From Obama to Trump, Climate Negotiations Are Being Run by the Same Crew of American Technocrats

The new boss is same as the old boss.

Main Entrance building and SPodek during COP 24, the 24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Katowice, Poland on 12 December, 2018.  (Photo by Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
The main entrance of Spodek Arena at the COP 24 in Katowice, Poland, on Dec. 12, 2018. Photo: Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto/Getty Images

On Monday, the Trump administration hosted an event on behalf of the fossil fuel industry at the United Nations climate talks in Poland, known as COP24. It was almost identical to the one it hosted at last year’s climate talks in Germany: trying to write coal, oil, and gas into the world’s response to climate change, and bemoaning “alarmism” on climate. Both were disrupted by organizers from the United States voicing their opposition, and both received more media coverage than just about anything else happening at either talks, which this year are focused on arriving at a deeply technical rulebook to implement the Paris agreement.

What the flashy White House sideshow obscured, though, is that the U.S. position in Poland, when it comes to the substance of the talks, is indistinguishable on many fronts from the approach taken by the Obama administration. In fact, that agenda is being carried out by many of the very same people, a largely overlapping crew of career technical negotiators keeping a lower profile than Donald Trump team’s at the White House.

That’s not necessarily good news. While the rhetoric coming from the Obama administration was 180 degrees from that of the Trump administration, American negotiators under President Barack Obama were not intent on driving the world toward the most aggressive climate action possible. Quite the opposite.

Since Trump’s election, the narrative surrounding the team of U.S. negotiators at U.N. climate talks has been a largely sympathetic one, of well-meaning career diplomats simply trying to keep their heads down and make the best of it before the administration can officially pull out of the Paris agreement in late 2020.

There’s some truth to that, and the U.S. team is quieter than usual on several issues, according to those who have been in negotiating rooms at COP24. But U.S. negotiators are also hard at work and deep in the weeds of the Paris rulebook-crafting process. “They are actively engaging and they are making sure that the interests of the United States are represented. They are not innocent bystanders. They are active participants,” said Meena Raman, a senior researcher at Third World Network, who has tracked the talks closely for decades.

In something of a good cop-bad cop routine, the public campaign being waged against the Paris agreement by top Trump officials plays into the hands of U.S. negotiators, according to negotiation insiders who declined to be named. The loud condemnation of the agreement gives negotiators political room to demand changes that weaken it.

That the U.S. role behind closed doors is mostly the same as it was before Trump’s inauguration is a big problem for those looking for more ambition to come out of the COP24 rulebook discussions. “By putting roadblocks across all different areas of the rulebook, the U.S. is playing a very dangerous game here in negotiations, at a time when the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] has sent a stark and scary warning that we have only 12 years and we have to raise ambition,” said Harjeet Singh, with nonprofit ActionAid. “I don’t think we are going to get anywhere with that kind of perspective coming from the U.S. What the U.S. is doing or not doing is affecting its own citizens, its neighbors, and people around the world. I think it’s nothing less than a crime against humanity and nature.”

The results of U.S. delegation interventions at COP24 could have far more dire consequences in the long run than anything that was said at Monday’s side event — particularly for the places hit worst by climate change. On Saturday night, for instance, the U.S. joined fellow fossil fuel producers Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Kuwait in blocking the Paris rulebook from formally recognizing the IPCC’s 1.5-degree report — the first to be produced by that body at the request of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change — which found that meeting the goals of the Paris agreement would require far more ambitious action than anything currently on the table. After the U.S. and other developed countries backslid on compromises they had made earlier in the talks on climate financing, the Africa Group of Nations, comprised of all of that continent’s countries, boycotted certain talks this week. U.S. negotiators have also reportedly stymied any efforts from developing G77 countries to introduce equity requirements across countries into the rulebook.

