WITHOUT THE United States, does the decades-long effort to unite the globe in fighting climate change fall apart? That was the big question heading into a major international climate conference in Poland that wrapped up last weekend. It was the first such gathering since President Trump signaled the United States’ intention to pull out of the landmark Paris climate agreement. The result was better than pessimists expected — but also underscored how much will be lost if the United States steps further away from the global agreement.
The 2015 Paris accord set a goal of keeping warming below two degrees Celsius. To get there, it asked countries to volunteer commitments to reduce their greenhouse-gas emissions. The commitments offered were not sufficient to meet the two-degree target, but they were a big improvement over inaction. Moreover, the Paris system is supposed to encourage continual ratcheting up of ambition.
If the vision was articulated in Paris, the nuts and bolts were supposed to be worked out in Katowice, Poland. As negotiators labored over arcane questions of international carbon credits and emissions-reporting mechanisms, the United States at first appeared intent on playing spoiler. The U.S. delegation held a side event promoting fossil fuels. With Russia and Saudi Arabia, it prevented the conference from accepting the conclusions of a major scientific report warning of dire consequences if governments do not boost their ambitions soon. The State Department’s final dispatch on the conference stressed the Trump administration’s balanced — that is, negligent — approach to emissions and expressed none of the urgency the issue requires.
Yet, the parties did agree on common and universally applied rules for reporting emissions reductions. This was a major success, as various nations resisted real transparency, the absence of which would encourage cheating. The negotiators punted on another major issue — how to connect countries’ carbon-reduction programs, which could make the global effort much cheaper and easier — as Brazil insisted on trying to double-count some of its carbon credits. Countries also did not agree on revising their emissions plans to be more stringent; that will happen next year, if the system works as intended. But the conference largely did what it set out to do, and the global effort still has momentum.
Does this mean that the United States has gone from crucial to irrelevant? Actually, no. Even as some U.S. delegates trolled the conference attendees with presentations on fossil fuels, professional negotiators teamed up with Chinese delegates to push hard for the transparency measures that the conference eventually accepted.
In the past decade of climate diplomacy, the United States has played an important role in pushing for sensible rules and a truly global effort, ensuring that America does not sacrifice while other nations avoid pain. The country is still party to the Paris agreement until the earliest possible pullout date in 2020. The events in Poland provide more evidence that the United States should stay in, keep a place at the table and act constructively.