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How The U.S. Can Still Advance Climate Negotiations Under The Trump Administration


At the big climate summit in Poland, officials from around the world are in the final days of negotiating how to implement the Paris Climate Agreement. That's the deal that countries made three years ago acknowledging the need to slow rising global temperatures. President Trump is pulling the U.S. out of that deal. But the U.S. delegation is still there in Poland, working alongside others on rules that will govern things like how countries report what they are doing to reduce emissions.


For more on how that's going, we called someone who's not in the official delegation but knows the work well. Jonathan Pershing led negotiations in Paris as President Obama's special envoy for climate change. I asked him whether the U.S. can still be fully at the table despite its intention to leave the Paris Agreement.

JONATHAN PERSHING: Yes, absolutely. And to be clear, the United States is in - in a formal matter, in a formal way - until all the paperwork has been signed. And the process that it's choosing to go through keeps it in this negotiating process until the day after the next presidential election.

CORNISH: But isn't that unfair to the other countries involved, right? I mean, essentially, you have people helping to write the nitty-gritty rules and details of a deal that they may not even adhere to themselves.

PERSHING: Certainly, there's some perception in some places that that's true. But I think there's a larger perception that the U.S. is very much - very, very supportive of and legitimately supportive of strong international rules. And in some cases, like in this presidency, there's not a lot of interest in the substance that's underlying them. But it doesn't mean the rules themselves are less well-developed. And in fact, this is an exercise even being co-chaired by a technical expert from the United States. And he's reaching broad agreement around the world on the structure of these rules.

CORNISH: You sound really optimistic. Usually, when I talk to a former Obama administration person, the Paris Climate Agreement is on the list of, like, legacies torn asunder.

PERSHING: So I think there should be two different pieces of this discussion. The first one is the detailed rule-making, and that's going pretty well. Countries are going to agree, and that's going to move forward. The second is the withdrawal of the United States. That's a big blow to the system, but then there's one more piece. And that's reflected by civil society, by business representatives, by the finance community, and they're all here in force. And they're not talking about the details of the rules.

They're talking about what's happening on the ground. They're talking about the fact that it's now cheaper to build a renewable plant than it is to build a coal facility. They're talking about the fact that there are new technologies available for batteries that will extend the range of an electric vehicle and that can replace wind power when the wind stops running. They're talking about options for agriculture and forestry which will be not only competitive but low-carbon. Those things are the real on-the-ground things. They're happening and continuing to happen because Paris was adopted. And they're continuing to happen because they believe that governments, in adopting the rulebook, will continue to push for these even if the U.S. is out.

CORNISH: You know, Donald Trump's presidency has meant basically an about-face for at least the mainstream message coming out of the White House around climate change. He no longer calls climate change a hoax, but the president still questions the role that humans play in changing the climate. How big of a hindrance is that when it comes to the global effort to do something?

PERSHING: So I think people broadly around the world dismiss his reaction to the science. No other country really has picked it up in a serious way. What we see instead, though, is that the fact that the U.S. is slowing its efforts to combat the threat - that does have an effect. So if the U.S., for example, stops pushing on coal, others feel emboldened themselves to slow that program. If the U.S. stops its push on electric vehicles, others feel, well, maybe the market won't be as big; maybe we should slow our own program. Those kinds of slowdowns really get reflected in the things that we're going to have to do to solve the problem. And they are really a detriment to the global effort.

CORNISH: Jonathan Pershing was the State Department's special envoy on climate change under President Obama. He's now with the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. We should note they're an NPR sponsor. Thank you for speaking with us.

PERSHING: It was a pleasure. Thanks very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.