The United States Embarrassed Itself at the Climate Summit in Poland

COP24 attendees mocked the Trump administration for its “clean coal” fantasies—while a shadow delegation of climate-conscious Americans quietly worked the room, mending fences.

December 14, 2018
Demonstrators disturb the speech of Wells Griffith, adviser to President Trump, at the COP24 summit in Katowice, Poland.

Monika Skolimowska/Picture-Alliance dpa via Alamy Live News

You would think—given recent headlines—that the Trump administration would be a little more nervous about being perceived as siding with Russia and Saudi Arabia against the rest of the world. Yet that’s exactly what happened last week at COP24, the United Nations–sponsored climate talks in Katowice, Poland, as our country voted—along with Russia, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and absolutely no one else—to discount the importance of the recent blockbuster report issued by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). That report made clear that the world’s nations must act collectively and immediately to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2040, or else face a future irreparably altered by droughts, wildfires, flooding, and other extreme weather events.

In voting that the report’s dire conclusions should be “noted” but not “welcomed,” Trump administration representatives in Katowice weren’t just quibbling over semantics. They were stating, for the record, that the official position of the U.S. government regarding the IPCC report is: What’s the big deal?

These folks had come to Poland with another agenda: promoting fossil fuels and preserving the status quo. Earlier this week, as the COP24 climate conference moved into its second and final week (it ends today), Wells Griffith, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Energy, was mocked by audience members as he attempted to tout the virtues of “clean” coal and natural gas. During the only COP24 event organized and hosted by the U.S. delegation, Griffith was interrupted by dozens of protesters who laughed derisively at his starry-eyed detailing of new technologies that would, in the view of the Trump administration, make the extraction and burning of fossil fuels cleaner and more efficient than ever before.

Their laughter quickly morphed into impassioned chants of “Shame on you!” and “Keep it in the ground!” which seemed to bring out Griffith’s inner commandant. His crisp response was to coolly affirm that all energy sources, even the hopelessly dirty ones, are “important”—and furthermore that “they will be utilized unapologetically.” But he seemed a shade less confident about the administration’s position the next day, when Democracy Now! reporter Amy Goodman followed him down a corridor asking him a series of questions about the president’s views on climate change, every single one of which went unanswered as Griffith began to literally run away from her.

All in all, it was a categorically disastrous performance by the United States at what’s being called the “last chance” climate talks before the IPCC’s nightmare scenario becomes a reality.

Or was it?

While the official U.S. delegation was thoroughly embarrassing itself, an unofficial shadow delegation was working diligently in Katowice to provide a counter-narrative to the Trump administration’s climate nihilism. As Griffith was busy running his mouth off and running from a reporter, members of the climate-action coalition We Are Still In were doing their best to assure the international community that President Trump and his coterie of coal-loving lackeys don’t speak for the majority of Americans. From their U.S. Climate Action Center on the conference site, they were showcasing the tremendous climate progress being made at the state and local levels despite federal intransigence. Their presence at the conference was a signal to the rest of the world that Americans’ growing demand for climate action could result in our country taking a leadership role once again, hopefully soon.

On Monday—the same day that Griffith was pathetically cheerleading for America’s moribund coal industry—We Are Still In was hosting a screening of Paris to Pittsburgh, a National Geographic–produced documentary (featuring NRDC president Rhea Suh) about how cities and states aren’t waiting for Washington to act on curbing greenhouse gas emissions. Participating in the event was Pittsburgh’s mayor, Bill Peduto. As the leader of a city that was once synonymous with coal but that now aims to get 100 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2035, Peduto is the perfect representative for America’s mayors in Katowice—itself a European coal capital that’s undergoing significant changes as its citizens push for cleaner air and greener energy sources.

“Most people would expect the mayor of Berkeley or Boulder or Burlington to be here,” Peduto told NPR. “But I think there’s a different message that comes out when the mayor of Pittsburgh is here. It sort of says, ‘Hey, the water’s warm. If Pittsburgh can do it, we all can do it!’”

That’s the American spirit distilled: unafraid of change, up to the challenge, unwilling to back down. It’s great to be reminded that there are still plenty of Americans eager to discuss climate change with anyone who wants to talk about it. The only ones running away from the topic are President Trump and his fleet-footed flunkies.

Paris to Pittsburgh

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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