7 may 2019

China Rises in U.N. Climate Talks, While U.S. Goes AWOL

As the global body becomes increasingly identified with tackling climate change, Trump refuses to take part, handing the reins to Beijing.

By Colum Lynch and Robbie Gramer, Foreign Policy, May 7, 2019, 5:13 PM

In a bid to slow the pace of global warming, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres has invited major powers, including Britain, China, India, France, and Turkey, to help shape the environmental agenda at a major U.N. climate summit in New York in September. The United States, which the U.N. encouraged to participate, has yet to say whether it will attend the high-level meeting and has opted out of the preliminary negotiations—leaving it to others, including rivals like Beijing, to write the rules.

The absence of U.S. negotiators from the U.N. talks risks undercutting the White House’s effort at the U.N. to contain the rise of China, which has taken the lead in several forums on environmental issues. With Washington on the sidelines, Beijing—at Guterres’s invitation—will co-chair discussions at the U.N. with New Zealand on “nature-based solutions” to global warming, including management of forests, rivers, lakes, and oceans.

“By staying out of these negotiations, the U.S. is basically giving Beijing a free pass,” Richard Gowan, a U.N. expert at the International Crisis Group, told Foreign Policy. “So much of the current effort to contain China at the U.N. boils down to bickering over language in not very important resolutions. I think the Trump administration is missing the big picture, which is that for a lot of countries climate diplomacy is the most important part of what the U.N. does.”

The moves come as the United States has stepped up a diplomatic campaign to stall the march of international progress on diplomatic measures to curb the rise of greenhouse gases that are warming the earth. The White House has selected a climate change doubter to lead a commission to scrutinize a raft of U.S. and international studies detailing the impact a warmer climate is having on the Earth. In an Arctic Council meeting this week in Rovaniemi, Finland, the United States blocked the international body from even mentioning climate change in a final outcome declaration.

Speaking at the meeting, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made no mention of climate change and instead touted “new opportunities for trade” presented by the melting of the polar ice caps.

He also warned of geopolitical and security challenges in the Arctic, calling out Russia’s military build-up in the region and warning China “could use its civilian research presence in the Arctic to strengthen its military presence.”

The U.N., meanwhile, has been serving up a raft of studies detailing the alarming risk posed by climate change, which has been accelerating at a pace unforeseen by previous forecasts and bringing with it more violent wildfires, storms, and flooding across the globe. On Monday, the U.N. warned that 1 million animal and plant species are threatened with extinction. For now, climate change is only the third key contributor to the decimation of biodiversity, behind unsustainable sea and land use practices and the overexploitation of organisms. But the impact of climate change on biodiversity is growing and will in some cases surpass the threat posed by human exploitation of sea and land.

It was the latest report to land with a noiseless thud in Washington, where President Donald Trump has continued espousing skeptical views of climate change despite the dire warnings from the U.N., the U.S. military, and scientists in his own government. It has left foreign delegates frustrated by the administration’s dismissal of the mounting body of scientific evidence that is screaming at policymakers to act to address the Earth’s health.

“Warnings based on science deserve to be taken seriously,” said Kai Sauer, Finland’s U.N. ambassador. “Early warning and prevention have become essential functions of today’s U.N. Previously, this was predominantly the case in the field of peace and security, but today increasingly in areas such as development, climate change, and, most recently, biodiversity.”

“The disappearance of biodiversity is, with climate change, another existential threat to humanity,” France’s U.N. ambassador, François Delattre, told Foreign Policy. “What does it take for the awareness of this man-made tragedy, a kind of genesis in reverse, to cross the beltway?”

Paul Bodnar, a former senior National Security Council aide on energy and climate change under former President Barack Obama’s administration, said such warnings aren’t likely to gain much traction in Trump’s Washington.

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