Still uncertain, but still distracting: The US under Trump at the UN climate negotiations

A year ago, the hallways at the United Nations climate change negotiations in Marrakesh, Morocco, were hushed as thousands of delegates from around the world processed the news of Donald Trump’s election. There was dismay, but also much uncertainty about the direction the new president would take the 27-year effort to combat climate change. Now, the end of this year’s negotiations in Bonn, Germany, have offered a moment of reflection on where the U.S. stands on climate change under Trump.

Last year, I wrote that we’d have to wait to see which Trump would govern, the “showman” candidate who hurled insults at opponents and famously tweeted that climate change was a hoax invented by the Chinese, or the “famous negotiator,” who keeps people guessing what direction he’ll go until he’s able to strike a deal. There was genuine uncertainty at the time, but honestly it was a desperate search for a small thread of hope that led me to ask the question in the first place.

At home, on climate change and the environment, the showman has governed. He has set loose Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt to purge government webpages of climate change information and to roll back efforts on the issue. Career scientists in the agency are demoralized, as he attempts to slash programs and even gag researchers when they attempt to talk about their climate change findings. But at other times, there is a more moderate approach, like the lack of muzzling of the scientists who wrote the National Climate Assessment, a dire review of current and likely future impacts in our country.

In the complex international politics of climate change, the world is still waiting for the other shoe to drop, and it appears that the latter Trump, the “negotiator,” may be governing. It seemed that everyone except his domestic base was shocked by Trump’s June 1 Rose Garden speech in which he said he’d withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement unless he could negotiate a replacement for the “bad deal.” That speech galvanized thousands of companies, universities, cities and states in the U.S., and every other nation around the world, who declared they were “still in” Paris and dedicated to moving forward.

The confounding fact remained for the Trump administration, given how the Paris Agreement was set, they would not be able to formally withdraw until four years after its adoption. That date, as former Vice President Al Gore reminded crowds at the talks this week, would be exactly one day after the 2020 presidential elections. And then an erstwhile elected president could merely signal that the country would not, in fact, be withdrawing.

Now nearly six months after the Rose Garden speech, and a full year after the election, the Trump administration is sending even more confusing messages on climate change. At the U.N. negotiations in Bonn, the U.S. had not been the bomb-thrower many feared. Through two weeks of negotiations in May and now two weeks in November, the U.S. technical team took a very cooperative approach, adding elements when it was useful and not taking highly obstructionist positions. Their focus was largely on transparency rules, which have the benefit of setting the stage for the U.S. to re-enter in the future. There have been inevitable conflicts with developing countries on issues of expectations of their efforts and on funding to help them deal with “loss and damage” of climate impacts, but these were almost exactly along the lines taken by the Obama administration before them.

Two political appointees from the U.S., White House Adviser George D. Banks and Adviser to the Vice President Francis Brooke, arrived Monday for a side event propounding the value of clean coal, nuclear, and other technologies in assisting the transition in the real world energy system. Their event was met with a massive protest and walkout by largely American youth, but the officials did not lash out at the protesters or the U.N. process as a whole. Banks never disputed the science of climate change, but clarified that “when the president looks at the Paris Agreement and climate policies in general, he looks through the lens of what effect does this have on manufacturing and competitiveness.”

Judith Garber, a career State Department official, stepped in for several other White House officials who canceled their visit to give the “high level” speech for the U.S.  To many people’s surprise, Garber’s address did not mention “clean, beautiful coal” (in the president’s words), and most surprisingly promised to help other countries “adapt to the impacts of climate change.” This is potentially a major olive branch to countries in the developing world that are facing devastating impacts from this problem they played very little role in creating.

So while at home he’s dismantling climate efforts, at the end of the 2017 U.N. climate negotiations we are left again with the question of which Trump will govern. Apparently seeing few results from his approach of insulting and deriding other nations—and the Paris Agreement they carefully crafted and agreed to—has left an uncertain president who has moved on to other issues. With his attention last week drawn to a marathon trip to Asia, we did not see the showman candidate emerge on Twitter or in outbursts on climate change. But neither have we seen anything of the negotiator. A year after the shock of the election nations absorbed in Marrakesh, the world continues to wait for the other shoe to drop.