WASHINGTON, DC – President Donald Trump is aiming to make the annual U.N.-sponsored climate talks underway in Madrid the last ones for full participation by the United States, which is the world's No. 1 economy and the second-biggest carbon emitter.
Trump dismisses climate change and he thumbed his nose at previous climate talks by twice sending White House delegations to promote climate-degrading coal. He is due to complete the U.S. withdrawal from the landmark Paris global climate accord on Nov. 4, 2020, the day after next year's U.S. presidential election. If Trump loses that election, the next president could put the brakes on the withdrawal.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and other political and business leaders, scientists and activists are traveling to Spain this week and next to drive home a counter message: U.S. cities, states and businesses representing a sizable chunk of the U.S. population and economy are committed to a global effort to slash emissions.
“We’re still in it,” Pelosi told reporters at the talks, where she appeared with 14 other congressional Democrats on Monday to call climate change a growing threat to public health, economy and national security in the U.S..
Her comments were echoed by Mandela Barnes, Wisconsin's lieutenant governor.
“Regardless of whether or not we have the support of the nation’s highest office or not, this work is going to get done,” Barnes said.
This year's conference is expected to focus on fine-tuning the rules for reducing fossil fuel emissions by the roughly 200 signatories of the Paris agreement. It comes ahead of a big push at next year's climate summit for more ambitious emissions-cutting targets.
Experts say the United States' repeated about-faces on the threat of climate change likely have done lasting damage.
Even before Trump repudiated the deal backed by President Barack Obama, George W. Bush’s administration renounced the landmark Kyoto emissions protocol, negotiated in the late 1990s during Bill Clinton’s presidency, said Nigel Purvis, a State Department climate negotiator under Clinton and Bush.
“The international community has concluded the United States is an unreliable partner,” Purvis said.
Although the United States served formal notice last month that it intends to become the first country to withdraw from the Paris accord, it technically remains a participant until next Nov. 4.
Marcia Bernicat, a senior State Department official, is leading the official U.S. delegation.
The administration is taking part to ensure a level playing field that protects U.S. interests,” the State Department said in a statement.
Advocates of the Paris accord say the U.S. withdrawal will leave American businesses to compete internationally under carbon-cutting rules set by other countries.
Behind the scenes, U.S. diplomats have played a helpful role despite the planned U.S. withdrawal, pushing for transparency and solid rules as countries commit to specific targets for cutting emissions, delegates from other nations say privately.
Publicly, Trump has catered to his base at the yearly talks. That includes dispatching a team to the 2017 and 2018 climate meetings to stage side events promoting coal-fired power production, one of the main sources of climate-wrecking emissions.
His administration stood by fossil fuels “unapologetically,” White House energy envoy Wells Griffith said at the U.S. pro-fossil fuel event at last year’s talks in Poland. That drew chants from the audience of “Shame on you!”
Griffith, who helped broker a coal deal in Ukraine, apparently refused a request by House impeachment investigators to discuss administration actions there. A woman who answered the phone at Griffith''s office Tuesday said no one there would say whether he planned to appear this year's climate negotiations.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last month repeated Trump's argument that the Paris accord was an economic burden for the United States. Pompeo said technological innovation and the free market have made for continued U.S. declines in climate-changing emissions.
It's true U.S. carbon emissions are still falling under Trump, according to a study by Global Carbon Project, a group of international scientists who track emissions.
The United States saw emissions drop 1.7% from 2018 to 2019, the same decline as in the European Union, even as China led in a 0.6% rise in emissions globally over the last year, the study said.
U.S. experts say the drop in U.S. fossil fuel emissions is due in part to the decline of coal-fired power plants, losers in marketplace competition against cheaper natural gas and renewable sources despite Trump's 2016 campaign pledges to save coal.
The 2018 midterm elections, which gave Democrats control of the House, showed that embracing top-down government action to cut fossil fuel emissions can be part of a winning platform, at least in some parts of the country.
In June 2017, 46% of Americans opposed U.S. withdrawal from the international agreement, while 29% supported it, according to a poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
This August, another AP-NORC poll found nearly two-thirds of Americans said the federal government should bear a lot of responsibility for combating climate change.
"We hope ... this is only a temporary farewell" for the U.S., German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said last month at a diplomatic conference.
Regardless, he said, other governments can't count on Americans sorting out a lasting climate policy anytime soon.
Ultimately, said Carla Frisch, a former energy policy expert at the Department of Energy under three U.S. administrations, U.S. climate action demands U.S. climate regulation, making cutting emissions the law and policy of the land.
“We have to be all in,” Frisch said. "We also need the federal government, to get where we need to go.""
Associated Press writers Frank Jordans in Berlin, and Seth Borenstein and Hannah Fingerhut in Washington contributed to this report.
This story was first published on Dec. 4, 2019. It was updated on Dec. 5, 2019, to correct details of the poll citing public opinion on the Paris climate accord.