As Raman notes, bad behavior by the U.S. at U.N. climate talks didn’t start with Trump. Documents leaked by National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden showed that the State Department enlisted the NSA to surveil private communications between other delegations at the Copenhagen climate talks in 2009. Just before those talks, the U.S. and other developed countries were widely suspected of influencing the Philippines’ decision to pull veteran negotiator Bernarditas de Castro Muller, one of the most notoriously fierce advocates for developing countries, from its team. At climate talks in South Africa in 2011, former American head negotiator Todd Stern famously told the main plenary, “If equity’s in, we’re out.”

What’s happening in Katowice, though, falls outside the narrow partisan framing of climate politics that has taken over after Trump’s election. The negotiators aren’t political appointees or mouthpieces for the administration; delegation head Trigg Talley was also a top negotiator in the Obama administration. Other delegates, and those tracking the process, largely understand that there’s daylight between the team that is in negotiations and the administration’s more bullish message to the UNFCCC, and that negotiators themselves walk a fine line between keeping the White House happy and pursuing long-held U.S. priorities in these talks. As debates about a “Green New Deal” capture headlines at home, the American negotiators serve as a reminder that returning to the Obama-era status quo of climate politics may not get us any closer to averting catastrophe.

In a statement provided by email, a State Department spokesperson only said, “The Administration’s position on the Paris Agreement remains unchanged. The President announced that the United States intends to withdraw from the Paris Agreement absent the identification of terms of participation that are more favorable to the American people. The United States is participating in ongoing negotiations, including those related to the Paris Agreement, at the COP in order to ensure a level playing field that benefits and protects U.S. interests.” Talley declined a request for an interview.

It’s not hard to tell what else his team is after, though. The operating theory among some delegates is that the U.S. is simply operating with the directives they were given in the Obama era, with potential points of departure being the U.S. obstinance around embracing the latest IPCC report. There aren’t higher-level political operatives walking around to negotiating rooms and whipping up support on various issues, as John Kerry’s team did in the lead-up to the Paris climate talks, but the State Department team in Poland certainly isn’t staying quiet to fellow negotiators about what it wants.

So what is that? At a side event on Monday, a former top lawyer on climate for the State Department, Susan Biniaz, outlined what she sees as continued American priorities when it comes to the Paris agreement. “I think some countries left Paris thinking this agreement is great,” she said. “There’s not that much in the way of rules, and we want the rulebook to keep it that way. We probably want a 20-page rulebook that is very light on requirements and not very legally binding. We want to be able to go home and keep Paris as is.” Other parties, though, were far less satisfied with that agreement, she noted, and “want to make up for that deficiency through the rulebook and impose on the rulebook more top-down international guidance.”

At the heart of all of this is a dispute over what the true meaning and spirit of the Paris agreement and even the UNFCCC really are — which various sides are fighting over in deciding what will make it into the rulebook, hopefully produced by the end of this week. “Some countries are bolder about relitigating. Some people claim it’s not relitigating,” Biniaz said. “Relitigating is in the eye of the beholder.”

U.S. negotiators have long sought to move as dramatically as possible away from the regime of climate diplomacy that the Paris agreement was crafted to replace, the Kyoto Protocol of 1992. That agreement was inked by the Clinton White House but ultimately not ratified by Congress. Shortly after that, Canada — another major emitter — left unceremoniously. “Everything that the U.S. succeeded in getting in Paris was a reaction to the reasons the Kyoto Protocol got rejected by the Senate,” Jesse Young, senior climate adviser for Oxfam International and a former member of the State Department’s negotiating team, told me. That includes the development of Nationally Determined Contributions — each country’s voluntary emissions reduction pledge — to get rid of the Kyoto-era distinction between developed and developing countries in favor of a so-called bottom-up approach, where all countries (not just developed nations) are tasked with reining in their emissions — in part as a recognition that India and especially China have emerged as major polluters since the early nineties. That’s likely why George David Banks, the lead negotiator at last year’s climate talks in Bonn, called the Paris agreement a “good Republican agreement. It’s everything the Bush administration wanted.”

