UN chief’s climate gamble pays off and leaves Trump isolated
A spate of climate announcements firms up the Paris Agreement.
Donald Trump never had many climate friends — and after this week, the U.S. president looks even more alone.
There’s a sense that there’s been significant movement on climate issues in just the last few days.
China, the biggest polluter on the planet, used the U.N. General Assembly this week to announce it would be carbon-neutral before 2060. That came less than a week after the EU proposed a sharply tightened target for slashing emissions by 2030.
World leaders are meeting (virtually) in New York Thursday for a U.N.-sponsored climate roundtable; the U.N. and the U.K. said they would celebrate the fifth anniversary of the Paris Agreement in December with an event asking all governments to deliver “ambitious and high-quality” climate targets; and California said it would ban combustion engine cars within 15 years.
The EU and China together account for more than a third of man-made carbon emissions and, crucially, global economic power. Their climate pledges remain to be written into law and made real with policy. But they have agreed to hold regular high-level talks aimed at boosting their efforts. This re-emergence of a coalition of major countries is happening in the absence of the U.S., which will formally leave the Paris deal on November 4 — the day after the presidential election.
It’s a revival that U.N. Secretary-General Antonió Guterres — who was elected just 26 days before Trump — had gambled on.
The U.S. president’s decision to leave the Paris accord in June 2017 “was an existential challenge to the U.N,” said Robert Orr, dean of the public policy school at the University of Maryland who has advised the last three secretaries-general, including Guterres.
If Trump had led an exodus of other countries from the deal or simply rendered it ineffective, international climate cooperation would end up like the U.N. Security Council, World Health Organization or World Trade Organization — all waylaid by the Trump-led U.S. disengagement from international bodies.
In the weeks after Trump won the White House, Guterres huddled with Orr. It was unfathomable that the U.N. would ignore climate change, but Guterres had to decide whether to step back, shielding himself and the U.N., or stake the reputation of the multilateral system on the success of the Paris Agreement.
The support for the deal was still out there, Orr counseled. “The calculation was the U.S. would oppose and some others would follow or hide behind the U.S., but that we would get significant traction in other parts of the world.”
Any countermeasures came with political and financial risks. The U.S. pays about a fifth of the U.N. budget. Indeed, the Trump administration has tried repeatedly to cut that funding and has partly been thwarted by Congress. It also came with some personal political risk for Guterres, opposition from a permanent member of the Security Council would jeopardize his reelection should he choose to seek a second term in 2021.
During Guterres’ first two years in the job, the political momentum to solve climate change stalled.
“The U.S. election, it fundamentally undermined that race to the top and put us into a much more holding pattern, hold the line. And I think that’s the biggest lasting damage at the international level that the Trump administration’s approach to climate caused,” said Orr.
Inside the U.N., officials were frustrated at a perceived lack of tactical thinking. There was “no strategic conversation” involving agency chiefs, said Erik Solheim, who led the U.N. Environment Program from 2016 until 2018. Another high ranking former official said: “I never heard or saw a real Plan B emanate out of the 38th floor” of the U.N. building in New York where the secretary-general has his office.
“The U.N. tends to be irrelevant in a world where states are dramatically strengthened and where business is basically the key driver of the positive climate response,” said Solheim, likening the failure to move countries forward on climate change to the World Health Organization’s inability to coordinate the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Things changed when Guterres went to the Pacific in the spring of 2019. “He was moved. He emotionally engaged with the subject matter for the first time and came back from that trip a transformed man,” said the former official.
On that trip, according to the former official, Guterres stood in front of the mirror of a hotel bathroom in New Zealand, practicing a new climate mantra. He rolled it out in a speech for the first time at a breakfast with school students in Auckland: “Tax pollution not people … Stop subsidies to fossil fuels … Stop the construction of new coal plants by 2020.”
The kids were charmed. But his comments set off a firestorm inside the U.N. Immediately the official received a call from an irate colleague: “He can’t say that. He can only say what we tell him to say.” Officials worried about blowback, not just from the U.S., but big coal countries such as China, India, Australia and others. Critics inside the U.N. said it was the desperate grandstanding of a diminished secretary-general.
“I think he did the right thing … that was his job,” said Luis Alfonso de Alba, who served as Guterres’ special envoy organizing a climate summit in New York in September 2019.
That climate summit was notable for failing to induce any meaningful new commitments from leaders of large economies. But it deliberately contrasted their inaction with the energy of youth activists and business leaders. For aspiring climate champions such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, it was an uncomfortable experience.
This year Guterres ramped it up further. In a speech in China, where a massive new wave of coal power plants had been approved, he said: “Coal should have no place in any rational recovery plan.” In India, he said the coal business was “going up in smoke.”
While calling them out in public, according to Orr, Guterres talked about climate in private with the leaders and governments of all major economies, including the U.S. and China. Guterres increasingly focused on a set of precise, universal policy demands he believes should shape post-COVID stimulus packages.
That theme was a feature of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s speech to the U.N. this week. Xie Zhenhua, a top Chinese adviser, said Guterres had called him and urged China toward a green recovery. His pressure on China has worked in tandem with European leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron, Merkel and European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans.
This careful effort to keep the climate show on the rails has faced some organized resistance from the Trump administration.
The White House has tried to stymie the U.N.’s pitch. During last year’s COP25 climate summit in Katowice, Poland, the U.S. promoted nuclear and fossil fuels.
The U.S. wasn’t completely absent. State Department diplomats still attended U.N. meetings and were mostly constructive. For Guterres and his team, there were still open doors in the Trump administration. “They maintained a relationship with us,” said de Alba.
But that tentative outreach is now overshadowed by big movements on climate policy.
Xi’s announcement Tuesday said the Paris Agreement “charts the course for the world to transition to green and low-carbon development.” China’s aim to end its emissions would cut between 0.2 degrees and 0.3 degrees from the global temperature if achieved, according to Climate Action Tracker.
Trump spoke just before Xi, calling the Paris Agreement “one-sided” and denouncing China’s pollution and rising carbon emissions.
He ended his speech in a clarion call for unilateralism.
“As president, I have rejected the failed approaches of the past, and I am proudly putting America first, just as you should be putting your countries first.”
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