Laughter as US promotes fossil fuels at global climate conference

United States President Donald Trump's top White House adviser on energy and climate stood before a crowd of some 200 people at the Katowice Climate Change Conference in Poland and tried to burnish the image of coal, the fossil fuel that powered the industrial revolution.

"We strongly believe that no country should have to sacrifice economic prosperity or energy security in pursuit of environmental sustainability," said Wells Griffith, Trump's adviser.

Mocking laughter echoed through the conference room. A woman yelled, "These false solutions are a joke!" And dozens of people erupted into chants of protest.

The protest was a piece of theatre, and so too was the United States' public embrace of coal and other dirty fuels at an event otherwise dedicated to saving the world from the catastrophic impacts of climate change.

The standoff punctuated the awkward position the American delegation finds itself in as career bureaucrats seek to advance the Trump administration's agenda in an international arena aimed at cutting back on fossil fuels.

"There are two layers of US action in Poland," said Paul Bledsoe, an energy fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute and former Clinton White House climate adviser.

The moment that the Trump administration’s panel promoting fossil fuels is disrupted by demonstrators at global climate summit #COP24 . Protesters chant ‘Keep it in the ground!’ and ‘Shame on you!’

— Griff Witte (@griffwitte)

One is the public support of fossil fuels, which Bledsoe said is "primarily aimed at the president's domestic political base, doubling down on his strategy of energising them by thumbing his nose at international norms".

The quieter half is the work of career State Department officials who continue to offer constructive contributions to the Paris climate agreement that President Trump loves to loathe.

Which facet of the American presence proves more influential in Poland could have a big impact on whether this year's climate summit, now in its second week, ends in success or failure.

"This week is going to be telling," said Helen Mountford, vice president of climate and economics at the World Resources Institute.

Monday's presentation came after a weekend in which the US delegation undercut the talks by joining with major oil producers Russia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in blocking full endorsement of a critical UN climate report. The report, by some of the world's leading scientists, found that the world has barely a decade to cut carbon emissions by nearly half to avoid catastrophic warming.

But the US balked at a proposal to formally "welcome" the finding, setting off a dispute that, while semantic in nature, carried ominous portents that the US could become an obstacle to progress in Katowice.

"The worrying issue is the signal that it sends," Mountford said.

A State Department official, who spoke on background due to the ongoing sensitivity of the talks, said negotiators "faithfully serve the administration and do their best to defend US economic and other interests".

The planned US exit from the Paris accord in 2020 has left a lingering question here about which countries will commit to ramp up their ambition in the years ahead, and who can serve as a unifying force if the world is serious about making the changes necessary to address climate change.

The US' mercurial role in Poland is far different from 2014, when President Barack Obama and Chinese leader Xi Jinping - whose countries account for about 45 per cent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions - struck a deal to limit those emissions in a high-profile announcement in Beijing.


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Or 2015, when Obama and other top US officials worked phones and backrooms, encouraging other world leaders in Paris to sign on to a deal aimed at creating a global effort to combat climate change.

Three years later, the idea of the US as a leader at the international climate talks has evaporated. At a recent Group of 20 summit in Argentina, 19 of the 20 world leaders in attendance reiterated their commitment to climate action - only the US stood apart. Trump has repeatedly dismissed a federal report about how climate change is already battering the states.

Behind the scenes, US negotiators have soldiered on, pushing for long-held views that span several administrations, such as pushing for transparency in how countries report their emissions and standardising the rules that govern the climate accord.

Those are policies "we've been pushing for decades. It's not a new thing", said Jonathan Pershing, who served during the Obama administration as the State Department's special envoy for climate change and lead US negotiator to the UN climate talks.

Steam rises from the Niederaussem coal-fired power plant operated by German utility RWE, which stands near open-pit coal mines that feed it with coal, in 2017.LUKAS SCHULZE/GETTY

Steam rises from the Niederaussem coal-fired power plant operated by German utility RWE, which stands near open-pit coal mines that feed it with coal, in 2017.

Pershing praised the career officials the administration has in Poland, calling them savvy and experienced. Likewise, other delegations have also said that US officials have continued to play a key role, even if it has diminished from past years.

"The US delegation is comprised of seasoned climate change negotiators. On most issues, they have maintained the positions of the previous administration. In some instances, they have remained constructively quiet. They reach out to other delegations informally to build bridges and propose solutions," said Carlos Fuller, a negotiator for a coalition of small island and low-lying coastal countries that are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

"This is regrettable, as some of the best climate change scientists in the world are American. A lot of the data feeding the science comes from US institutions and platforms. However, the White House policy statements have forced their negotiators to take this stance," Fuller said.

The conference in Katowice brings together delegates from nearly 200 countries to try to kick-start a process that has shown worrying signs of stalling out. The goals are to raise global ambitions in the quest to cut carbon emissions, to establish a rule book for measuring progress and to put serious financial backing behind the developed world's support for emissions reduction among developing nations.

Much of the negotiating work is highly technical, with the big-picture framework of the Paris talks replaced by the nitty-gritty of establishing standards and protocols. It is work tailor-made for diplomats and bureaucrats, and ill suited to politicians.

Monday's presentation by US officials praising the virtues of fossil fuels echoed one given on the sidelines of last year's climate conference, in Bonn, Germany. So did the resulting demonstration.

After dozens of activists had shouted, "Keep it in the ground!" and "Shame on you!" for roughly 10 minutes, they marched together from the room. In the calm that followed, administration officials continued with their pitch for carbon-capture technologies to clean up coal, hydraulic fracturing to unearth gas and a new generation of nuclear energy plants.

Youth and indigenous groups protest against fossil fuels during US-hosted event at the UN climate talks in Katowice, Poland on December 10.FRANK JORDANS/AP

Youth and indigenous groups protest against fossil fuels during US-hosted event at the UN climate talks in Katowice, Poland on December 10.

Scientists say that a rapid migration away from fossil fuels toward cleaner energy is essential in the quest to prevent the most catastrophic effects of climate change.

But Griffith, the White House adviser, argued that an exclusive focus on wind and solar is misguided at a time when the global energy supply is still dominated by carbon.

He and his colleagues touted the economic benefits of shale gas and insisted that coal can be made much less polluting given the right technology.

"Alarmism," Griffith said, "should not silence realism."

But with many of the alarming pronouncements coming from scientists, Griffith was pressed on whether the US approach really reflected the gravity of the moment.

One audience member asked whether the US government accepted the urgency embedded in the United Nations' recent report: "Do you believe that we have 12 years to save the planet and civilisation as we know it?"

Griffith declined to say.