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The annual session of the United Nations General Assembly will open Tuesday in New York City. Topping the agenda for Secretary-General António Guterres is action on climate change.
Saying the stakes are high for Guterres is an understatement. Diplomats will gather this week at a time when global efforts to address climate change appear dangerously close to stalling out thanks to American indifference, even though the unavoidable signs that the climate is changing are becoming increasingly apparent to people around the globe.
In the run-up to this UN General Assembly, Guterres has been attempting to paint an especially dire picture, hoping to push countries to amp up their greenhouse gas-cutting commitments under the Paris Agreement a year ahead of schedule.
But President Trump’s unwillingness to play ball remains the elephant in the room. He will skip the climate summit and will send EPA administrator and former fossil fuel lobbyist Andrew Wheeler in his stead. As Trump moves quickly to dismantle Barack Obama’s climate legacy by removing restrictions on greenhouse gases, it’s a big ask for Guterres to suggest that other countries to do more.
To understand why Trump’s presidency is so paralyzing to UN climate negotiations, it’s helpful to take a look back at how we got the Paris Agreement in the first place.
The political will to address climate change was at a high in 2015 when the deal became a reality during an end-of-year summit in the French capital. After abortive attempts to work out a climate deal in Kyoto in 1997 and Copenhagen in 2009, negotiators arrived in Paris hopeful that they might finally agree to a global plan to cut emissions.
The difference this time was that the world’s two biggest polluters appeared to finally be on board. The year before, Obama and Chinese Premier Xi Jinping had shaken hands on an agreement to reduce their respective countries’ climate change-causing emissions.
That was a big deal. China and the U.S. had always been fickle during climate negotiations. The U.S.’s unwillingness, in particular, to cap its pollution had repeatedly derailed past efforts. Now, negotiators were arriving in Paris with a U.S.-China promise already on the table.
What’s more, Obama showed a desire to make his promise of U.S. emission cuts a reality. His administration moved to clean up electricity generation through the Clean Power Plan, reduce vehicle emissions, and cap methane leaks from natural gas pipelines. Meanwhile, China seemed to be cleaning up its own act.
With that foundation, nearly 200 countries convened at the end of 2015 to hammer out a climate agreement, and by mid-December, they had it. The Paris Agreement they produced was non-binding — that was crucial for the U.S., as a binding agreement would likely need sign-off from the Republican-controlled Congress. It called on countries to voluntarily offer up a plan for cutting emissions. As time went on, countries would revise those plans to make them more ambitious.
That Paris agreement went into effect on November 4, 2016.
Four days later, Donald Trump was elected President of the United States.
It was at that point that the wave of global enthusiasm for addressing climate change crested, and began to retreat.
Trump announced his intention to pull out of the Paris Agreement, and, aided by EPA administrators and Secretaries of the Interior who shared his vision, started to dismantle Obama’s climate legacy. (Their job was made considerably easier by the fact that much of what Obama did was through executive branch rulemaking. It was a strategy of necessity: During Obama’s second term, Republicans controlled the House, and, during the last two years, the Senate.)
As the U.S. has stepped away from leading the climate charge, other countries have attempted to pick up the mantle. China and the EU have repeatedly sought to demonstrate their ongoing commitment to the Paris agreement. China is, reportedly, planning to unveil new, more ambitious climate targets at the UN General Assembly this week. But the country’s case for climate leadership is complicated by its global ambitions: Even as it cleans up its act at home, it continues to invest in dirty-energy projects abroad as it expands its reach in the developing world.
Meanwhile, the rising tide of right-wing populism worldwide and the skepticism of institutions that comes with it is battering the Paris Agreement. Following in Trump’s footsteps, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro has threatened to pull his country out of it.
But while climate action appears stuck in place, climate change itself continues to move forward: the most salient, recent example is the Bahamas, which was battered for days by Hurricane Dorian, which paused above it.
“I’ve never seen such dramatic devastation anywhere else in the world,” Guterres said, visiting Abaco Island in the Bahamas Saturday. “They say this is a hurricane category five. I believe is is a hurricane category ‘hell.'”
While action on climate change is a global project, negotiators worldwide will be closely watching the U.S. election.
Though Trump has touted the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, we’re actually still in it — though we’re making no effort to comply. The U.S. sends negotiators to climate talks, and they weigh in with their perspective on issues. (Journalist Bob Berwyn calls it a “schizophrenic” approach, with the State Department sending a delegation of career diplomats, the White House sending a separate delegation to talk up fossil fuels, and a coalition of blue and purple cities and states sending a third delegation under the banner “We Are Still In.”)
In fact, the U.S. will remain in the agreement until November 2020. That’s because the agreement stipulates that, after entering it, no country can leave for three years. After a country announces its intention to leave, there’s an additional one-year waiting period before it can do so. That means that, because the agreement went into effect on November 4, 2016, the U.S. can’t leave until November 4, 2020.
That’s the day after the 2020 presidential election.
Each Democrat running has said they will recommit the U.S. to the Paris Agreement, and has their own plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions, many of which go far beyond what Obama’s efforts would have achieved. Having the U.S. rejoin the Paris Agreement and seek in good faith to reduce emissions would change the political calculus entirely for other nations.
The challenge for Guterres is to push the world to move forward, Trump be damned. It’s not an easy job, but it’s also not one for which the world really has a choice.
This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.
John Light is Talking Points Memo’s managing editor. He has written about the politics of climate change for Reuters, The Atlantic, Grist and UN Dispatch.
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