Trump Team Pushes Fossil Fuels at Climate Talks. Protests Erupt, but Allies Emerge, Too.
Posted December 10, 2018 3:28 p.m. EST
KATOWICE, Poland — Trump administration officials at high-stakes climate talks here offered an unapologetic defense of fossil fuels Monday, arguing that a rapid retreat from coal, oil and gas was unrealistic.
While that stance brought scorn from environmentalists and countries that favor stronger action to fight global warming, there are signs that the administration is finding a receptive audience among other major fossil-fuel producers, including Russia, Saudi Arabia and Australia.
President Donald Trump’s international energy and climate adviser, Wells Griffith, hosted a panel discussion on fossil fuels at the U.N. conference, arguing that the developing world would be heavily reliant on coal, oil and gas for some time and that it was in the world’s interest to find more efficient ways of developing and burning those fuels.
Midway through, the panel was interrupted by scores of noisy protesters, who chanted, “Shame on you!” and “Keep it in the ground!” Griffith responded that the administration’s policy on fossil fuels like coal “is not to keep it in the ground, it’s to use it in a way that is clean and efficient.”
Also on the panel was Patrick Suckling, Australia’s ambassador for the environment, who agreed that “fossil fuels are projected to be a major source of energy for a significant time to come.” He spoke in favor of technology for capturing carbon dioxide from coal plants and burying it, and noted that such technology could be exported.
The public endorsement of fossil fuels came just days after the Trump administration helped to block the U.N. climate conference from embracing the findings of a major scientific report on global warming.
The United States — along with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Russia — refused to allow a collective statement that would “welcome” the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, which detailed a variety of strategies for cutting global fossil-fuel emissions roughly in half by 2030 in order to avoid many dangerous climate impacts.
Instead, the countries, all major oil and gas exporters, demanded the conference only “note” the existence of the report and thank the scientists for their work.
While the difference between welcoming and noting a report might seem slight, in the world of diplomacy it essentially means the difference between endorsement and neutrality. The 2015 Paris Agreement almost fell apart in a feud over the words “should” versus “shall.”
In seeking to water down the language adopting the IPCC report, delegates said, the Trump administration sent a powerful message that it not only rejects the Paris Agreement but also the scientific underpinning of the international climate change negotiations itself.
“I don’t see any reason why any government or country can deny what the science says,” said Amjad Abdulla of the Maldives, chief negotiator for a bloc of island nations known as the Alliance of Small Island States. “It sends a very bad signal.”
The IPCC report forecast what would happen if average global temperatures rose by 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, over preindustrial levels and warned “there is no documented historic precedent” for the scale of changes needed to avoid the worst damage. Ever since Trump announced last year he would pull the United States out of the Paris Agreement, observers have been watching for signs that America’s disavowal of the pact could encourage other countries to slacken their own efforts at cutting emissions.
A recent report by the Institute of International and European Affairs found that last year, American banks invested more heavily in coal and oil from tar sands while renewable energy investments have sagged globally, a reversal of the trends seen shortly after the Paris Agreement was signed in 2015.
“It’s hard to draw a direct cause and effect, but we know that investors do pay close attention to political signals,” said Joseph Curtin, a senior fellow at the institute and the author of its report. “The Paris Agreement sent a strong signal that carbon-intensive investments were risky. Now we’re seeing signals the other way.”
The United States’ alignment with Kuwait, Russia and particularly Saudi Arabia also injected a new dynamic that several diplomats said they found worrisome. Saudi Arabia in particular has long been accused of outright obstruction in the climate talks. Several diplomats said seeing America standing with Saudi Arabia in rejecting science was shocking.
“The U.S. along with Saudi Arabia are playing a clear and calculated spoiling role in the climate change negotiations,” said Ian Fry, the lead negotiator for Tuvalu. He called the countries’ official indifference to the IPCC report “truly disturbing.”
Others noted that the United States and Saudi Arabia remained at odds on a number of issues, like whether developed and developing countries should be held to the same transparency standards for meeting emissions-cutting goals, and dismissed the idea that the countries were working together in a coordinated way to derail the negotiations.
George David Banks, a former White House energy adviser in the Trump administration, said the shared position of the United States and Saudi Arabia on the IPCC report merely reflected their mutual energy interests and concerns about a growing international movement around divestment and the rejection of fossil fuels in response to climate change.
“The United States and Saudi Arabia both have abundant resources of fossil energy,” Banks said. “When you have a Republican administration that supports energy dominance as a foreign policy goal, it makes sense for the United States to take the position that happens to align with the Saudis.”
The disagreement over the IPCC report may have helped to fundamentally alter the perception of what role the United States intends to play in the negotiations from now on under the Trump administration.
Climate diplomats have generally operated over the past year with the understanding that, while Trump has vowed to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement and takes every opportunity to publicly denounce the accord, the administration was not actively seeking to undermine it or persuade other countries to also reject it.
Yet at the Group of 20 talks in Buenos Aires, Argentina, this year, where the United States was the lone holdout on a statement reiterating nations’ support for the Paris Agreement, a senior White House official made a point of noting that Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Russia also expressed doubts about staying in the accord. “You’re seeing a little bit of the coalition fraying,” the administration official said in a background briefing. In the meantime, the United States has also sent a State Department delegation to Poland to help negotiate with other countries over details for a “rule book” that will allow the Paris Agreement to become operational. Behind the scenes, State Department negotiators have continued to press countries like China and India on issues like adopting stricter transparency measures — a delicate task, some analysts say, given the Trump administration’s public stance on the agreement.
“I think the U.S. doesn’t have a huge amount of direct influence right now because of President Trump’s position,” said Nigel Purvis, a top environmental negotiator under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush and chief executive of Climate Advisers, a consulting firm.
“But the U.S. negotiators are highly respected and experienced, and people understand that the perspectives they have on requiring more transparency from China, India and others are the same perspectives that any future administration would likely have,” he added. “So countries are still taking them seriously.”