At the UN climate talks, U.S. leadership comes from an unexpected place

But that doesn't mean that the United States won't have a voice in Bonn.

(CREDIT: AP Photo/Martin Meissner)
(CREDIT: AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

When nearly 200 countries came together in Paris in December of 2015 — to hash out the details for what would become the historic Paris climate agreement — the presence of the United States was unmistakable: then-President Barack Obama attended the conferences opening ceremonies, and then-Secretary of State John Kerry was on site for the duration of the two-week negotiations.

But two years makes a world of difference, as the 23rd United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change kicks off this week in Bonn, Germany. The two-week conference — where participating nations hope to hammer out the details of exactly how to implement the Paris agreement — takes place as the United States has ceded the world stage on climate action, an attitude typified by the Trump administration’s decision to officially announce its intent to withdraw from the agreement in June.

This time, neither President Donald Trump nor the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will attend the event. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt will be stateside, speaking at an American Chemistry Council board retreat. The highest-ranking United States representative in Bonn will be longtime career diplomat Thomas Shannon, whose presence — rather than a political appointee or administration official — suggests that the United States is hoping to keep a relatively low-profile at the talks this year.

“We’re expecting, and frankly hoping, that the U.S. is quiet,” Jake Schmidt, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s international program, said on a press call last week. “That will, by itself be a huge shift from years past where the U.S. was, if not the center, one of the key central figures in delivering climate action.”

For many climate and environmental activists, a sidelined United States would be a best-case scenario for the conference. Far more worrying would be a Trump administration actively engaged in the talks, which activists worry could derail attempts to push nations to adopt deeper emissions cuts. But the Trump administration has signaled at least a minor interest in potentially playing spoiler to the UNFCCC’s focus on renewable energy as the path forward towards implementing and achieving the kinds of emissions reductions set forth in the Paris agreement: according to the New York Times, the administration is planning to promote coal, natural gas, and nuclear power “as an answer to climate change” at a presentation scheduled for November 13.


“This discussion is a follow-up to the Administration’s success at the G20, where the United States expressed its support for helping countries meet their climate objectives through the use of cleaner and more efficient fossil fuels and other clean energy sources and technologies,” White House spokesman Raj Shah said in a statement. “It is undeniable that fossil fuels will be used for the foreseeable future, and it is in everyone’s interest that they be efficient and clean. Through innovation, the United States continues to be a global leader in cutting carbon emissions.”

But if the Trump administration’s role will be limited to sideline diplomatic negotiations and a single presentation on fossil fuels, a bevy of city and state leaders are hoping to send a louder message to the international leaders assembled in Bonn — one that reasserts the United States as a climate leader, just without the help of the federal government.

U.S. businesses, cities, will be attending COP 23 in a unified delegation and working together to accelerate climate action back home,” Lou Leonard, senior vice president of the World Wildlife Fund’s Climate and Energy Program, said on a press call last week. “These U.S. subnational leaders are going to pick up the torch and the responsibility that would normally fall to the federal government, and they will organize and hold a pavilion and tell their stories and show the world that the U.S. can still be counted on as a trusted partner to reduce emissions.”

Subnational leaders aren’t allowed to negotiate on behalf of the United States; the Paris agreement is made up of nationally determined contributions, or NDCs, which are pledges that individual countries have made with respect to cutting their emissions and transitioning to renewable energy. But city, state, and business leaders can still exert influence at the talks, akin to a kind of soft diplomatic power. Showing how American cities and states are pressing forward with climate action could inspire national leaders — especially major players like India and China — to step up their own commitments to climate action in spite of the Trump administration’s backsliding.


As drivers of the economy in the United States and around the world, businesses, cities, and other subnational governments have a crucial role in accelerating our transformation towards renewable energy and zeroing out fossil fuels,” Leonard said. “It will be powerful to have those leaders from the United States there to speak for themselves at the talks.”

Since June, when Trump officially announced his intention to formally withdraw the United States from the Paris agreement, local leaders like former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) have worked to form a designated coalition of cities, states, and businesses committed to reducing their emissions in line with the United States’ commitments under the Paris agreement (26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025).

The big news out of Bonn, from the subnational perspective, will likely come this weekend, when Bloomberg and Brown are set to unveil the first analysis of how close subnational commitments could come to bridging the gap between the United States’ Paris commitments and current action. A previous report, released in September, found that current commitments from cities, states, and businesses could bring the United States halfway to fulfilling its Paris goal, but the analysis to be released on Saturday will be the first to track, in real-time, the impact these pledges are having on U.S. national carbon emissions. Bloomberg and Brown will present the analysis to UNFCCC Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa.

“While the White House declares war on climate science and retreats from the Paris Agreement, California is doing the opposite and taking action,” Brown said in a press statement released Monday. “We are joining with our partners from every part of the world to do what needs to be done to prevent irreversible climate change.”