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.
“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.”
Other U.S. representatives, from companies to a group Democratic governors and mayors led by California Gov. Jerry Brown, sought to reassure the world that many in the U.S. still want to take action to ratchet down carbon pollution, even without Trump. Microsoft Corp. announced own its goal to slash carbon emissions 75 percent by 2030 and pitched sustainable technology, including for agriculture and land-cover mapping, in meetings it held with foreign governments.
But the talks on carrying out the Paris agreement will face major hurdles before the next major gathering next year in Poland. Countries will also face a deadline to finish deciding how they achieve the deal’s goal of keeping global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius, the mark that scientists warn would cause irreversible damage.
“Parties haven’t allowed the threatened U.S. withdrawal to derail this process,” said Elliot Diringer, a former Clinton administration adviser who is executive vice president for the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. “They’ve made good progress and set themselves up for a more focused negotiation next year. At the same time, the talks here have underscored the significant political challenges ahead next year.”
But Tosi Mpanu-Mpanu, the lead climate change specialist for the environment ministry in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, said many major issues were pushed until next year. “I have a feeling that people were a little bit complacent,” he said, disappointed in what he called a “self-fulfilling prophecy” that countries wouldn’t make much progress this year.
Environmental advocates insisted they still aren’t seeing the emissions reductions or money necessary to achieve the goals of the Paris deal.
“The conference gets a grade of ‘meets expectations,’” said Andrew Deutz, director of international governmental relations for The Nature Conservancy.
Deutz said that while the U.S. didn’t blow up the process, “the absence of national U.S. leadership was evident within the negotiating process this week and for driving more ambitious climate action in the future.”
Island nations that face the most immediate threats from climate change and sea-level rise pressed their case throughout the two weeks. Allen Chastanet, the prime minister of Saint Lucia, told reporters that island nations are “paralyzed,” because they can’t stop rising temperatures alone.
Hurricane Maria demolished Barbuda and brought heavy damage to Puerto Rico, after passing just 40 miles from Saint Lucia.
“I have to say to you deep down inside of me I’m angry, I’m anxious and I’m fearful,” he told a news conference. “It can’t be that a prime minister’s only resource is to get on the side of your bed on your knees and pray, and that’s what I feel every time I’m here and a hurricane is developing over the Atlantic, is ‘Lord, please take care of our people.’”
Kalina Oroschakoff and Sara Stefanini contributed to this report.
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