Among the biggest red lines for the U.S. is the notion of a “dual rulebook”, which former members of the U.S. negotiating team see as a return to the Kyoto rules and even a rewriting of the Paris Agreement itself. “If December’s talks deliver a dual rulebook, it could stop the U.S. rejoining the deal under a different president,” Biniaz told Climate Home’s Karl Mathiesen. “Neither Stern nor Biniaz denies that making sure this doesn’t happen is guiding their involvement,” Mathiesen added, along with the fact that six current and former non-U.S. diplomats he interviewed also thought that was their goal in attending.

The idea that there are differences between countries on climate, and specifically the notion of “common but differentiated responsibility,” is baked into the UNFCCC itself, in Article 3.1, and can be found throughout the text of the Paris agreement. As such, developing country representatives say the bottom-up approach that the U.S. and other developed countries are pushing for amounts of a rewriting of the text. “What they’re trying to do is to weaken it by saying that we need one set of rules for everybody,” Singh says. “That is inequitable, because not all developing countries have that kind of capacity. What they’re trying to do is complicate the entire narrative and put the blame back on developing countries.” He argues that breaking down the distinction between developed and developing countries — like different levels of responsibility for the crisis, and current vulnerability to it — collapses crucial distinctions between big emitters like China and places like Tuvalu or the Marshall Islands, which are already being hit hard by climate change and have negligible carbon footprints. Still more concerning is the fact that it papers over developed countries’ historical responsibility for climate change — the fact that their thriving, carbon-intensive economies have been built on the backs of over a century of greenhouse gas emissions that are now helping render whole parts of the world uninhabitable.

Perhaps the biggest fault line on this front for U.S. negotiators has been around the related question of climate finance — that is, how much they and other developed countries should have to pay to mitigate, adapt to and rebuild from climate impacts around the world. In an intersessional meeting in the lead-up to COP24, the U.S. joined Japan and Australia to allow loans — contingent upon repayment — to be considered as part of the long agreed-upon goal of mobilizing $100 billion per year in climate financing by 2020, opening the door for that to include packages with potentially onerous repayment terms.

In Paris, Obama had pledged $3 billion to the Green Climate Fund, the agreed-upon body to help coordinate climate financing internationally under the UNFCCC, and governed by a 24-member board comprised of representatives from developed and developing countries. Only $1 billion was actually provided to the fund before Trump cut off America’s contributions entirely. Now, as the $100 billion target grows closer and with even less of a contribution from the U.S., developed countries, including the US, have been pushing back on setting a new target for 2025, despite need far greater than the initial goal.

Climate finance operates along a continuum: The less successful and well-funded mitigation efforts are, the more adaptation funds are needed. The more beleaguered the adaptation, the more funding is needed for loss and damage — effectively, compensation for when the worst happens. Now, without a major course correction on mitigation, the need for adaptation is estimated to reach up to hundreds of trillions of dollars as soon as 2030. Even so, there’s no agreed-upon definition of what climate finance actually means. Unlike the GCF, there’s also no mechanism through which to distribute loss and damage financing. For its part, the U.S. delegation has consistently looked to keep any discussion of loss and damage during climate talks off the table entirely, despite the fact that it’s featured in the Paris Agreement. In advance of COP24, U.S. representatives at the UN Standing Committee on finance refused to ratify a report on climate finance on the grounds that there is no agreed-upon definition of developed and developing countries.

Actions like that are why many have argued it’d be better for the U.S. to stay out of the negotiations entirely as it prepares to leave the Paris agreement. “At least even if you don’t want to be in the Paris agreement, don’t interfere with what’s happening,” Raman said. “They’re negotiating in very bad faith. Those people who argue that we should accommodate the United States — for what? The Paris agreement was an accommodation to the United States. If you want to continue to accommodate the United States it will be at the peril of developing countries.”

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