This post is authored by Lindsay Iversen, associate director for climate and resources at the Council on Foreign Relations' Greenberg Center for Geoeconomic Studies. You can follow her on twitter @lindsayiversen.
The latest UN climate summit will click into higher gear this week as senior leaders converge on Bonn, Germany. This year’s summit is not expected to have the fireworks and fanfare of Paris, where a major agreement was reached in 2015. There, 196 signatories offered national pledges outlining how they would reduce emissions and agreed a framework for increasing emissions reductions over time. Many of the specifics, such as the data countries would need to report to demonstrate progress, or what expectations would be for raising ambition, were left for future summits. It is these and other details of the Paris rulebook that negotiators are tackling in Bonn.
Since President Donald Trump announced that the United States would leave the Paris accord, world leaders from Beijing to Brussels have gone out of their way to voice their commitment to the deal. But their outspoken support masks a more fragile reality. The Paris deal has barely begun. Already, warning bells are being rung about poor progress toward countries’ initial pledges and the uncomfortable fact that those pledges don’t come anywhere near to fulfilling the Paris agreement’s stated goal of keeping overall warming to 2 degrees Celsius above the historical baseline. Small, developing countries signed up for Paris because they believed major countries’ assurances that they would work hard to achieve the 2 degree limit. For committed signatories, preserving that tenuous trust is essential to the survival of the deal.
How the United States behaves at the Bonn summit will be important to the deliberations and to the Paris accord’s future. Despite the fanfare with which Trump announced the U.S. exit, the United States remains a formal member of the accord until 2020. It holds leadership positions in critical working groups at the Bonn talks, and it is still a critical voice in the consensus-based negotiating structure. It will be difficult enough to reach agreement on the Paris rulebook without the United States playing the kind of constructive role it did under the Obama administration. If the United States chooses to play a negative role, it could do serious damage not just to this summit but also to the entire Paris rulemaking enterprise.
This is not an idle concern; there is precedent for this sort of outcome. At a meeting of G7 health ministers that wrapped up earlier this month in Milan, the United States was a diffident participant until the last days of the meeting. It then introduced a number of new, hardline demands—striking all references to climate change in the draft communique, for instance, and refusing to endorse a clause supporting the Paris accord. The U.S. posture horrified other ministers. As one European negotiator told BuzzFeed News, “As with the rest of the G7 process, the United States didn’t engage for months. And now, just this week, they have erected a wall and came back with extreme positions.” The tactic was an effective one, however. The final communique uses the phrase climate change only once, and only as part of the proper name of the Bonn summit. Though the links between climate change and public health were ostensibly a core part of the meeting, the final communique said simply, “We acknowledge our discussions on impact of the climate and environmental-related factors on health.”
There are some indications the United States will not repeat an obstructionist tone in Bonn. A controversial U.S.-sponsored side event on the benefits of coal and other fossil fuels was led by mid-level officials rather than recognizable administration figures. And, the U.S. negotiating team is led by career diplomats with experience in climate talks. The small delegation has kept a low profile so far, easing the fears of many climate hawks that the U.S. team would seek to undermine the summit, but the final outcome remains to be seen.
President Trump returned this week from Asia to a Washington no less chaotic or politically toxic than the one he left. Domestic woes may leave the president anxious for a base-riling gambit. The temptation to be destructive in Bonn could be high.
Supporters of the deal should do all they can to avoid that outcome, encouraging the political leadership in Washington to stay out of the fray. The president, even as he announced the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris accord, indicated that he was open to the United States returning if the terms of the deal changed. Though Bonn negotiators seem unlikely to adopt the administration’s fossil fuel-friendly domestic agenda, keeping a low profile and an open door will be beneficial to the administration if it is serious about seeking better terms in the future. That strategy avoids needlessly antagonizing diplomatic partners now and preserves options for the United States should new developments make the Paris agreement more attractive later. And, given that 71% of Americans—including 57% of Republicans—support the accord, remaining at least neutral during the Bonn talks could come in handy during the 2018 mid-term or 2020 Presidential elections.
For now, barring a change in policy or a change in U.S. leadership, Paris is a deal for other countries—the signatories that have stood by their commitments and are continuing the work of bringing them to fruition. The Trump administration has repeated its assertion that it has nothing to gain from Paris and has no intention of participating in the accord as constituted. If the United States cannot be a constructive participant in the Bonn discussions, it should have the courage of its convictions and stay out of the way of others interested in doing so. It should heed the timeless medical pledge: First, do no harm.