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COP24: Trumpers tout clean coal; protesters call it ‘climate suicide’

  • As in 2017, the Trump administration delegation was again at COP, seriously praising coal as a climate solution in a public presentation Monday – but behind the scenes the U.S. delegation is reportedly less incendiary and more cooperative. The Polish government is also heavily promoting the dirtiest of fossil fuels at the two-week-long Katowice event.
  • But protestors, subnationals and NGOs are having none of it. COP24 participants treated the Trump administration coal public presentation with outrage, as a freakish sideshow and a joke. They used the event to send the message that decarbonization is the only way forward – as a means of curbing climate change, while boosting local economies and creating jobs.
  • “It’s ludicrous for Trump officials to claim that they want to clean up fossil fuels, while dismantling standards that would do just that,” said Dan Lashof, director, World Resources Institute US.
  • “More and more companies are committing to renewable energy, reducing emissions, and striving for a just [energy] transition that protects the wellbeing of all workers,” said Aron Cramer, CEO of BSR, a sustainability consulting firm in San Francisco.
Climate activists lined up early outside the Trump Administration’s only event at COP24. which mostly promoted the use of coal as a climate change solution. Image courtesy of Climate Nexus.

KATOWICE, Poland – Trump Administration representatives, impossible to embarrass and weirdly courageous, braved mocking laughter, blatant disrespect and even a walk-out on Monday as they reprised their surreal public performance of a year ago by promoting coal burning for energy at a climate conference that seeks in part to drastically reduce coal usage to fight climate change.

The unvarnished disgust with which the administration was met began before the event, as reporters were flooded with prepared remarks at the start of the final week of the United Nations climate summit, or COP24, here in Poland. Advance responses came easy, as the Trump team repeated the same cynical panel discussion talking points put on in 2017 at COP23 in Bonn, Germany.

“It’s ludicrous for Trump officials to claim that they want to clean up fossil fuels, while dismantling standards that would do just that,” said Dan Lashof, director, World Resources Institute US.

“Since taking office, this administration has proposed to roll back measures to cut methane leaks from oil and gas operations, made it easier for companies to dump coal ash into drinking water, and just days ago proposed easing carbon pollution rules for new coal-fired power plants… This sideshow in Poland would be laughable if the consequences of climate change weren’t so deadly serious,” Lashof said.

Jean Su, energy director at the Center for Biological Diversity, drew a parallel between Trump’s embattled obsession with coal and the fact that COP24 is being held in the coal capital of Poland – Katowice, a city whose air hangs heavy with the acrid smell of burning coal. Polish leaders have been criticized for allowing coal companies to help underwrite the summit; the Polish pavilion even has a coal-promoting display called Black to Green.

Demonstrators occupy and overwhelm the 2018 coal presentation by the U.S. Trump administration COP24 delegation. Image courtesy of Climate Nexus.
At the Polish pavilion inside COP24, the country proudly displays its connection to coal and the coal industry, which is a paid sponsor of the climate summit. Image by Justin Catanoso.

“Trump’s panel is trying to sell the myth of clean coal to attendees who’ve been choking on Katowice’s coal-polluted air for the past week,” Su said. “This absurd spectacle expands the influence the [Polish] coal industry already bought itself at this year’s climate talks. Fossil fuels have no role in a clean energy future, and any further investment in coal is climate suicide.”

As it turns out, some of the world’s largest banks have reached that same conclusion. Coal in many places is simply more expensive than natural gas and increasingly, costlier than solar and wind installations.

The World Bank, for example, recently pulled funding for a coal plant in Kosovo after finding that investing in renewable energy was cheaper. Major banks such as Standard CharteredHSBCDeutsche BankRoyal Bank of Scotland, and Lloyds Banking Group have all stopped making loans to coal operations.

That hardly means coal is dead. While in steep decline in the U.S., some 1,200 coal-fired power plants are planned or coming online in Asia, which consumes three-quarters of the world’s coal.

Perhaps that’s why Trump representatives were in Katowice hyping the administration’s profits-over-environmental protection mantra, while touting a supposed humanitarian desire to bring electricity to the world’s poor via a willingness to export stockpiled U.S. fossil fuels.

Protesters used the U.S. delegation event to their advantage. They stood to mock the panelists and disrupt the presentations. Then they marched out, leaving the room half empty – as planned. Image courtesy of Climate Nexus.

But Trump’s open derision of “shithole” countries in impoverished Africa is not easily forgotten by the educated, well-informed delegates and 33,000 global attendees at COP24. Attendees at the U.S. panel laughed loudly and derided administration claims of concern for people in the developing world lacking electricity.

Andrzej Chwiluk, a 25-year veteran of Poland’s coal pits and former head of its largest federation of mining unions, had his own practical bottom line message for President Trump, one that could be easily repeated and valid in West Virginia, Wyoming or Kentucky:

“In 2010, I led 40,000 people to protest against closing coal mines [in Poland],” Chwiluk said. “And today being aware of the threat, I want to do something about climate change. But I had to protest, because the government doesn’t care about communities like ours. What I find missing in the process is honest dialogue.

“Even among us Polish people, the environmentalists, the government, and the miners, we all speak a different language,” said Chwiluk. “Miners are pragmatic men. We can see that the money for renewable energy won’t go towards protecting the jobs of people like us. Let’s be honest: without responsible government leadership, that won’t happen. A just transition is the only way forward.”

In other COP24 discussions, that idea of economic justice was presented as the key to getting more people to demand climate action. Representatives from U.S. cities and states, independent of the Trump delegation, testified to how decarbonizing their communities has helped create a host of new jobs related to renewable energy and sustainability.

“More and more companies are committing to renewable energy, reducing emissions, and striving for a just transition that protects the wellbeing of all workers,” said Aron Cramer, CEO of BSR, a sustainability consulting firm. “Business is innovating and preparing for the economy of the future – not for the economy of 75 years ago.”

As for the U.S. delegation, it’s difficult to discern its position on the issues discussed behind closed doors at this summit. The pro-coal panel is the only scheduled event by the administration, as it was last year. Meanwhile, mid-level State Department officials, led by Trigg Talley, keep a low profile and do not make public comments. None participated in Monday’s event.

The U.S. negotiators did infuriate many delegates Saturday when they were joined by oil allies Russia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in blocking rewording of a specific article that would have “welcomed” instead of merely “noted” the alarming report by UN scientists on the gravity of the world’s inertia in not dealing aggressively with climate change.

Yet a source familiar with the U.S. team told Mongabay Monday that in most instances, the delegation represents the U.S. much as they did under President Obama, for whom they also worked: they wrestle with wording issues without controversy, push for greater transparency over carbon emissions reporting by all nations, and suggest without saying so that they are largely in agreement with the Paris Agreement goals, even if their president is not.

Justin Catanoso, a regular contributor, is covering his fifth UN climate summit. Hans Jong contributed to this story. Follow them on Twitter @jcatanoso and @hans­(underscore)nich

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