by Justin Catanoso

“The U.S. government report is an urgent reminder of what we are seeing with our own eyes from Houston to Puerto Rico to California,” said Lou Leonard, senior vice president of climate and energy with World Wildlife Fund. “Our climate is rapidly changing and it is affecting the safety, health and prosperity of every single American. It’s unfortunate that the policies and direction of the U.S. administration are not being guided by the findings of America’s best scientists.”

“Sub-nationals,” U.S. mayors, state governors and an array of top corporate leaders are ready to step into the void created by Trump, Tillerson and Pruitt. They’re in Bonn to demonstrate America’s commitment to climate action and to the Paris Agreement, and to keeping global temperatures from rising another degree Fahrenheit by 2100. California Gov. Jerry Brown and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg are leading the U.S. sub-national group.

“While Trump retreats from U.S. climate leadership, an unprecedented number of U.S. states (15), cities (more than 300) and businesses (more than 150) are at the COP to show America’s continuing commitment to moving forward,” said Alex Hanafi, senior manager of multilateral climate strategy with the Environmental Defense Fund.

“Most Americans see the direct economic and public health benefits of leading the global transition to the clean-energy, low-carbon economies of the future,” Hanafi concluded. “That’s in part why, despite consistent efforts to weaken or roll back existing federal climate policies, the administration has yet to successfully suspend, weaken, or repeal a major climate protection.”

Justin Catanoso is a regular contributor to Mongabay and a professor of journalism at Wake Forest University. He is providing coverage from COP23. Follow him on Twitter @jcatanoso

FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the author of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.