8 May 2017 | The dark-haired man looked haggard
and world-weary as he leaned towards the microphone.
“We ask for your leadership,” he told US Undersecretary of State
Paula Dobriansky, with cameras running
and the world watching.
“We seek your leadership,” he continued. “But if for some reason
you’re not willing to lead, leave it to the rest of us. Please, get
out of the way!”
The year was 2007, and the young man was Kevin Conrad, who
represents Papua New Guinea in UN climate talks. The place was
Bali, Indonesia, where George W Bush’s US negotiating team had been
gunking up talks with silly games and doublespeak. The words
perfectly captured the exasperation in the room, and delegates
roared in rare applause. Bush’s team backed down.
But ten years on, it’s déjà vu all over again, except this time
the world isn’t haggling over how to fix the climate mess. Instead,
negotiators are meeting in Bonn, Germany this week and next to
begin implementing the bottom-up fix that the world has already
agreed on – a fix the United States was instrumental in creating:
namely, the Paris Climate Agreement, which is a flexible framework
gives every country the leeway to meet the climate challenge as
it sees fit.
It does require the creation of science-based rules for
measuring and monitoring emissions, and the world’s media should be
focused on the substantive efforts to develop a detailed
rulebook for handling international cooperation on
emission-reductions. Instead, however, the Trump Show has stolen
the spotlight, and media
is preoccupied with the question of whether Trump will or will
not pull out of the landmark accord.
Most reports focus on the
tragedy of him leaving, but some insiders fear the opposite:
namely, that he’ll stay in and sabotage progress.
Gus Silva-Chavez is one of those. A longtime NGO observer,
Silva-Chavez now runs the Forest Trends REDDX initiative,
which tracks carbon finance – finance that
depends on accurate measurements of greenhouse-gas emissions
and reductions, as well as rigorous tracking of international
It’s complicated stuff, but
99 percent of the work has already been done. Silva-Chavez,
however, fears the Trump team will either complicate it even
more or try to “streamline” it, which would undermine the
environmental integrity of the system.
“They could go in and say, ‘The UN is not going to tell the US
what to do,’” he says in an interview to appear on today’s episode
of the Bionic Planet
podcast. “They could say, ‘We don’t need an extensive, detailed
rulebook. All we need are the basics, and we’re not going to agree
to anything more.’”
That, he says, could slow the talks without formally appearing
to do so, just as Republican strategists undermined civil rights
while formally protecting “freedom”. Also, he adds, while the
US stands alone now, any opposition could provide cover for other
countries to also bail or stall.
“Right now, on the record, every country is saying the right
thing: that they’ll toe the line,” he says. “But that could change
if the US breaks its word.”
If that sounds far-fetched, we need just look back to the bad
old days of the second Bush administration, which handed
negotiations over to a previously unknown and famously unqualified
congressional staffer named Harlan
The Triumvirate of Obstruction
Watson was a human wrench tossed into the gears of global
diplomacy by ExxonMobil for the sole purpose of grinding those
gears to a halt. For that task, we was actually well-suited, and
his name elicits such visceral feelings of disgust among those who
were there that it probably warrants a trigger warning. The
parallels to today are frightening: ExxonMobil inserted Watson into
the Bush administration via a fax “which Exxon Mobil spokesman Russ
Roberts said was sent by the company but not written by any of its
employees,” as Washington Post reporter Juliet Eilperin
put it – foreshadowing the daily doublespeak that Sean Spicer
now spews at every White House presser.
Watson, along with Dobriansky and energy industry
lawyer James Connoughton, formed an unholy Triumvirate of
Obstruction that neutered the US on the world stage, and as an
example, you can look to Bali: after months of stalling and
flip-flopping, Watson said the US would only sign an agreement
without targets or numbers
because “once numbers appear in the text, it prejudges the
outcome and will tend to drive the negotiations in one
After another collective groan from delegates, it was former US
Gore’s turn to speak.
“My own country, the United States, is mainly responsible for
obstructing progress at Bali,” he admitted, but “over the next two
years the United States is going to be somewhere it is not now….One
year and 40 days from today, there will be a new (presidential)
inauguration in the United States.”
He argued that even a watered-down agreement was better than
nothing, so delegates passed an agreement that met all of Watson’s
criteria, but Dobriansky still rejected it, prompting
Conrad’s famous, exasperated retort and Dobriansky’s
As we all know now, Barack Obama won the next election, and his
helped shepherd the talks that resulted in the Paris
Agreement – an incredibly flexible approach to fixing the climate
mess that encourages a race to the top instead of binding
Optimists like former Dutch negotiator Jos Cozijnsen point out
that, from a rational perspective, the United States has no reason
to either leave or torpedo the agreement.
“It’s not rational… and this is not Kyoto,” says Cozijnsen, who
now advises environmental NGOs, referencing the Kyoto Protocol.
“You can’t block anything anymore, and there is no reason for the
US to do so.”
The Trump team, however, isn’t rational, either; and while they
can’t formally block, they can gunk things up. Or they can get out
of the way.