Three years ago, most of the world’s nations signed onto the Paris Climate Agreement, which committed countries to do their best to avert a climate catastrophe. Well, things are different now–especially in the United States. President Donald Trump has vowed to take the U.S. out of the deal, but the vast majority of countries are still in it, and they met recently in Poland at the United Nation’s annual climate conference to discuss it. NPR’s Rebecca Hersher was there, and Reid Frazier spoke with her to learn more for an upcoming episode of our podcast, Trump on Earth.
Hersher said the big achievement at the meetings was a rule book for countries to follow to meet the terms of the Paris agreement. It may not be the most exciting accomplishment, she said, but it’s important.
Rebecca Hersher: The Paris agreement is just a bunch of promises until you have rules that everyone can agree on for how you measure your carbon emissions and how you report those measurements to each other. For example, some countries–like China–are really private about their economies. Maybe they don’t want to tell the U.S., and every other country on earth, lots of details about exactly where their industry is, and what kind of fuels that industry is using, and how much carbon is being emitted.
Well, these rules say there’s a certain amount of technical detail that every country has to use so that we can compare apples to apples, and hold each other accountable. That may not sound like a big deal, but it took two full weeks of negotiation–often by the highest levels of government–sitting in a room, hashing it out, trying to figure out what they could agree on.
Reid Frazier: So since Paris, we obviously had an election. President Trump vowed to take the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement, and he’s made it clear that he’s been very skeptical of climate science. So what did the U.S. delegation do or say at the conference this year?
Rebecca Hersher: The U.S. did basically two contradictory things. On one hand, representatives led by an official from the White House, did a side event where they talked about the future of fossil fuels, namely coal and nuclear–mostly coal. The event was basically about how making coal technology release fewer greenhouse gases is an important part of the overall global energy mix. If you ask the people on the panel, coal is going to be burned all over the world for many years to come, like it or not. And so making it release fewer greenhouse gases, either by capturing them at the source when it’s burned or sequestering them after they’re burned–that’s going to be a big part of reducing overall greenhouse gas emissions globally.
That was not a particularly welcome message at this conference. This was a conference, theoretically, about big, bold, global multilateral agreements to totally transition the world economy away from fossil fuels. So a side event hosted by the Trump administration that talks about how great coal is was not that popular.
Reid Frazier: Is this the one where there were hecklers in the audience?
Rebecca Hersher: Exactly. At least half the audience was made up of a protest group who got up, yelled at the panelists, and eventually marched out after disrupting the proceedings.
But the other thing the Trump administration was doing was negotiating the rulebook, the same as every other country. Because even though President Trump has said that the U.S. intends to withdraw from the 2015 Paris agreement, there is a waiting period. And it’s designed to protect against exactly this scenario. You sign a big agreement; and then there’s an election; and the new person doesn’t agree with it…well, there’s this cooling off period where the new person can’t immediately pull out.
And, as a result, we had State Department negotiators working on those rules for how different countries will count their emissions, and how different countries will communicate with each other about those emissions. By all accounts, those negotiators–who are career people–we’re acting in pretty much the same way the U.S. has in past years. They’re known for being pretty tough negotiators, for really pushing for transparency, for example. And that was no different this year.