The US in Bonn: Beyond Political Theater

Much has been made of the bit of political theater staged by the Trump administration at the U.N. climate talks in Bonn – a White House-led panel discussion with representatives of the U.S. coal, nuclear and natural gas industries – and the protests that ensued.

But all the drama surrounding this sideshow in a far corner of the conference complex, one of literally hundreds of “side events” at COP 23, has obscured the more important reality: back in the negotiating rooms, U.S. diplomats were at the table working constructively on the rules for implementing the Paris Agreement.

The Bonn talks mark yet another delicate – and in this case somewhat surreal – moment in the United States’ mercurial engagement in the global climate effort. The principal aim here is advancing negotiations on the Paris “rulebook,” due to be adopted a year from now at COP 24. But the big question hovering over the talks is whether the world’s largest economy is in or out.

President Trump has declared Paris a bad deal for the U.S. and threatened to pull out unless he can arrange better terms. What those better terms might be is not something being entertained in these talks. Other countries have made clear – and the White House understands – that the Paris Agreement itself is not up for renegotiation.

As I wrote in Nature back in June, the likeliest “better deal” is for the U.S. to adjust its NDC – its “nationally determined contribution” under the Paris Agreement. The current one, set under President Obama, is a 26-28 percent reduction from 2005 emissions by 2025, a stretch goal even with the Obama policies the Trump administration is now unraveling.

Weakening the NDC would clearly violate the spirit, if not the letter, of the Paris Agreement (see our brief legal analysis). However, even countries that won’t concede a weakened NDC is legally permissible are unlikely to openly contest it, because they’d rather see the U.S. stay in with a weaker target than pull out altogether. Even with a less ambitious NDC now, future US NDC’s can be more ambitious.

But the U.S. can’t formally initiate withdrawal for another two years.  In the meantime, U.S. negotiators are trying to keep options open.

Parties are two years into a three-year process to spell out detailed rules and procedures for implementing the Paris Agreement. The skeletal U.S. delegation, though negotiating from a weakened position, has continued to advance largely the same positions as before on important issues like transparency for developed and developing countries alike.

By pushing back on developing-country efforts to revert to a more bifurcated global approach, U.S. negotiators are not only enhancing the prospect of President Trump staying in, but also helping to ensure a more effective Paris rulebook.  (It’s at times like these we must be grateful for a committed corps of career diplomats.)

Outside the negotiating rooms, the overwhelming U.S. presence was a slew of congressional, state, city and business leaders staging dozens of pro-climate action events under the banner of the We Are Still In network.  (C2ES was proud to host events featuring Senators, Governors and leading U.S. businesses.)

The message clearly broke through. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, echoing a widespread sentiment, told the conference, “I very much welcome this. It underlines the importance attached to climate change in broad swaths of American society, irrespective of the decision of President Donald Trump to leave the Paris Agreement.”

Meanwhile, the one public event staged by the Trump administration – titled “The Role of Cleaner and More Efficient Fossil Fuels and Nuclear Power in Climate Mitigation” — seemed calculated to provoke climate activists. And, perhaps, to distract audiences back home from the U.S. role at the negotiating table.

Activists responded with some political theater of their own, including a protest song to the tune of “God Bless the U.S.A.” Some seemed caught up in their own form of denial – that deep decarbonization can be achieved without technologies like nuclear and carbon capture. Even the Obama administration’s mid-century strategy shows otherwise.

But for the spectacle of dueling U.S. factions, COP 23 has been largely uneventful, with work on the Paris rulebook grinding along slowly but steadily. Continued progress over the next 12 months will be essential. And the more critical moment will be COP 24, when decisions on the rulebook are due, and whether the U.S. is in or out may prove more decisive.