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Did U.S. Negotiators Actually Accomplish Something in Bonn?

European observers say that the Department of State's delegation helped drive progress in some key areas of the COP23 talks.
A mock-up of Earth is displayed at Rheinaue Park during the 2017 COP23 climate talks in Bonn, Germany.

A mock-up of Earth is displayed at Rheinaue Park during the 2017 COP23 climate talks in Bonn, Germany. 

Keeping 197 countries under the big tent of the Paris Agreement was never going to be easy, and when the Trump administration repudiated the agreement last spring, some climate policy observers worried that the deal to limit global warming might crumble without the United States.

But progress toward implementing the agreement at last month's COP23 in Bonn, Germany, shows that the United Nations climate diplomacy framework remains resilient, several climate policy experts told Pacific Standard as the latest round of talks came to an end. There was no sign that the Department of State officials attending the talks wanted to impede or slow the proceedings, these experts said.

The Department of State declined to make officials available for interviews during and after the Bonn talks, directing inquiries instead to Office of the Special Envoy for Climate Change website, where there's still a statement crediting the office with having led the negotiations around the Paris Agreement, as well as the text of a statement by U.S. envoy Judith G. Garber, an acting undersecretary in the Department of State.

U.S. Negotiators Flying 'Under the Radar'

Department of State negotiators, including several climate diplomats who helped shape the Paris Agreement, were still part of the U.S. team this year, and at COP23 they helped advance the process of establishing more transparency for reporting progress toward global greenhouse gas reduction targets, says Camilla Born, a climate policy analyst with E3G, a London-based think tank.

"The U.S. was isolated, the negotiators flew under the radar, and they were helpful in their technical capacity," says Born, who observed the U.S. delegation during transparency talks in Bonn. "The U.S. has some brilliant technical expertise to bring to the table, and their mandate hasn't really changed at that level."

The climate talks are two-tiered. Technical negotiators work on nuts and bolts in the early sessions, then policy officials try to turn those into desired outcomes at the political level, when ministers meet during the final days of the conference. What's different now is that the U.S. technical team doesn't have support at the policy level, which weakens the U.S. position overall, according to Born.

In addition to the Department of State diplomats working on technical details, the U.S. was represented by a separate, White House-led team that tried to promote fossil fuels at a side event, and by a third delegation made up of state, city, and business officials, the We Are Still In team.

The schizophrenic U.S. approach to climate policy may be disconcerting, but Born says there's little chance the U.S. could derail the global climate deal in the next few years. The rest of the world learned its lesson during the early years of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, when the U.S. first helped shape, but then failed to ratify, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol: American inaction is no excuse for global dithering.

The multilateral approach adopted since then helps ensure that the process grinds on more or less independent of any individual country's actions, an approach enshrined in the Paris Agreement, including the relatively long lead time (four years) for withdrawal, which has buffered the effects of the Trump administration's withdrawal announcement.

"With the withdrawal announcement, the world rallied," Born says. "I would be incredibly surprised if the U.S. would be able to block an entire global process that represents millions of citizens. They can engage in battles, and keep space open ... to re-engage at some point in the future."

'A Big Blind Date'

Far from disrupting the talks, some of the U.S. diplomats sent signals that there are still people to be trusted in the American climate camp, according to Susanne Dröge, a climate policy analyst at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, who debriefed some German negotiators after COP23.

"It was big blind date, because nobody knew what was coming. I spoke with German negotiators just before the talks, and nobody was sure how [the Americans] would behave," says Dröge, referring to concerns about potential disruptions ahead of the conference. "And in other ways, it was like a kid's birthday party. They want to be there, but they don't want to join in all the games."

Dröge echoes Born's observation that, even though the White House has done a 180 on climate policy, the U.S. team on the ground maintained its traditional positions on key areas like transparency.

"It's an old battle with the Chinese: The U.S. demands more data, measurements that are transparent. The Chinese decline. It's a tech and political issue. It's not risky for them to negotiate on that, and it's one of the key issues that has to be decided on," Dröge says.

David Waskow, director of the International Climate Initiative at the World Resources Institute, also watched parts of several Bonn sessions that involved the U.S. delegation. He says their positioning was consistent with that of recent delegations, including the American climate stance under President Barack Obama.

On transparency, the U.S. teamed with China to work toward rules that strengthen the role of data, while maintaining some flexibility and taking into account the different levels of resources available in developed and developing countries, Waskow says.

Most encouraging, says Waskow, is that the rest of the world isn't waiting around.

"Other countries are ready to take up the mantle of leadership. It's more diverse now, not reliant on a single country, or two countries," he says. "What we're seeing is a multi-polar approach to how we go about climate action on the ground."