The U.S. keeps causing trouble at a crucial climate change summit

Here's everything you need to know about COP24.
carbon emissions
Carbon emissions are up again. Here's why. Deposit Photos

This post has been updated.

World leaders are meeting this week for COP24, a key United Nations climate change conference being held this year in Katowice, Poland. They’re working on the implementation plan for the 2015 agreement, AKA the Paris Agreement, to keep warming below two degrees Celsius. United States President Donald Trump is notably absent from this conference, since he pulled the U.S. out of the agreement last year. But whatever happens in Poland will have consequences that the United States will certainly feel. (Find out how your region will be affected by climate change in this piece we published last week.) Here are the highlights, which we’ll be updating throughout the conference:

Friday, December 14

Negotiators from almost 200 countries who signed the Paris Agreement in 2015 have reached a draft rulebook for implementing that agreement—but stakeholders are calling for more. Talks are spilling over into the weekend.

Writing the rulebook

After two weeks of negotiating, ministers are still pushing to produce a finalized draft rulebook, Reuters reports. “On Friday evening, there was more optimism than in the morning that compromises could be made to make the text acceptable to all parties.”

After such a long negotiation, delegates are understandably tired. But they’re continuing to push and there seems to be some momentum.

“High Ambition Coalition” wants more

A coalition of nations including countries from the EU, Canada, Costa Rica, and many small island nations emerged midweek calling for a more ambitious rulebook than that which was being discussed. At a press conference on Friday, this “High Ambition Coalition” advocated for three things from COP24: putting the IPCC report front and center, planning to increase ambition in future, and “a rulebook that will fully implement all aspects of the Paris Agreement and lead to ambition,” writes CNN.

Everybody’s working on the weekend

“Anticipating the need for more debate, organizers prepared to extend the meeting, which was supposed to end Friday, into Sunday,” writes AP. The issues include whether or not to “welcome” the IPCC report or merely “note” it, something that has been playing out over the week, and rules about everything from emissions reduction to financing, writes CNN.

They hope to reach an agreement in Katowice, Poland on Saturday. A goal of the rules is to provide a framework within which countries need to make a plan to reduce emissions and begin putting it into action. The deadline for those national plans would be the next COP in 2020. The rules would also set down guidelines for things like how to report emissions and how funds could be redistributed to nations disproportionately feeling the effects of climate change.

Thursday, December 13

At this point, the talks’ outcome is up in the air. The Paris rulebook is supposed to be together by Friday, with ambitious targets and rules to get there.

Most vulnerable countries speak out

Island nations who are the most vulnerable to climate change because they could be swamped by rising oceans have spoken out in the face of inaction in Kasowice, Poland on Wednesday and Thursday, writes Max Rosenthal for The Washington Post.

“These smaller states had major industrialized nations on their side in 2015, when the Paris climate agreement was signed,” writes Rosenthal. “But at this year’s summit, those key countries are no longer helping push the small states’ message.” Those key countries include the U.S., whose non-participation in Kasowice has resulted in a “leadership void,” according to another article from the Post.

Secretary-General keeps pushing

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres spoke before attendees on Thursday, calling the talks—and their hopeful outcome, an ambitious Paris rulebook that will keep emissions below 1.5 degrees Celsius and prevent climate change’s most catastrophic effects—”our last best chance to stop runaway climate change.”

“A group of countries including the EU have pledged to enhance their climate plans before 2020, in response to fresch scientific warnings about the dangers of global warming,” writes Josh Gabbatiss for the Independent. “However, other aspects of the talks have seen slow progress, and Mr. Guterres’ return after opening the conference last week was seen as a sign of how fraught the situation had become.”

U.S. speaks

Late Wednesday, the U.S. delegation to COP24 made a long-awaited public statement. Judith G. Garberg, assistant secretary to the State Department’s environment division, “said the United States is planning to help its allies to adapt to climate change,” writes Associated Press. “Unlike scientists and nearly every other speaker at the two-week summit, Garber drew no explicit links between emissions, climate change, and natural disasters.”

Garber also confirmed that the U.S. will withdraw from the Paris Accord unless it gets “terms more favorable to the American people.”

The scientific consensus on climate change is clear: we must reduce carbon emissions to preserve the habitability of our planet. And some experts argue that backing out of the deal is what will harm the American economy—not sticking with it.

“Reducing our commitment to the Paris Agreement, reducing our commitment to the transition to renewable energy, is an act of economic suicide for the United States,” Steve Cohen, the Executive Director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, told Popular Science in 2017. “What it would end up doing, frankly, is reduce America’s influence in the rest of the world. So, what you’d see is, [if] America’s getting out of Paris, China’s going to go and sell renewable energy to Africa. I mean now they’re selling them coal, but soon they’ll be selling them renewable energy because there’ll be more money in it.”

Wednesday, December 12

Talks… are not going great. Take a look:

U.S. is accused of obstructing the talks

The foreign minister of Vanautu, a small Pacific Island nation, said that “the United States and other high carbon dioxide-emitting countries are deliberately frustrating the UN climate summit,” writes Ben Doherty for the Guardian.

“It pains me deeply to have watched the people of the United States and other developed countries across the globe suffering the devastating impacts of climate-induced tragedies, while their professional negotiators are here at COP24 putting red lines through any mention of loss and damage in the Paris guidelines and square brackets around any possibility for truthfully and accurately reporting progress against humanity’s most existential threat,” said Ralph Regenvanu in a speech.

Besides the attempt to produce a rulebook, Regenvanu was talking about something that happened on Saturday: the U.S., along with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Russia, moved to block the welcoming of the IPCC special report on climate change. “Welcoming” the report would give it (and its terrifying findings) a central place in the drafting of the rulebook. That issue will be returned to later in the week, Doherty reports—and it’s likely to slow down the talks.

How much does it matter what countries think?

Between stalling the welcoming of the IPCC report and hosting a pro-fossil fuel event that some called a “sideshow,” the U.S. hasn’t been acting like a world power at these talks. But even if they did come to the table at a later date, they’d have this fact to worry about: “Nobody, even the so-called superpowers, can negotiate with the laws of physics.” Those words were spoken by Jean-Pascal Ypsersele, former IPCC deputy chair. The science of the report is clear, he said according to the Associated Press.

“Ypersele called for the 1.5-degree target—already mentioned in the 2015 Paris accord—to be recognized in the final text,” writes AP. “It’s a question of survival for a large part of humanity, and many other species,” he said.

UN Secretary-General returns to the scene

Just three negotiating days remain to get the Paris rulebook ironed out, and there’s a long way left to go, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said told CNN. Guterres, who opened the conference, flew back to Katowice to try to get things moving. “To waste this opportunity would compromise our last, best chance to stop runaway climate change,” he said. “It would not only be immoral, it would be suicidal.”

Tuesday, December 11

As COP24 delegates work to hash out a rulebook that will put the Paris Agreement into action, some are doubtful they’ll be able to do enough. The big issue? “Ambition,” per Laurent Fabius of France. “Fabius, who presided over the 2015 Paris Agreement, said he would be surprised if there was no deal struck on a rulebook by the end of the week but the level of ambition was an issue,” writes Josh Gabbatiss for the Independent.

Why do we need more ambition?

The IPCC report released in October showed clearly that of the goals set by the the 2015 Paris Agreement—keeping warming below two degrees Celsius, with a stretch goal of keeping warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius—only keeping warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius will prevent what’s been termed “catastrophic climate change.”

In other words: it’s just as bad as they thought in 2015 (in fact, even worse) but the guy who is known as one of the greatest diplomatic voices in getting the Paris Agreement signed thinks 2018’s negotiators aren’t pushing for enough change. “Taking into context recent [scientific] reports we have had, the numbers are bad and we are not on track,” he told reporters according to Gabbatiss. Ambition “is where the negotiations will make or break in the final hours.”

Okay, so how’s that going?

Tuesday saw scientists from the IPCC who authored the report issue stark warnings to delegates—who are different than the delegates who got the first round of stark warnings last week. Hoesung Lee, chair of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the leader of the IPCC study, had this to say, according to The Guardian‘s John Watts:

“The IPCC made a tremendous collective effort to bring you the best scientific knowledge on the subject. We tell you limiting warming to 1.5 C is possible but the window is narrowing… The scientific community has delivered, now it is up to governments to take action.”

What’s the holdup?

A cynical take is that the biggest hurdle is short-term gain, both political and economic. But a more sympathetic lens would show that in the absence of appropriate social safety nets and planning, doing things like taxing carbon (something France is currently facing major protests for doing) can push costs onto people who can’t afford them and don’t understand why they should have to. However, some would say that the so-called “populist backlash” that led to things like Brexit, the election of President Donald Trump, and the “yellow vest” protests ongoing in France is partially a reaction to political systems creating increased wealth disparity, not truly a reaction to measures meant to combat climate change.

Monday, December 10

Today saw the fallout from events over the weekend and the only official United States session to be held as part of COP24. It was heavily protested, and after what happened this weekend, well, the U.S.’s participation in the conference looks like it will remain a black mark on the country’s record at this crucial moment.

Weekend roundup

This weekend, the big news was that an alliance of fossil-fuel promoting countries—the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait—moved to block endorsement of the IPCC special report on climate change. The language that most countries wanted to use was “welcoming” the report, which would give it more prominent status. Welcoming the report would help make it a centerpiece of the talks—and the agreed-upon actions they’re trying to produce, writes the BBC’s Matt McGrath. The U.S. and other countries involved fought for just “noting” the report, which would simply see it filed.

“The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s special report on what would happen if average global temperatures rise by 1.5 C, and how to ensure they don’t go higher, was widely regarded as a wake-up call for policy-makers when it was released in October,” reports the Associated Press.

Nearly all of the countries at the conference—most of the world—supported the move to “welcome” the document, AP reports. But those four nations blocked the welcoming, which would have made the report the benchmark for climate goals going forward.

The IPCC special report was presented at a COP24 session last Tuesday, where authors took questions from national representatives and others, and discussed the report’s findings, as well as the concrete ways forward it showed for reducing emissions.

“Their actions triggered a diplomatic standoff that went on long into Saturday night, and set an ominous tone as ministers arrive for the second week of the climate event,” writes the Independent‘s Josh Gabbatiss.

The only U.S. event at the conference happened Monday—and there were protests

On the heels of Saturday’s refusal, the U.S. administration held its only event at COP24—”aimed at promoting coal and other fossil fuels,” CNN reports. The event, which attracted numerous protestors, featured two Trump administration officials, representatives of Australia’s foreign affairs ministry, “a pro-nuclear and fracking lobbying group, and a natural gas exporter,” reports Earther’s Brian Kahn. The meeting was in line with the administration’s pursuit of “American energy dominance,” a new kind of policy which comes at a time when most of the world is ready to wind down on fossil fuels like coal and oil.

Wait. What was Australia doing at the event?

Most of the people up on stage for the session make sense: they’re affiliated with the current administration. Australia’s presence is likely related to the fact the nation didn’t speak up during the debate over whether to welcome the IPCC report on Saturday.

Friday, December 7

Heading into Saturday and Sunday, when meetings will continue in Katowice (we’ll catch you up on Monday), news is still breaking at COP24 as the world waits to see if leaders will be able to figure out a plan to keep emissions below 1.5 degrees Celsius, and put it into action.

As the U.S. government pulls out, other American representatives step in to fill the void

“Hundreds of U.S. states, cities, businesses, and churches are establishing a presence at the UN climate talks to show that many Americans remain committed to curbing global warming,” writes Josh Gabbatiss for the Independent.

The official government delegation from the United States is “holed up in a cubicle away from the main concourse,” he writes. President Donald Trump has announced plans to pull out of the Paris Accord entirely. Taking the place of an official presence alongside other nations that are exhibiting national innovation and doing advocacy is a the “U.S. Climate Action Center.”

What is the U.S. Climate Action Center?

The U.S. Climate Action Center is run by a large coalition of for-profit and nonprofit organizations known as We Are Still In. After a kickoff event today, the schedule of events for the next week hosted by the Center includes sessions on “harnessing the power of nature” as well as numerous business-focused sessions on subjects like “public-private cooperation advancing climate ambition,” “U.S. corporate corporate climate leaders: transforming the future,” and “scaling climate ambition through sustainable agriculture.”

What is We Are Still In?

It describes itself as “a bottom-up network, supported by many individuals and organizations.” Organization “ambassadors,” as listed on its website, come from businesses, universities, churches and municipalities.

Thursday, December 6

Developed nations on the outs

Nations like the U.S. and U.K. aren’t pulling their weight when it comes to the “climate emergency,” per a new report presented Thursday. Wealthier countries aren’t working hard enough within their own borders to mitigate carbon emissions, the report says, nor are they supporting less wealthy countries in making those changes. “Equity is not a moral or academic nicety, but a practical necessity in meeting the Paris goals,” the report reads.

The report singled out the U.S., which didn’t even come to the bargaining table this year: “At the moment, in the United States, to give one obvious example, many people cannot easily afford proper housing, or healthcare, or higher education or early childhood education. Given this, and its now visible consequences, it’s obvious that justice within nations is the flip side of justice between nations, and that we will not have one without the other.”

Record emissions this year

A new report from the Global Carbon Project suggests that global carbon emissions will hit an all-time high in 2018, after plateauing in the mid-2010s. “After decades of growth, global CO2 emissions plateaued between 2014 and 2016, and there were hopes they had peaked,” reports CNN. “But fossil fuel emissions rose by 1.7 percent in 2017 and are set to rise 2.7 percent this year.” The reasons for the rise: increased coal use around the globe and projected transport-related increases.

Tense situation

The big question, given all the above, is whether nations are going to be able to agree on an actionable plan to keep emissions under the crucial 1.5 degree Celsius level. This is a hail Mary attempt to ratify a climate agreement that can be acted upon after years of inaction beginning with the Kyoto Protocol, which failed.

“Diplomats and observers say a key fight in the coming days will be over whether to mention ‘policy pathways’ proposed by scientists to keeping global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit),” the Associated Press reports.

Wednesday, December 5

A couple of key reports got delivered to COP24 attendees today. Let’s break it down:

Food futures

Estimates put the number of people on Earth by 2050 at 10 billion. Given that our current food consumption is wrecking the planet, figuring out how to feed all those extra mouths sustainably is high on the list of things that can cut down on carbon emissions and prevent further deforestation of sensitive regions (the Amazon, for instance.) A report from the World Resources Institute presented on Wednesday offers strategies to do just that.

“First and foremost, people will have to drastically shift their diets from resource-intensive foods such as beef,” writes CNN.

Food pasts

It’s worth noting that COP24 attendees aren’t taking their own medicine while attending the conference. Cutting down on meat consumption “has become the mantra of climate change activists, but there’s plenty of meat on the menu at the COP24,” writes Bloomberg’s Deena Shanker. Analysis from non-profits suggests that the food from the conference alone could emit the equivalent greenhouse emissions of burning 500,000 gallons of gas, she writes.

Staying alive

Millions of lives—at least “seven million unacceptable deaths”—can be saved by meeting the Paris Agreement commitments, according to a new report presented Wednesday at COP24 by the World Health Organization. That math includes people who will die as the result of air pollution and other environmental factors, like deforestation. Cutting down on those things is part of combatting climate change, so think of them as those lives as the opposite of collateral damage.

** Tuesday, December 4 **

Talks begin

After Monday’s opening ceremonies, today nations are getting down to business. They need to hit a few major targets in Poland, and the big noise today was about funding and partnerships.

Double the money

The World Bank Group announced Monday that it will fund developing nations to both mitigate and address the causes of climate change with $200 billion USD spread out over five years between 2021 and 2025. This announcement more than doubles their current commitments, but it isn’t nearly the full amount that will be needed by developing nations, writes Amitabh Sinha for The Indian Express.

Estimates put the amount needed by developing nations to make the changes required by climate change at several hundred billion dollars per year, Sinha writes. In addition to the World Bank funds, he writes, “Developed countries have committed themselves to ‘mobilize’ at least $100 billion USD every year from 2020 for this purpose, but most estimates show this would be a small part of the required money.”

Changes need to happen in two ways: adaptation to reduce carbon emissions, and mitigation of the impacts of climate change as it is happening now. But developing nations will need financial assistance to shift away from things like coal power by transforming infrastructure, and to compensate for things like flooding and extreme temperatures.

There are some uncertainties here, however: for instance, if developed nations will pony up their share of the money. Another huge question is how the funding will actually be given, Sinha writes. He quoted a representative of NGO ActionAid International as saying, “There is no clarity in what form these financial flows will take.”

Another notable thing is that $50 billion of this money is specifically earmarked for “climate adaptation,” writes the Associated Press, “a recognition that some adverse effects of global warming can’t be avoided anymore but require a change in practice.”

1.5 Celsius: is it possible?

In a session on the recent, apocalyptic International Panel on Climate Change report late Tuesday, report authors responded to national negotiators who questioned the feasibility of keeping warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius, reports Megan Darby of Climate Home.

While the Paris Accords included an agreement to work to keep warming under 2 degrees Celsius, with a stretch goal of keeping it under 1.5 degrees Celsius, the recent IPCC report made it clear that even 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming—just 0.5 degrees Celsius from where we’re at now, in terms of the change since the Industrial Revolution—will have massive impacts.

“An additional 0.5°C of warming would mean the hottest days of the year get 3°C hotter across much of the globe,” writes Jillian Mock for Popular Science. “The number of hot days in a year will go up almost everywhere, though the tropics will be hit particularly hard.” At 2 degrees of warming, Mock writes, weather will become even more unpredictable, ice melt in the Arctic will become far more dramatic, and “virtually all” coral reefs will die off—just a few of the highlights, in terms of effect.

The report is a scientific document, and it gives evidence based on the science of climate change. It doesn’t advocate for one path or another, but rather outlines a number of different scenarios and ways forward that will produce different results, in terms of warming. These scenarios take into account factors like changing climate policy—just the sort of thing that leaders are meeting in Poland to establish. Speaking today, report authors emphasized that there will be tradeoffs no matter what.

On the face of it, mitigating and adapting to climate change looks expensive. But actions taken can help ward off future instability and actually contribute to making the planet more sustainable, and therefore more liveable. For instance, some carbon removal strategies, like habitat conservation and soil restoration, can actually help with maintaining biodiversity and increasing food security, IPCC author Jim Skea said.

** Monday, December 3 **

Coal, coal, coal

We’re all dreaming of a green future, but the conference is off to a black start—at least where host nation Poland is concerned. “After picking coal companies to sponsor the talks, the Polish government decided to deck the halls of its exhibition center with piles of coal in a move that is beyond parody,” writes Earther’s Brian Kahn. Coal is big business in Poland, Kahn writes, so the nation has an obvious interest in keeping alive the practice of cutting combustible sedimentary rock from the Earth and pushing it into the atmosphere as carbon, a byproduct of which is electrical power.

The people have a say

Broadcaster David Attenborough described climate change as “our greatest threat in thousands of years.” If action isn’t taken, he said, “the collapse of our civilizations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.”

Attenborough is the voice of the Planet Earth series of nature documentaries. He sits in the conference’s “People’s Seat,” BBC reports. “He is supposed to act as a link between the public and policy-makers at the meeting.” His role was announced on Nov. 21, and his goal is to urge world leaders, in his own words, to “act now.” You can use the hashtag #TakeYourSeat to have your say on social media, although the exact means by which Attenborough will see these messages is unclear.

It’s easy to see why a globally famous naturalist and broadcaster such as the storied Attenborough, who has been reporting on the environment since the 1950s, would be a UN choice to take the physical People’s Seat. After all, the UN has had a lot of success leveraging celebrity to bring attention to causes. But as Attenborough stands in place of the populace, it’s important to remember that climate change disproportionately affects women of color.

I’ll be back

Speaking of pop culture icons, you’ll never guess who Austria’s president, Alexander Van der Bellen, brought with him to the opening ceremony: none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger. “The actor and former California governor told delegates… that ‘America is more than just Washington or one leader,'” reports CBS News. Schwarzenegger’s basic premise was that leadership at the state level and elsewhere in the U.S. is still supporting the 2015 Paris climate agreement. “He said local leaders should be invited to next year’s annual conference,” CBS reports, “and emphasized the point in trademark fashion.” That’s right, you guessed it. “If you do that,” he said, “I promise you: I’ll be back.”

This is worth talking about. After all, California alone has a population of almost 40 million people and a bigger GDP than France. The next two years are urgent ones for getting climate change under control, and it’s reassuring to think that states can keep the United States moving in the right direction.