BONN, Germany—A White House roundtable on fossil fuels and nuclear energy became an outlet for international rage at President Trump, who has disdained the world's work to contain climate change.
Yesterday's event, hosted by White House energy adviser George David Banks, didn't offer the same level of defiance shown by Trump in June when he accused the world of "laughing at us as a country" for joining the Paris Agreement.
Instead, it promoted efficient energy use as a main tool to combat global warming, a message that struck attendees of the U.N. climate talks as a sign of the United States' weakened commitment to combat rising temperatures.
Climate advocates here weren't having it.
Days earlier, foreign delegations and visiting U.S. Democrats criticized the White House exercise as an assault on the work being done by 196 other countries committed to staying in the Paris accord.
"Coming to a climate summit to promote coal is an act of vandalism against our common home," said Mohamed Adow, Christian Aid's international climate lead. "It is offensive to millions of people living with the impacts of climate change."
Banks sought to soothe that frustration yesterday by promising that the United States would play a constructive role in Paris negotiations, even though it's on track to withdraw from the pact in 2020. He said it's possible that the United States could remain a member if more favorable terms could be "identified," and he pledged to make himself available all week to international delegates and press.
"We're happy to sit down with anyone and discuss climate policy and the politics of climate back home and globally," Banks said.
An hour before the event began, a line of young environmental advocates trying to get in, hoping to participate in a planned protest, stretched across the length of the convention center hall. Govs. Jay Inslee of Washington and Kate Brown of Oregon, attending as part of a pro-Paris delegation of Democratic governors, appeared in the room to offer a pre-emptive rebuttal to waiting reporters.
Inslee compared climate solutions from fossil fuel advocates to arsonists counseling fire departments on firefighting. Trump, who has been on a tour of Asia and has yet to comment on the U.N. climate gathering, was the target.
"He can tweet his fingers off, but he cannot stop us," said Inslee, touting his state's carbon regime as a hedge against Trump's policies favoring fossil fuels. Inslee hopes to pass a statewide carbon price.
A protest by 350.org and youth climate justice group SustainUS was permitted by U.N. staff, who do not usually allow rallies at official events. As United States Energy Association Executive Director Barry Worthington began his remarks about the need to reduce government oversight, more than 100 young protesters stood up and began stomping their feet and singing a rendition of Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the U.S.A."
"So you claim to be an American, but we see right through your greed. It's killing all across the world for that coal money," they sang.
"We chose the patriotic tune because part of what 'we the people' are doing here at the [Conference of the Parties] is telling the true story of America leadership taking on climate change and working to protect our communities," said organizer Dyanna Jaye.
After singing several verses, the young people filed out, leaving a room where tensions remained high and a hostile audience frequently interjected comments of "This is such bullshit" and "You lie."
The chilly reception may actually help Banks walk his tightrope between offering partnership in Bonn and avoiding the wrath of climate skeptics in the Trump administration. Marc Morano, who argues against mainstream climate science on ClimateDepot.com, said Banks' forum was a public relations victory for Team Trump.
"If the greenest members of the Trump administration get shouted down and shut down by climate activists for discussing nuclear and coal, the public will perceive the activists as way-out idealists devoid of reality," he predicted.
Earlier this year, Banks was a lead proponent of the United States' staying in the Paris Agreement, albeit with a weaker commitment on greenhouse gas reductions. He offered a vague hint yesterday that that outcome may still be on the table.
"The president has made it known multiple times that he is open to re-engaging in the Paris Agreement if suitable terms can be identified," he said. He added that discussions on those "terms" had not yet begun and that it should be a "heads of state discussion."
Before Trump announced his retreat from the Paris accord on June 1, the idea was floated for a new U.S. commitment to replace President Obama's pledge to cut greenhouse gas emissions between 26 and 28 percent compared with 2005 levels by 2025.
Experts in international law say the Trump administration could make that change without the high-level discussions Banks describes, but U.S. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and others persuaded Trump last spring that it would not be possible. They claimed that weakening the target would result in litigation over domestic rule changes. That argument carried the day.
But Banks quietly acknowledged yesterday that "the Paris pledges are not binding." He also defended President Trump's 2012 tweet that global warming was a Chinese invention to harm U.S. manufacturing.
Banks and Francis Brooke, a policy adviser to Vice President Mike Pence, refused to answer questions from reporters about whether the United States should remain in the Paris accord. But two panel members, Amos Hochstein, an Obama-era State Department special coordinator for international energy who now works for natural gas company Tellurian Inc., and Lenka Kollar of NuScale Power LLC, a nuclear power company, said Trump should reconsider.
"I think that we miss something at the [Conference of the Parties] if we just have a circular conversation and congratulate ourselves on the back about how great we are on climate change but we haven't convinced a single person to change their position on it, either," Hochstein said.
Banks and his panel argued that continued use of fossil fuels is vital to ending energy poverty in the developing world and that nations should focus on improving the efficient use of coal, petroleum and nuclear energy as a means of drawing down emissions.
"This panel is only controversial if we choose to bury our heads in the sand and ignore the realities of the global energy system, if we are unwilling to have an honest, objective discussion about the need to balance effectively climate mitigation, economic development and energy security objectives," Banks said.
Banks touted the Treasury Department's early steps under Trump to roll back World Bank prohibitions on financing coal-fired power plants in poor countries. Hochstein said the export of abundant liquefied natural gas is a boon to international climate goals. And Holly Krutka of coal company Peabody Energy Corp. argued that the developing world will continue to invest in coal-fired power, and the only question is whether nations will reach for lower-carbon technologies.
She drew the ire of the room by suggesting that carbon capture and storage technology is "dramatically underfunded" compared with renewable technologies. Developing countries have decried rich nations' reluctance to provide more financing for climate action, and Alex Doukas, a project manager for Oil Change International, called it "shameful" and "embarrassing" that U.S. coal companies would propose siphoning off what resources there are.
As the talks enter their second week, developed and developing countries are clashing over the provision of climate finance and over rich countries' promises to show how they plan to reduce their emissions before the end of this decade—obligations that pre-date the 2015 Paris Agreement.
"I think we knew coming in that there would be demands from developing countries to have a process to meet those needs and that developed countries would resist that," said Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists.
"No one expects large sums of money to be put on the table here in Bonn, but if there's not a process to ramp up support for adaptation, loss and damage, that's going to be a real problem," he said.
Rich countries collectively pledged to mobilize at least $100 billion a year to help their poorer counterparts after 2020, and there is so far no road map for how that funding would be provided. Poor countries, including Fiji, which has the presidency of this U.N. climate conference, have also stressed the need for some progress on loss and damage.
Those issues could prevent progress toward designing the Paris rulebook and early efforts to assess the agreement's effort to limit warming. Both are due next year.
"I think that's a reflection of the urgency that developed countries are showing here compared with what we in the smaller states are feeling," said Dorosday Kenneth Watson, a delegate from the island nation of Vanuatu, which is vulnerable to climate change. "There is no sense of urgency that I see in terms of the discussion that we see around the table."
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at www.eenews.net.