As negotiators from around the world gathered in Poland to discuss how to lower carbon emissions, the Trump Administration unveiled two schemes promoting fossil fuels.
Last week, representatives from around the world gathered to begin another round of climate negotiations in Katowice, a city in the heart of Poland’s coal-mining country. Delegates arriving at the meeting, known in United Nations-speak as a Conference of the Parties, or cop, were treated to an outdoor performance by a Polish coal miners’ band. Inside the convention pavilions, they found mounds of coal displayed behind glass, like objets d’art, as well as arrangements of coal-based cosmetics and coal-encrusted jewelry. Poland gets about eighty per cent of its electricity from coal, the most carbon-intensive of carbon-based fuels, and the Polish President, Andrzej Duda, noted in his opening remarks that the country had enough as yet unmined supplies to last another two centuries. “It would be hard not to use them,” he said.
Depending on how you look at things, a coal-stuffed climate summit is either completely absurd—“beyond parody,” as one commentator put it—or merely appropriate. With each passing month, the threat posed by global warming grows clearer. And so, too, does the world’s failure to take that threat seriously. “We are in trouble,” the United Nations’ Secretary-General, António Guterres, said at the cop’s opening session. “It is hard to comprehend why we are collectively still moving too slowly—and even in the wrong direction.”
In October, a report from an international team of scientists warned that the planet was closer to dangerous warming than had previously been believed, and that a critical threshold could be crossed within a matter of years. To avoid this, a rapid and total overhaul of global energy systems would be needed. Such a transformation, the team observed, has “no documented historical precedent.”
Then, in November, a study put together by experts from thirteen U.S. federal agencies laid out the extent to which warming is already wreaking havoc in this country—via drought, intensifying storms, and an increasing number of wildfires. The study predicted that, as temperatures continue to rise, the country will experience “losses to infrastructure and property” that could run to hundreds of billions of dollars annually. (The Trump Administration did not tamper with the contents of the study, a version of which must, by law, be presented every four years. Instead, it sought to bury the assessment, by releasing it the day after Thanksgiving.) In the brief interval between the publication of the two reports, the deadliest wildfire in California’s history, the Camp Fire, claimed the lives of at least eighty-five people.
As these alarms were going off, one nation after another reached for the snooze button. Last month, the President-elect of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, chose as his Foreign Minister a climate-change denier, Ernesto Araújo. (Araújo has described climate science as part of a plot by “cultural Marxists” to cripple Western economies.) The incoming government promptly announced that Brazil was reneging on its offer to host the next cop, which is scheduled for November, 2019.
Last week, just as the session in Katowice was getting under way, the French President, Emmanuel Macron, suspended plans to raise that nation’s gasoline and diesel-fuel taxes. The increase had been intended to speed the transition to cleaner cars; the postponement came in response to violent protests by the so-called “yellow vest” movement. Demonstrators complained that Macron was worried about the end of the world, while they were worried about the end of the month.
The Trump Administration, meanwhile, has already made plain its intention of undermining the whole cop process. Last week, the Administration basically flipped off negotiators in Poland by unveiling not one but two new schemes for promoting fossil-fuel use. The first was a proposed rollback of an Obama-era rule that effectively blocked new construction of coal-fired power plants. (The rollback was presented by the acting head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Andrew Wheeler, a former coal-industry lobbyist.) The second was a plan to open some nine million acres of public lands in Western states to oil and gas drilling by sweeping aside protections for the greater sage grouse. Environmentalists—justifiably—labelled this move a “giveaway” to the fossil-fuel industry. As the Timesnoted, it would “open more land to drilling than any other step the administration has taken.”
This year’s cop—the twenty-fourth in the series—is supposed to resolve procedural questions left hanging when the Paris Agreement was negotiated, three years ago, at cop21. Under the agreement, each country was asked to formulate its own emission-reduction plan. The aim of this give-what-you-can approach was to nudge developed and developing countries toward a consensus. It was hoped that nations would, over time, push one another to increase their commitments. Back in 2015, this might have been a reasonable expectation. Now, in the era of America First, it looks increasingly like wishful thinking…
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