What needs to happen in New York starting Monday.
Off target: The nations led by Trudeau and Trump, like most other signatories to the Paris agreement, are far behind in fulfilling their UN emissions reducing pledges. Photo via the White House Flickr.
As world leaders converge on New York City for the United Nations Climate Action Summit on Sept. 23, they enter what may be the most consequential week in climate politics since Donald Trump’s surprise election as president of the United States in 2016. Trump, of course, announced soon after taking office that he was withdrawing the United States from the Paris Agreement, the landmark treaty signed at the last big UN climate summit in 2015.
UN Secretary General António Guterres convened this week’s summit precisely because the United States and most other countries remain far from honouring their Paris pledges to reduce heat-trapping emissions enough to prevent catastrophic climate disruption. This includes Canada, whose inadequately slow progress Environment Commissioner Julie Gelfand earlier this year described as “disturbing.”
The events of the coming days — including a global climate strike on Sept. 20 by the activists whose protests in the past year have pushed the term “climate emergency” into news reports around the world — may help answer a question that has loomed over humanity since Trump’s election: Can the rest of the world save itself from climate breakdown if the richest, most powerful nation on earth is pulling in the opposite direction?
And what happens if other developed countries elect fossil fuel-supporting leaders who have little interest in solving the crisis, as could be the case in Canada after the federal election this fall?
Signed in December 2015 by every government on earth except North Korea and Costa Rica, the Paris Agreement stands as the strongest achievement of climate diplomacy since governments first debated the issue at the UN “Earth Summit” in 1992. In a shock to climate insiders, the agreement not only committed signatory governments to limit temperature rise to the relatively less dangerous level of 2 degrees Celsius. It also obliged governments to keep temperature rise “well below” 2 C and, in a major victory for the most vulnerable countries, to strive for 1.5 C.
That half-degree may not sound like much, but it spells the difference between life and death for low-lying coastal nations such as Bangladesh and island states such as the Maldives — two of many places that, science says, would literally disappear beneath the waves with more than 1.5 C of warming.
The announced U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement was big news, but also widely misunderstood. Despite Trump’s bluster, the U.S. withdrawal still has not happened. Precisely to guard against such capriciousness, the negotiators in Paris stipulated that every signatory was legally bound to remain in the agreement until four years after the treaty took effect, which would only happen after countries responsible for 55 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions ratified it. Thus, the Paris Agreement did not take effect until Nov. 4, 2016. That means the United States cannot leave until November 4, 2020 — which, not by accident, is one day after the U.S. 2020 presidential election. If Trump loses that election, his successor almost certainly would move to remain in the Paris Agreement.
Trump is not expected to attend this week’s summit; the U.S. delegation will instead be led by Andrew Wheeler, a former coal company lobbyist who is now the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. In keeping with Trump’s denial of climate science and his administration’s dismantling of environmental regulations and accelerating of fossil fuel development, Wheeler testified to the U.S. Senate last January that he would not call climate change “the greatest crisis” facing humanity.
Which highlights a question that may shape whether this summit turns out to be a success, a failure, or something in between: What role will the United States play? Will it be a spoiler, actively seeking to disrupt progress? Will it be a braggart claiming to, as Wheeler boasted (inaccurately) in that testimony, represent “the gold standard for environmental progress”? Or will it be more like the addled uncle at the family reunion whose babblings provoke eye-rolls and are ignored?
“Don’t bring a speech, bring a plan!” For months now, that’s what Secretary General Guterres has been telling heads of state and government. Instead of the endless blah-blah-blah heard at most UN meetings, Guterres wants this summit to be more like “show-and-tell,” a meeting where governments share concrete and replicable examples of how they are cutting emissions and boosting resilience to the climate impacts already unfolding. As such, the summit aims to address a glaring deficiency of the Paris Agreement. In part, because the agreement made emissions cuts voluntary, global emissions have continued to increase since 2015. MORE