Dueling U.S. delegations are competing for attention at this week’s United Nations climate summit in Bonn, Germany — the official team and a competing one made up of Democratic officials opposed to President Trump’s decision to remove the U.S. from the Paris climate accord.
The annual gathering of nations and environmentalists has heard separate cases about the U.S. interest in that agreement, laying bare the division in the United States between Trump and his energy industry backers and Democrats.
“Whatever the president may say about climate, he cannot stop clean energy,” said Sen. Brian SchatzBrian Emanuel SchatzPanic begins to creep into Democratic talks on Biden agenda Hotel workers need a lifeline; It's time to pass The Save Hotel Jobs Act Equilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by The American Petroleum Institute — Scientists potty train cows to cut pollution MORE (D-Hawaii), one of five U.S. senators who attended the conference last weekend as part of the counter-delegation. “He’s a powerful man, but he’s not a monarch, and we are going to continue the clean energy revolution.”
This 23rd Conference of the Parties, or COP 23, has lower stakes than the meeting two years ago that yielded the landmark Paris climate agreement, which was designed to cut global greenhouse gas emissions.
Yet the meeting still has importance as delegates negotiate a rulebook for how countries will comply with the Paris agreement and prepare to take stock at next year’s conference in Poland of where the world stands in achieving its goals.
The Trump administration’s message to attendees, which is based on an energy agenda that props up coal and other fossil fuel industries, contradicts much of what other leaders said.
At an event Monday, White House advisers promoted the use of nuclear power and fossil fuels equipped with emissions controls as a way to grow electricity access around the world while also trying to cut down on climate change-causing greenhouse gases.
“The significant cuts in emissions envisioned by the framework and by the Paris agreement require advanced technologies, including [carbon capture and sequestration],” George Banks, Trump’s adviser for international energy and the environment, said Monday.
“The math otherwise does not work, no matter how much we want it to.”
Most other speakers at the conference — and the competing U.S. delegation — are focused on cutting emissions, switching to renewable power and mitigating the impacts climate change is already having around the world.
While Trump has suggested the U.S. could stay in the climate accord if the world would renegotiate it, White House officials told reporters before COP 23 that they wouldn’t aim to renegotiate the Paris agreement while there.
Still, Trump officials have negotiated aggressively during the event, with Banks telling reporters that their top goal was preventing easier rules under climate agreement for developing countries. Judith Garber, the United States’ lead climate negotiator, will speak to the conference on Wednesday.
The Democratic senators, governors and environmentalists who travelled to Bonn have aimed to reaffirm the country’s commitments under the Paris deal made by former President Obama.
“The rest of the world’s got to carry the ball while we’re temporarily in America off to the sidelines,” California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) said at the conference. “But there’s still California, there’s still New York, Washington, Oregon, all these other places, and there’s still corporations.”
They also went out of their way to diminish the Trump administration's talking points.
“This is a sideshow; it is a blip,” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) said at an impromptu press conference before Banks’s session on Monday.
“The world is not paying any attention to it, because the world is not going to listen to someone who says that climate change is a hoax. Climate change is a fact. It is just as certain as the laws of gravity. Every single other nation in the world today understands it, and so do our states and so do our people. So this isn’t going to have an impact on the world today.”
Trump’s approach to climate change has been a jarring one for many world leaders, who worked closely with the Obama administration on climate measures during his presidency. In public appearances this week, they focused more on the pro-Paris American delegation.
“I am very encouraged to see all the good side events that have been taking place in the American states’ pavilion, because that reflects what’s happening in the United States at the moment: real climate action on the ground,” said Miguel Arias Cañete, the European Union’s energy and climate commissioner.
“I would like to say that I very much welcome this, because it underlines the importance attached to climate protection in broad swaths of the American society, irrespective of the decision of President Trump to leave the climate agreement of Paris,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said at a plenary event.
The idea of parallel U.S. delegations is not unprecedented, and was common during the presidency of George W. Bush, when Democrats and environmentalists sought to contrast themselves with Bush’s opposition to the Kyoto Protocol.
“But I’d say a much starker contrast at this point,” said Elliot Diringer, executive vice president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions and a veteran of the U.N. climate conferences.
Diringer said State Department negotiators — usually career diplomats who have long represented the nation in climate talks — are still participating in good faith in the talks, though Trump officials sent a far smaller contingent than in the past.
“Both the unofficial and official U.S. presence are generally appreciated,” Diringer said from Bonn.
“People are glad to see the U.S. negotiators still at the table, and they’re very glad to see the presence of senators, governors and others demonstrating the huge momentum for climate action back home.”
Trump’s supporters, meanwhile, are very happy with what the official delegation is doing.
Marc Morano, an outspoken climate change skeptic and head of the website Climate Depot, said the coal event — and the protests and negative reaction to it — served to show how unreasonable Trump’s opponents are.
“I think they’re content to step back and let the states do all the grandstanding. Ultimately, I don’t think the Trump administration, or Trump himself, gives a damn about this conference, one way or another,” said Morano, who is attending the event. “Frankly, as a skeptic, that’s very refreshing.”