China Rises in U.N. Climate Talks, While U.S. Goes AWOL
As the global body becomes increasingly identified with tackling climate change, Trump refuses to take part, handing the reins to Beijing.
In a bid to slow the pace of global warming, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres has invited major powers, including Britain, China, India, France, and Turkey, to help shape the environmental agenda at a major U.N. climate summit in New York in September. The United States, which the U.N. encouraged to participate, has yet to say whether it will attend the high-level meeting and has opted out of the preliminary negotiations—leaving it to others, including rivals like Beijing, to write the rules.
The absence of U.S. negotiators from the U.N. talks risks undercutting the White House’s effort at the U.N. to contain the rise of China, which has taken the lead in several forums on environmental issues. With Washington on the sidelines, Beijing—at Guterres’s invitation—will co-chair discussions at the U.N. with New Zealand on “nature-based solutions” to global warming, including management of forests, rivers, lakes, and oceans.
“By staying out of these negotiations, the U.S. is basically giving Beijing a free pass,” Richard Gowan, a U.N. expert at the International Crisis Group, told Foreign Policy. “So much of the current effort to contain China at the U.N. boils down to bickering over language in not very important resolutions. I think the Trump administration is missing the big picture, which is that for a lot of countries climate diplomacy is the most important part of what the U.N. does.”
The moves come as the United States has stepped up a diplomatic campaign to stall the march of international progress on diplomatic measures to curb the rise of greenhouse gases that are warming the earth. The White House has selected a climate change doubter to lead a commission to scrutinize a raft of U.S. and international studies detailing the impact a warmer climate is having on the Earth. In an Arctic Council meeting this week in Rovaniemi, Finland, the United States blocked the international body from even mentioning climate change in a final outcome declaration.
Speaking at the meeting, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made no mention of climate change and instead touted “new opportunities for trade” presented by the melting of the polar ice caps.
He also warned of geopolitical and security challenges in the Arctic, calling out Russia’s military build-up in the region and warning China “could use its civilian research presence in the Arctic to strengthen its military presence.”
The U.N., meanwhile, has been serving up a raft of studies detailing the alarming risk posed by climate change, which has been accelerating at a pace unforeseen by previous forecasts and bringing with it more violent wildfires, storms, and flooding across the globe. On Monday, the U.N. warned that 1 million animal and plant species are threatened with extinction. For now, climate change is only the third key contributor to the decimation of biodiversity, behind unsustainable sea and land use practices and the overexploitation of organisms. But the impact of climate change on biodiversity is growing and will in some cases surpass the threat posed by human exploitation of sea and land.
It was the latest report to land with a noiseless thud in Washington, where President Donald Trump has continued espousing skeptical views of climate change despite the dire warnings from the U.N., the U.S. military, and scientists in his own government. It has left foreign delegates frustrated by the administration’s dismissal of the mounting body of scientific evidence that is screaming at policymakers to act to address the Earth’s health.
“Warnings based on science deserve to be taken seriously,” said Kai Sauer, Finland’s U.N. ambassador. “Early warning and prevention have become essential functions of today’s U.N. Previously, this was predominantly the case in the field of peace and security, but today increasingly in areas such as development, climate change, and, most recently, biodiversity.”
“The disappearance of biodiversity is, with climate change, another existential threat to humanity,” France’s U.N. ambassador, François Delattre, told Foreign Policy. “What does it take for the awareness of this man-made tragedy, a kind of genesis in reverse, to cross the beltway?”
Paul Bodnar, a former senior National Security Council aide on energy and climate change under former President Barack Obama’s administration, said such warnings aren’t likely to gain much traction in Trump’s Washington.
“If there’s no mechanism in the interagency [process] to elevate these issues, it tends to go nowhere, unless there’s some international shaming, or if a foreign leader raises it with Trump or Pompeo,” said Bodnar, now a managing director at the Rocky Mountain Institute, a nonprofit that studies clean energy. “It is all, at the end of the day, a function of what the president cares about. I don’t think it’s any surprise biodiversity and environmental protection are not at the top of the president’s priority list.”
A State Department spokesperson insisted that “[d]espite the global situation, the United States has a good story to tell” on environmental conservation. “The United States is one of the largest bilateral and multilateral donors to nature conservation, spending more than $400 million annually to support biodiversity conservation worldwide, and billions more at home,” the spokesperson said.
