U.S. Says It Has Seat at Climate Talks—But Is It at Kids’ Table?


The White House is insisting it will still have a seat at the table at the next United Nations climate summit just before Thanksgiving in Bonn—but President Donald Trump’s exit from the Paris climate pact may mean the U.S. won’t be sitting at the adults’ table.

Administration officials, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, insisted the U.S. still has a voice in climate negotiations, noting Trump stopped short of pulling out of the parent treaty to the 2015 Paris deal, the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

The U.S. is “going to continue engagement” in global efforts to cut carbon pollution, Pruitt said June 6 on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” show. “We’re part of the UNFCCC, as you know,” Pruitt said, and the U.S. would remain engaged in international cooperation that includes exporting “innovation and technology to Russia and China.

Senate Democrats who pushed Trump to stay in the Paris deal said arguments that the administration plans to be engaged in those debates ring hollow, given the president’s skepticism of global climate efforts.

“It is absolutely misleading to say we’re still there. We’re not,” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Bloomberg BNA.

But even if it technically remains in the UN framework convention, it’s unclear whether the Trump administration will roll up its sleeves in those talks. Even if it does, some issues—from verifying climate actions taken by countries to forest emissions—are to be specifically addressed in the Paris deal. Bonn will host the next high-level UN climate summit Nov. 6-17.

Little Leverage to Prod China, India

More specifically, exiting the deal means the U.S. will have far less influence in pushing China, India and other other developing nations to agree to tough reporting and verification to see whether they are making good on the actions they pledged to address their emissions.

The U.S. also won’t be at the table to push those same rapidly developing nations to ratchet up their actions around 2020, when parties are to offer new, more ambitious pledges under the Paris Agreement.

Trump can’t withdraw from the pact immediately—the U.S. must wait four years from when the pact went into force on Nov. 4, 2016, to withdraw. In the meantime, the U.S. is still a member of the Paris deal, and thus nothing bars it from still sitting in on those talks to implement it. By contrast, the Bush administration was relegated to observer status after it essentially withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol in 2001.

Thus for now, the U.S. remains “a full member” in the Paris pact, according to Alden Meyer, who tracks climate negotiations for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“My assumption is they will remain relatively passive in those negotiations and basically be observing,” he told Bloomberg BNA. “And if they ultimately are seen as actively intervening or trying to shape the decisions, I think they would get a pretty ferocious blowback from other countries.”

Within the broader U.N. framework convention, the U.S. could still debate some key technical issues being negotiated there, including the hotly debated issue of loss and damage compensation for vulnerable countries already suffering climate impacts. The U.S. also could wield influence in two subsidiary bodies of experts launched under the 1992 framework: the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA) and the Subsidiary Body for Implementation (SBI).

Among those issues, agriculture stands out as a crucial climate-related issue essentially left out of the Paris pact but still negotiated within the UN framework convention where the U.S. still has a seat, according to Pipa Elias, who tracks agriculture and forestry issues for the Nature Conservancy.

Seeking Engagement?

Tillerson brushed aside suggestions that the U.S. has alienated allies or had become an unpredictable international partner. But the secretary offered few specifics on ways the U.S. could remain engaged on climate action in the wake of Trump’s Paris announcement.

“So, we do believe that engagement globally continues to be important on the issue of climate change, and we will be seeking ways to remain engaged” through the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, as well as various economic and trade forums, he said at a June 6 news conference with New Zealand Prime Minister Bill English.

The IPCC’s next detailed global report on the latest climate science is due in 2021 or 2022.

Vow to Renegotiate Questioned

Cardin and other Democrats were particularly incensed over Trump’s suggestion that he would be open to renegotiating the Paris deal—“on terms that are fair to the United States,” Trump said—ignoring the fact that largely voluntary pact took more than 20 grueling years of talks to complete.

“To say that the president’s actions just mean we want to negotiate a better agreement and we’re still at the table—that is just inaccurate,” Cardin said. “And our credibility has been badly damaged. Our seat is not there.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who also sits on the Foreign Relations panel, scoffed at the notion that Trump would work to renegotiate the deal or his adminsitration will wield its influence in talks under the broader U.N. climate convention.

“If you want to still be part of that conversation, you should have stayed at the table” and remained in the Paris pact, Murphy told Bloomberg BNA.

Under the Paris Agreement, developed and developing nations alike vowed to take action to keep average temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) since the pre-industrial era and make best efforts to hold the line at a 1.5 degree Celsius increase (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) this century.

U.S. Negotiators Still Expected in Bonn

The next round of talks in Bonn, known as the 23rd Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC, or COP-23, will be focused primarily on implementing a sort of rulebook for the Paris deal, including how to verify that nations are actually making good on their climate pledges under the pact.

A total of 197 parties reached the deal in Paris in 2015. Of those, 148 parties either have ratified or formally joined the agreement. It is the 148 parties that will be at the table in those talks, launched last year in Marrakech, Morocco, as the Conference of the Parties to the Paris Agreement or CMA. Nations that haven’t ratified the deal in time for the Bonn talks will still be able to observe the negotiations.

But the U.S. will likely send a small delegation of negotiators to Bonn, given that it remains in the 1992 convention, Andrew Light, a former Obama administration climate negotiator, told Bloomberg BNA.

Fewer negotiators would blunt the ability of the U.S. to shape any debate even if it stays at the table within the U.N. climate convention, according to Light, now a senior fellow in the World Resources Institute’s global climate program.

“The size alone limits the ability to participate in all the conversations” which, in years past, have been held simultaneously and in rooms scattered across the Bonn summit site, he said.

Most in GOP Applaud Exit
Republican senators were in two camps. Most of them opposed President Barack Obama signing the U.S. onto the climate pact without Senate ratification. But a few, including Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), had hoped to convince Trump that the pact was largely a non-binding deal and that the costs of withdrawal outweighed any benefit.

“I had four conversations with him last week, to explore ways of staying within it but still meeting U.S. objectives,” Corker told reporters June 6.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) also was disappointed. “I would have liked to fix the problems rather than junk the whole thing,” he told Bloomberg BNA.

Vow to 'Cease all Implementation'

In announcing his exit from the Paris accord, Trump by contrast made it clear the U.S. will disengage from international climate efforts and argued that other countries had gotten the better of the Obama administration in negotiating the agreement. In announcing the U.S. exit June 1, Trump said the U.S “will cease all implementation” of the Paris Agreement as well as “the implementation of the nationally determined contribution”—the U.S. pledge under which it vowed to cut emissions 26 percent to 28 percent from 2005 levels by 2025.

But world leaders haven’t exactly been taking Trump up on his offer. Former Secretary of State John Kerry, who helped lead Obama’s efforts on the Paris deal, also ridiculed Trump’s negotiation offer.

“He is going to go out and find a better deal? That’s like—I mean, that’s like O.J. Simpson saying he’s going to go out and find the real killer,” Kerry said. “Everybody knows he isn’t going to do that.”