Representatives from nearly 200 countries gather at the United Nations’ 23rd climate change conference beginning Monday, an annual effort to tackle global warming and its impacts already inflicting havoc on the planet.
This year, however, the U.N. faces a new challenge: Addressing the phenomenon after U.S. President Donald Trump, leader of the planet’s second-largest greenhouse gas emitter, pledged to do nothing to curb emissions.
The U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change will deal with that question in Bonn, Germany, from Nov. 6 to Nov. 17 as countries work to firm up their commitments to adapt to a warmer world in line with 2015′s landmark Paris Climate Agreement. Scientists say the world should prevent the planet from warming more than 2 degrees Celsius beyond pre-industrial levels to avoid the worst effects of climate change, a benchmark set by the Paris accord. Meeting the target means dramatic reduction in global emissions, and the Paris pact urges signatories to craft voluntary pledges to do that.
However, the agreement is not legally binding, and Trump followed through on a campaign pledge to withdraw America from what he calls the “draconian” pact in June. It is a multi-year process to do so, and the U.S. cannot leave until Nov. 4, 2020 ― the day after the next presidential election.
The U.S. and Syria are now the only two nations opposed to the climate deal.
The Trump administration announced last week it would actively promote fossil fuels during a presentation at the climate conference, also known as the Conference of the Parties, or COP. Delegates sent by the White House will host a talk titled “The Role of Cleaner and More Efficient Fossil Fuels and Nuclear Power in Climate Mitigation,” which will tout the supposed benefits of coal, natural gas and nuclear power.
A delegation of U.S. negotiators are expected to work in Bonn to help write the rulebook for the Paris agreement, but their presence will be awkward. It’s unclear if negotiators from other countries will be willing to listen to a White House, which, under Trump, would not abide by any rules that emerge.
The summit will feature some U.S. star power, however. Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and billionaire activist Tom Steyer are funding a pavilion to showcase climate action by U.S. cities and businesses. The federal government usually pays the $200,000 or so cost of the showcase, but declined to do so this year.
“The American people and American industry are pretty much all behind doing what the Paris agreement is designed to do, and that is to cut the amount of greenhouse gases going into the atmosphere so we will slow down and maybe even stop climate change, which has the potential to destroy the world,” Bloomberg told The New York Times last month.
Environmental groups and local governments around the U.S. reacted with fury following Trump’s decision to quit the Paris deal, but pledged to do their part to combat his agenda with or without federal support. Other world leaders have vowed to move forward regardless, and in July, every member of the G20, aside from the U.S., unveiled a detailed policy to abide by the Paris pact in a clear rebuke of the White House.
Trump, while a presidential candidate, notably called climate change a “hoax” manufactured by the Chinese and has long promised to end the “war” on fossil fuels. He has signed several executive orders rolling back environmental regulations on the energy industry and has promised an American future flush with “really clean coal.”
But, as HuffPost’s Alexander Kaufman reports, such energy doesn’t exist. Environmental groups have long called such rebranding a bait-and-switch by the coal lobby to try and revive an industry dying not due to regulation, but rather the rapidly falling cost of cleaner energy sources.
In fact, the solar industry employed far more people than the coal industry in 2016, according to numbers from the Department of Energy. Natural gas, a far cleaner fossil fuel product in terms of emissions, and oil production jobs are the two leading employers in the industry.
“There is no such thing as ‘clean coal,’” Travis Nichols, a spokesman for Greenpeace, told HuffPost in March. “It’s a myth used by the industry to get taxpayer money in order to prop up a dying industry. It’s worse than pixie dust and hope, it’s coal dust and nope. Coal miners deserve a just transition, not snake oil and empty promises.”
Countries gathered in Bonn already understand this. Many of the world’s biggest economies, including China and India, are on track to meet their emissions-reduction targets years earlier than expected, and both have invested heavily in renewable energy.
The talks in Bonn will be relatively low key compared with prior summits, as countries work to refine guidelines and review procedures to ensure signatories are meeting their commitments. The U.N. has agreed that negotiators will need to have such a framework in place by a 2018 deadline to make sure nations are doing enough to combat climate change.
“I call this is the ‘put up or shut up COP,’” Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told Pacific Standard. “We had a great reaction from leaders around the world universally saying they wouldn’t follow Trump out the door on Paris. But this COP is the one where they really have to start giving meaning to that rhetoric.”