The latest report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services cites five key causes of the collapse of Earth biodiversity: changes in land and sea use, exploitation of organisms, climate change, pollution, and invasive species.
The report, the most comprehensive study ever produced on biodiversity, drew on the work of 145 experts from 50 countries. “Ecosystems, species, wild populations, local varieties and breeds of domesticated plants and animals are shrinking, deteriorating or vanishing. The essential, interconnected web of life on Earth is getting smaller and increasingly frayed,” Josef Settele of Germany, one of three co-chairs of the assessment, said in a statement released with the report. “This loss is a direct result of human activity and constitutes a direct threat to human well-being in all regions of the world.”
In April, 13 U.S. federal agencies released a major report confirming that climate change was already contributing to deadlier wildfires and hurricanes, and it could shave off hundreds of billions of dollars from some sectors of the economy by the end of the century.
The U.N. issued its own landmark report last October warning that the global climate is expected to increase by 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of 2040, a level that would accelerate droughts, increase food shortages, and cost the world tens of trillions of dollars in lost economic production.
The White House has responded to these reports with a mix of mockery and contempt, critics say. Earlier this year, the White House made preparations to set up a new committee to challenge scientific reports claiming that climate change is man-made. The commission would reportedly be chaired by William Happer, an emeritus Princeton University physicist with no formal training in climate science, who has likened the “demonization” of carbon dioxide to the treatment of Jews under Adolph Hitler.
“The Trump administration has a track record of ignoring science,” said Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, the chief program officer for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “We see, even when it’s the U.S. natural systems and communities on the front line of harm on climate change and other types of devastation, the Trump administration is ready to do nothing. Even more than doing nothing, they are actively working every day to undermine bedrock environmental protections in place for years.”
The Obama administration put climate change at the front and center of its diplomacy, crafting the landmark 2015 Paris climate agreement that outlined ambitious country-by-country plans to curb global carbon emissions.
The Trump administration began dismantling those efforts as soon as it took over, beginning by drastically watering down language on climate change on the State Department’s website and culminating in Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement in June 2017.
His nominee as U.N. ambassador, Kelly Knight Craft, a wealthy Republican donor who served as Trump’s envoy to Canada, has downplayed the international consensus that human activity is fueling global warming, saying that “both sides of the science” had merit on climate change debate.
In an effort to maintain momentum on climate, the U.N. chief in March called on world leaders, business leaders, local governments, and others to convene at the U.N. headquarters on Sept. 23. “I am telling leaders: ‘In September, please don’t come with a speech; come with a plan,’” Guterres said.
The conference will try to secure agreements to take some form of action on six major areas: promoting a global transition to renewable energy; making urban infrastructure more resilient in the face of extreme weather; encouraging the sustainable management of forests, agriculture, and oceans; aiding countries vulnerable to global warming to adapt to the new realities; and securing public and private financing to address the major challenges posed by climate.
The U.N. has invited more than a dozen key countries, including Britain, Egypt, Ethiopia, France, India, Turkey, and Qatar, to lead international negotiations on several significant issues, including carbon pricing schemes, financing for renewable energies, and the development of resilient urban infrastructure.
“We can no longer wait for one country to lead the way on climate,” said one U.N. official. “The key is for all actors to understand they have the capacity and responsibility to do something. We need to change the way we consume and we produce. There is a need for transformational change.”
The State Department has sidelined efforts to address climate change and left the career professionals working on the issue in Foggy Bottom without clear guidance on what to do, according to a Government Accountability Office report published in January. “State changed its approach in 2017, no longer providing missions with guidance on whether and how to include climate change risks in their integrated country strategies,” the report read.
Ahead of the Arctic Council meeting this week, the Trump administration pushed to strip all references to climate change or the Paris climate agreement from the international body’s joint statement, according to the Washington Post. Pompeo defended the decision in an interview with ABC News’ Jonathan Karl on Sunday ahead of his trip to Finland for the Arctic Council meeting, casting doubt on the effectiveness of the Paris climate deal.
“We don’t think that that has any hope of being successful. We’ve seen it. We’ve seen America reduce its carbon footprint while the signatories, including China, haven’t done theirs,” he said.
China is still the world’s largest consumer of coal, and its total carbon emissions increased last year, despite a pledge to pour hundreds of billions of dollars into renewable energy in the coming years.
Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch