COP25 may be the most important climate change meeting ever—and the US is barely there

It Paris Agreement’s 2020 deadline is looming large.
a power plant spews smoke into an orange sky

The 25th Conference of the Parties (COP25) kicked off today in Madrid, Spain. This two-week meeting of almost all of the world’s countries is intended to help us fight climate change, and in 2015 produced The Paris Agreement—a pledge for all participants to cut greenhouse gas emissions in order to avoid the worst effects of climate change. With 2020 set as a crucial deadline in that agreement, COP25 may prove to be the most important Conference of the Parties to date. Although the decisions made at these meetings are not binding under international law, they have a huge impact on how different world powers act, and thus on collective action for the global issue of climate change.

When it was signed in 2015, the Paris Agreement was considered an historic step forward for collective climate action. Under its terms, all parties who signed on—186 countries and the European Union—have until November 4, 2020, to revise their emissions targets and make them more ambitious (which research on climate change has shown is sorely needed). The international community has been working on this since 1992, with minimal results. We’re still barreling toward a climate apocalypse unless something is done, and quickly. What happens at this conference will set the stage for those crucial revisions.

At last year’s COP, the first since President Donald Trump took office and promised to pull the United States out of the Paris Agreement, the country was barely present. The US also joined Russia, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia in downplaying the findings of last year’s IPCC special report on climate change, which made clear that drastic action is necessary if we want to avoid global catastrophe. Now the United States has formally notified the UN of its intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. The government maintains a commitment to going it alone on climate change, citing an “unfair economic bargain on American workers” posed by the terms of the agreement.

In a sense, this is nothing new: after all, the last Republican president, George W. Bush, spiked the Kyoto Protocol, a predecessor to the Paris Agreement. But we know a lot more about the causes and consequences of climate change now, and we also know we have a very small window of time before we reach a point where warming beyond 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius—the threshold below which life as we know it can continue, albeit with plenty of adaptations—is inevitable.

However, as those in the know told PopSci last month, we still need federal-level policy to make the changes we need. And those changes need to happen fast: as last month’s UN Emissions Gap Report identified, every year we wait to act means bigger and more radical cuts need to happen to avoid total catastrophe.

“The United States will continue to participate in ongoing climate negotiations and meetings—such as COP25—to ensure a level playing field that protects US interests,” reads a State Department press release sent out ahead of the conference. But the US has once again declined to send any high-ranking officials. By comparison, the president of the European Commission (the governing body of the EU) is in attendance, as well as the leaders of a number of equatorial nations and EU countries.

That doesn’t mean the United States won’t have a strong presence at the meeting: Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is attending along with 14 other Democratic lawmakers as part of a “Congressional delegation” separate from the official US entourage. “On behalf of the U.S. Congress, I am proud to travel to COP25 to reaffirm the commitment of the American people to combating the climate crisis,” she said in a press release. How this situation will play out over the next two weeks is currently unclear, but the two delegations are at odds: While the administration remains committed to leaving the Paris Agreement, the Democrat-led House wants to keep the country in. The Climate Action Now Act, which the House passed in May, aims to do just that. The next federal election takes place on November 3, 2020, and if a new president is elected, they could also potentially rejoin the Paris Agreement once in office.

“The trans-Atlantic trip is the latest sign that Democrats are preparing for the day Trump is no longer president,” writes The Washington Post. But no matter how next year’s election shakes out, the problem of climate change gets more pressing every day.