John is TPM‘s Prime editor. His writing has also appeared at The Atlantic, Mother Jones, Salon, Slate, UN Dispatch, Vox, Worth, and Al Jazeera, and has been broadcast on Public Radio International. Before joining TPM, John was a producer for Bill Moyers and WNYC, and worked as a news writer for Grist. He grew up in New Jersey, studied history and film at Oberlin College, and got his master‘s degree in journalism from Columbia University.
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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.
Join us at 8 p.m. for live coverage of tonight’s Democratic debate. Josh Marshall will be writing here in the ed blog, and TPM staff will be on hand with a liveblog for members and coverage of tonight’s notable moments.
With signs of a recession on the horizon, Trump is trying to make sure that Americans don’t blame him — especially at the ballot box in 2020. For now, Federal Reserve chair Jay Powell is a convenient target.
Here’s what happened in Prime this week.
Arizona’s Republican attorney general is staffing up a new “election integrity” unit. David Kurtz writes that it’s part of a “vicious cycle where those making bogus voter fraud claims (including the president himself) create an environment where ‘confidence’ becomes an issue, and elected officials respond to the supposed climate of concern. It basically rewards those making the most outlandish bad faith voter fraud claims.”
A state official in Oregon says that a weekly newspaper is coming after him due to a personal vendetta. The newspaper says it’s just doing its job.
Court filings this week gave us a look at where the New York attorney general’s investigation into the NRA might be headed.
We’ve heard some wild stories about former Trump business associate Felix Sater over the years. Not only did he try to help Trump build a tower in Moscow; not only did he promise to “get Putin on this program” in order to “get Donald elected” — he also was an FBI informant? And also, supposedly, helped track down Osama bin Laden? And imprison mafiosos? It strained credulity.
A number of indicators are suggesting a recession is on the horizon. That, of course, could have a huge impact on the presidential election — especially if the slowdown arrives during or close to autumn 2020.
Two mass shootings within a few hours of each other last weekend underscored just how insane it is that we live this way, prompting a week of wondering if anything will change this time, when it hasn’t so many times before. Here’s some of what happened in Prime.
A reader from El Paso writes in that it’s particularly “infuriating” that the shooter drove across Texas to target a largely immigrant community: “this white nationalism and gun culture and all the rest is brewed outside of El Paso and someone drives 9 hours to import it in.”
We made it through another round of Democratic debates and Rep. John Ratcliffe, who Trump announced as the next Director of National Intelligence at the start of the week, had pulled himself out of the running by the end of it.
Elizabeth Warren distinguished herself, as usual, for her ideas. She was helped by debate moderators who seemed to like asking the other candidates to comment on Warren’s proposals. Her attack on John Delaney is likely to be talked about tomorrow: “I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for President of the United States just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for.”
After a largely unmemorable first debate, Bernie Sanders came out swinging this time, not hesitating to call out his debate-stage rivals and even the moderators. For a significant, early part of the debate, he and Warren together defended their ambitious health care plans. Notably, he and Warren did not turn on one another, as many pundits predicted.
Tim Ryan didn’t get much time, and his efforts to distinguish himself as a guy from a Trump-voting state didn’t come to the forefront. He did draw one of the many rebukes Sanders was dishing out: At one point, when he questioned whether Medicare For All would deliver certain services for senior citizens — “you don’t know that, Bernie” — Sanders replied, “I do know it, I wrote the damn bill.”
Beto O’Rourke continues to struggle to gain traction after his initial burst of attention. He did, however, seem to come prepared to talk policy on such issues as health care and reparations, perhaps in an effort to combat what some have claimed is a lack of depth.
Tonight was many viewers’ first introduction to Steve Bullock. He was given a lot of time and staked out his territory as the One Guy On The Stage Who Won Statewide In A Trump State.
Amy Klobucher stood out among the more moderate candidates, distinguishing herself with a denunciation of the NRA. She attempted to frame herself as a champion of the working class, speaking of her Iron Range upbringing
John Hickenlooper was in many ways upstaged by new entrant and fellow governor Steve Bullock. He didn’t get much time, but, with the time he got, it seemed clear he had pivoted away from attacks on Democrats to his left. He said he “respects” Warren and Sanders. What Hickenlooper had pivoted to was less clear.
John Delaney adopted the posture of debate pit bull right from the start, calling out Sanders and Warren by name. Moderators seemed to frame him as the token centrist, playing him off various candidates to his left, which had the effect of giving him the major-candidate treatment (he’s tied in the polls with de Blasio.)
Pete Buttigieg didn’t do much to help or hurt himself this time around. We noted his references to, and the question he got about, his relatively young age. (Given the opportunity by a moderator, he declined to criticize Sanders’ age.) He also, as part of a conversation about countering the gun lobby, laid out some changes he’d seek to democracy: ending the Electoral College, making Washington, D.C., a state and changing the number of seats on the Supreme Court.
After being accused of being too wacky back in June, Marianne Williamson was on firmer ground tonight. Sort of. Her self-help style wavers between a breath of fresh air on the debate stage and weird. She did get some big applause lines, notably when talking about environmental racism in Flint.