The world will get a look at climate policy in the Trump era this week when diplomats from nearly 200 countries gather in Germany for the most significant international talks on the issue since President Trump took office.
The U.S. government — once a central voice in climate talks —will occupy a diminished role at the COP 23 meeting, as other countries try to fill the void Trump left when he announced plans earlier this year to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Agreement on climate change. China has sought to position itself as the new leader at the talks in Bonn, while some U.S. cities and states that are pushing forward with climate reforms in defiance of the Trump administration are also seeking a leadership role.
It’s unclear exactly what part the White House will play at the talks. The U.S. will promote fossil fuels with a presentation featuring speakers from coal, nuclear and gas industries, according to a report in the New York Times. And Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chief Scott Pruitt, a supporter of the oil, gas and coal industries who has questioned the science of climate change, has been rumored to attend, which would likely upset other countries focused on climate change. The EPA directed a question about whether Pruitt might attend to the State Department, which did not reply to a request for comment on that question.
Still, some observers remain optimistic that the U.S. will work constructively behind the scenes to help hammer out the details of implementing the Paris Agreement, despite the administration’s hostile public posture. The State Department declined to provide any details about policy plans ahead of the conference.
“The United States intends to withdraw from the Paris Agreement as soon as it is eligible to do so,” said a State Department official in an emailed statement. “We will continue to participate in climate negotiations and meetings related to the implementation of the Paris Agreement and other issues, to represent U.S. interests and ensure all future policy options remain open to the Administration.”
Despite the uncertainty, outside observers say they are encouraged by the choice of career diplomat Thomas A. Shannon to lead the U.S. delegation rather than a Trump appointee with a history of climate change denial. The U.S. has also engaged constructively in behind-the-scenes meetings in advance of the talks, according to environmental groups that track international climate discussions.
“It would appear that the U.S. will be presenting a reasonably friendly face, likely not looking to make mischief,” says Elliot Diringer of the non-profit Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. The U.S. is “taking a lower profile than in the past, but there to actively negotiate.”
U.S. cities, states and businesses cannot formally participate in negotiations, but several leaders, including California Governor Jerry Brown and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, will attend to signal to other countries that the U.S. will continue to make progress in reducing emissions of the greenhouse gases that cause climate change even as the federal government continues its regulatory rollback. As part of that effort, the pair will unveil new figures on the commitments and progress made in nine states and more than 250 U.S. cities.
“If we were in fact a nation state… we would represent the third largest economy in the world today,” said Washington Governor Jay Inslee on a conference call for journalists, referring to the coalition of U.S. states committed to acting on climate change. “We need to make sure the world maintains confidence in our ability to move forward.”
But even as cities and states redouble their commitments, other countries hope that the U.S. may return to the leadership position it occupied just two years ago as it played a key role in forging the Paris Agreement. The U.S. cannot formally withdraw from the deal until after the 2020 presidential election — though before the 2021 inauguration — and negotiators from around the world are walking a fine line between openly slamming the Trump administration’s reversal of President Obama’s stance on the issue and trying to reengage behind the scenes. Still, any decision to return to the table lies with Trump, who legal experts say could keep the U.S. in the Paris Agreement by simply revising its official commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions downward. Such a move would allow Trump to pursue his agenda boosting coal and other fossil fuels.
Ultimately, all the rest of the world can do is wait. “Countries are deeply rattled by the uncertainty, inconsistency, doubt,” former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told TIME this fall. “They’re counting the days.”
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