WASHINGTON/OSLO (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump has bashed international efforts to combat climate change and questioned the scientific consensus that global warming is dangerous and driven by human consumption of fossil fuels.
But there is a disconnect between what Trump says at home and what his government does abroad. While attention has been focused on Trump’s rhetoric, State Department envoys, federal agencies, and government scientists remain active participants in international efforts to both research and fight climate change, according to U.S. and foreign representatives involved in those efforts.
“We really don’t detect any change with the Americans,” said one of the officials, Aleksi Härkönen of Finland, who chairs the eight-nation Arctic Council’s key group of senior officials, who are charged with protecting a region warming faster than any other on Earth.
Over the past year, the United States has helped draft the rulebook for implementing the Paris climate accord, signed international memoranda calling for global action to fight climate change, boosted funding for overseas clean energy projects, and contributed to global research on the dangers and causes of the Earth’s warming.
While the United States’ participation in international forums – including the Paris accord and the Arctic Council - has been reported, its continued, broad and constructive support for climate change efforts in these gatherings has not.
This business-as-usual approach has surprised some of America’s foreign partners, along with some of Trump’s allies, who had expected the new administration to match its rhetoric with an obstructionist approach to combating climate change.
“I am concerned that much of our climate policy remains on autopilot,” complained Trump’s former energy adviser Myron Ebell, now a research director at the right-leaning Competitive Enterprise Institute, who said it reflects a failure by the administration to fill key positions and replace staffers who oppose the president’s agenda.
The U.S. efforts abroad to tackle climate change have been counter-balanced by Trump’s aggressive push at home to increase production of the fossil fuels scientists blame for global warming. He has also ordered a wide-ranging rollback of Obama-era climate regulations and appointed a self-described climate skeptic, Scott Pruitt, as the nation’s chief environmental regulator.
And to be sure, none of the U.S. dealings in international climate efforts since last year have committed the United States to any emissions cuts that would undermine Trump’s domestic energy agenda.
The State Department – which handles the bulk of U.S. climate policy abroad - told Reuters it was still developing its global warming policy under Trump.
“In the meantime, we will continue to participate ... to ensure a level playing field that benefits and protects U.S. interests, and to keep all options open for the President,” State Department spokesman Ambrose Sayles said in a statement before Trump sacked Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday.
Tillerson’s departure leaves a question mark over the future of U.S. climate policy abroad. Tillerson was in favor of the Paris accord, while his successor, Mike Pompeo, has expressed doubts about the science of climate change. Climate advocates say they hope Pompeo will be too distracted by tensions with Iran and North Korea to change the State Department’s approach to climate change.
White House spokesman Raj Shah did not respond to specific questions about how the U.S. was conducting its climate policy overseas, but said the administration sought to balance economic and environmental concerns.
“The climate has changed and is always changing,” Shah said. “To address climate change as well as other risks, the United States will continue to promote access to the affordable and reliable energy needed to grow economically, and to support technology, innovation and the development of modern and efficient infrastructure that will reduce emissions and enable us to address future risks.”
Trump announced last year that he was withdrawing the United States from the Paris Agreement to fight global warming, raising concerns among other parties to the deal that Washington might attempt to torpedo the accord or disengage from it completely.
That hasn’t happened. Washington sent a 40-strong delegation to talks in Bonn in November to help draft rules of the road for the 200 participating nations. It was a smaller delegation than Washington had sent to past meetings, but it still won praise from fellow delegates for its work.
For example, Andrew Rakestraw – a climate negotiator for the State Department since 2013 - co-chaired discussions on how to ensure that the pledges by signatories are comparable and use the same accounting standards - a point seen as critical to the success of the accord.
Nazhat Shameem Khan, chief negotiator for Fiji, which presided over the talks, said the United States delegation was “constructive and helpful.” The U.N.’s climate chief, Patricia Espinosa, also called the U.S. role constructive.
Thomas Shannon, the State Department’s chief climate negotiator in Bonn, did not respond to requests for comment. Rakestraw also did not respond to calls and emails requesting comment.
A U.S. source familiar with the U.S. position at the talks, who asked not to be named, said that U.S. delegates in Bonn were pushing an agenda that resembled those of past administrations – stressing that emerging economies like China follow the same rules as developed nations and meet international standards for monitoring and reporting emissions.
There was one jarring note: Washington sponsored a side event to promote “clean coal.” Some other delegates said they were unhappy with this, as they wanted the talks to focus on renewable energies.
Under the details of the accord, the United States cannot formally withdraw until 2020.
The State Department’s delegations to the Arctic Council are continuing their work in much the same way they did under President Barack Obama - acknowledging that warming is real and should be countered in planning everything from new shipping routes to the protection of indigenous peoples.
Some U.S. agencies are also still bolstering international efforts to fight climate change.
The Overseas Private Investment Corporation, which seeks to advance U.S. policy by financing foreign business ventures, doubled its support for solar projects in 2017 under a climate-friendly policy last updated by the Obama administration.
And NASA, the U.S. space agency, continues to research climate change, publish climate change data, and contribute to international reports, spokesman Stephen Cole said.
Both OPIC and NASA are independent of the State Department, so would not be under Pompeo’s sway.
Scientists representing the United States in international research say they have also been unfettered by the Trump administration, despite concerns early in the Trump presidency that the White House would seek to silence them or restrict their work.
“There has been no pressure on U.S. authors,” said one U.S. scientist, who is now helping to write a United Nations report that will call for coal to be “phased out rapidly” to limit global warming - a direct clash with Trump’s pro-coal agenda.
The scientist asked not to be named because the draft report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), due to be released in October, is confidential.
“Our U.S. colleagues know that climate change is not a hoax,” said one of the non-U.S. authors of the same report, who also spoke on condition of anonymity.
Christopher Field, a professor of environmental studies at Stanford University who co-chaired a 2014 IPCC report on the impacts of climate change, agreed: “I’ve not seen any indication that the climate denialism from Trump and other members of the administration has had any influence ... on the alignment of the U.S. scientific community with the scientific consensus around the world.”
Still, scientists worry that while the Trump administration is not interfering with their research it is ignoring it.
The Trump administration made no move to block an assessment by 300 experts last year that outlined the threats and causes of warming in the United States and concluded there is “no convincing alternative explanation” for climate change than human activity.
“But then they haven’t acknowledged the findings, nor changed their climate science denying stance,” said the U.S. scientist involved in drafting the U.N. coal report.
Additional reporting by Valerie Volcovici in Washington and Nichola Groom in Los Angeles; Editing by Richard Valdmanis and Ross Colvin