What’s it Like Being an American at a World Conference on Climate Change?

COP23 in Bonn

COP23-1Since the Trump Administration announced that the United States would begin the process of exiting the  Paris Agreement back in June, and has since slowly scrubbed mentions of climate change from many of its agencies’ websites, study of the global environment feels like it has become a political statement. As part of its “Official Observer” status, Drexel University sent a delegation of faculty, students, and staff from across the University to COP 23, the 23rd Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, held in Bonn, Germany. This is the annual meeting where the world’s nations discuss how to address this pressing global challenge.

Franco Montalto, PhD, an associate professor in the College of Engineering and director of the North American Hub of the Urban Climate Change Research Network, joined Hugh Johnson, senior associate of Drexel’s Institute for Energy and the Environment, at COP23 for a first-hand look at how the rest of the world is reacting to America’s new position. The Paris Agreement on climate change was created two years ago at COP21 in Paris. The Bonn conference was the first gathering of countries committed to slowing the progress of climate change by reducing global greenhouse gas emissions since Trump announced his intent to pull the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement.

Here are a few of Montalto and Johnson’s observations from the frontlines, excerpted from the Urban Climate Change Research Network blog.

Looking back

The U.S. election results were announced half way through [last year’s COP22 in Marrakech, Morocco], throwing a blanket of uncertainty across the assembly, even as then Secretary of State John Kerry and others told us all not to fear that the global energy markets and the global economy had already embraced the future in ways that no change of Administration in Washington could turn back.

A Grim Outlook

Christiana Figueres, a global climate leader and convener of Mission 2020, said that if global emissions are not on a downward trend by 2020 and if nations don’t step up their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) in that year, as they are bound to by the Paris Agreement, the “door will be closed” on keeping potential warming limited to 1.5 degrees C. 

A Silver Lining?

On a more positive note, Figueres added that 53 countries have announced that their emissions will definitively be decreasing by 2020, and that 22 countries have already demonstrated a decoupling of GDP growth from emissions. India, for example, originally projected that renewables would represent 40 percent of its power generation by 2030, but now is reporting that it may actually represent 60 percent of it by 2027.

And it’s not just countries that seem to have found it feasible to go beyond the original NDCs made in Paris. In a panel discussion with U.S. state governors, representatives from Oregon, Massachusetts and Maryland (the latter two with Republican leadership) say they have demonstrably decoupled economic growth from greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Even some cities report having achieved this same goal, with Tokyo, the world’s most populous megacity among them.

Sue Biniaz, the former principal legal advisor on the climate negotiations for the United States during the Obama Administration, said in a session at the U.S. Climate Action Center that she saw no legal reason for why these subnational actors couldn’t voluntary sell these emissions credits on international carbon markets, helping national governments to achieve the nationally determined contributions (NDCs) they set in Paris. Made formal through sub-agreements between the parties, such transactions would hard-wire local voluntary action into the global response to the climate challenge, effectively bypassing the national governments in which these actors reside.

Reframing the Issue

TM Franklin Cownie, Mayor of Des Moines, Iowa made the point that because “problems occur somewhere” and residents call their mayor, not their congress person, when they have a problem, local governments are perhaps better positioned to address climate change than their counterparts at higher levels of government, especially in the current political context. Mayors need to respond to the needs of their residents regardless of party or affiliation, and as the effects of climate change become more acute, action will follow.

Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists suggested that for that same reason, discussions regarding adaptation might be the easiest point of entry into discussions about climate change. People intuitively understand the need to reduce the effects of flooding, intense heat and other climate-related problems. Public dialogue about how to accomplish those goals may be easier to have than more esoteric discussions about how to mitigate GHG emissions through policy of individual decisions. 

What Now?

After five days at COP23, we believe the general sentiment towards the current Administration’s position on climate change is that it will be shown to be an aberration and that it does not represent a long-term shift in engagement or diplomacy by the U.S.

That sentiment has been buoyed by the groundswell of local and state government action. This said, if global ambition does not motivate governments to step up in 2020, there is real concern over the long-term success of the historic Paris Agreement that was reached just two years ago.


For media inquiries contact Britt Faulstick, assistant director, media relations bef29@drexel.edu or 215.895.2617.



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