A year ago, the election of Donald Trump sent shock waves through a United Nations conference in Marrakesh, Morocco, where delegates from more than 190 countries had gathered to push forward with a landmark climate accord signed in Paris the previous year.
The deal suddenly seemed in jeopardy. If the United States backed out, as Trump promised, would other countries soon follow? A year later, Trump has moved to withdraw from the international agreement. But other nations have held firm to their pledges to slash their greenhouse gas emissions.
As delegates gather Monday in Bonn, Germany, for this year’s annual international climate talks, the United States finds itself largely on the sidelines. And the rest of the world seems to be reacting to the Trump administration with a collective shrug.
“There was speculation that the U.S. withdrawal might create some kind of domino effect, but in reality, this never happened,” said Anna-Kaisa Itkonen, a European Union spokeswoman for energy and climate action. “There hasn’t been a single party who announced they were leaving. Quite the contrary.”
Even Nicaragua, which initially refused to join the Paris agreement because it didn't think the accord did enough to combat global climate change, recently announced its intention to sign on. That leaves only the United States and Syria at odds with the rest of the world.
In Bonn, a collection of U.S. governors, mayors, business leaders and philanthropic figures will try to step into the gap. They include former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg and Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee (D), Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) and California Gov. Jerry Brown (D).
“With Washington off to the side, California is going to assert itself because it has the experience, and we have the commitment. And we want to join with others,” Jerry Brown said in an interview. “So, we will play an important role as cheerleader in chief and also as collaborator.”
Still, he said that states, localities and companies can push the nation only so far toward meeting the goals of the Paris agreement and making a shift toward cleaner energy sources.
"We can fill maybe half the void," said Brown, who was recently named a special adviser for states and regions to the Bonn conference. "We can do a lot, and we can carry the ball while Trump goes off in another direction. But soon, we need the national government."
U.S. officials will not be entirely absent from the gathering in Bonn. The United States remains a party to the Paris accord simply because it takes four years to formally withdraw.
“The U.S. is sending a State Department-led delegation with a career diplomat in charge, and that seems to send a signal that they’re not going to Bonn to throw bombs or anything,” said Sue Biniaz, who was a lead climate lawyer at the agency until this year. “So I would expect civil interaction, in terms of the diplomatic negotiating process.”
The Environmental Protection Agency also plans to send political and career staffers, although Administrator Scott Pruitt plans to skip the conference.
Trump administration officials are expected to tout fossil fuels and nuclear energy as potential ways to reduce emissions and combat climate change during a session focused on how U.S. energy resources can aid poor countries in meeting growing electricity needs. The presentation, first reported by the New York Times and obtained by The Washington Post, is titled “The Role of Cleaner and More Efficient Fossil Fuels and Nuclear Power in Climate Mitigation.”
“As the world seeks to reduce emissions while promoting economic prosperity, fossil fuels will continue to play a central role in the energy mix,” states an outline of the presentation, which will include speakers from coal giant Peabody Energy and from NuScale Power, a nuclear engineering firm.
Such an approach could trigger sharp reactions from other nations at the international conference, where the main focus of the Paris agreement is compelling countries to move away from fossil fuels toward more renewable forms of energy.
But mostly, some observers say, the United States probably won’t be a key player at the talks — a significant departure from its leading role under President Barack Obama.
“Trump is utterly isolated, and U.S. positions and negotiators will be largely ignored as a result. This has become a life-and-death issue for most countries,” said Paul Bledsoe, a former Clinton White House climate adviser and lecturer at American University’s Center for Environmental Policy.
In Bonn, other nations have plenty of work to do to implement the Paris agreement. That includes discussing financing for developing countries to help with climate adaptation and emissions reductions, laying down guidelines for determining how much countries will need to increase the ambitiousness of emissions reductions in future years, and setting up mechanisms to monitor and verify whether nations are living up to their pledges.
The global meeting in Germany begins days after the release of a dire report from the U.S. government, which affirmed that human activity is the dominant driver of global warming — a conclusion at odds with White House policies and the president's rhetoric.
The report warns of potential sea level rise as high as eight feet by the year 2100, and details climate-related damage across the United States that is unfolding as a result of 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit of global warming since 1900.
At the same time, the United Nations' Environment Program recently published its annual "emissions gap" report, which documents just how far off course the world is from its professed goals under the Paris agreement of holding the warming of the planet to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels.
It found that even if countries follow through on their current pledges under the Paris accord, it still would leave the world on course for 3.2 degrees Celsius (5.76 Fahrenheit) degrees of warming.
In other words, the world remains dramatically off course for hitting its own goals under the Paris agreement.
The meeting in Bonn won’t fix that. But countries that a year ago feared Trump’s election would hinder the Paris agreement are determined to move it forward.
Last fall in Morocco, said Harvard University environmental economics professor Robert Stavins, “a lot of the delegations were sort of in shock.” But that shock has given way to a sort of acceptance, at least in the near term.
“What happened is that they have now absorbed the reality of this administration,” he said, “in lots of ways.”