Last year I attended the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of Parties (CoP) for the first time. It was an experience in dichotomies. The events on the periphery (side events) were energetic and forward-oriented. Al Gore did his thing updated with a little Greta Thunberg-esque ferocity, and presentations at country pavilions highlighted a ranging of exciting developments from new advances in wind turbine design to a novel way to visualize national and city level carbon emissions. The events involving the member parties to the UNFCCC were closed to observers (this was not always the case) but were, as we now know, largely a failure. The indications of the pending collapse of the talks were not difficult to discern. At a plenary updating participants and observers on the progress of various negotiations, the president of the CoP called for the participants to be ambitious at least half a dozen times—a clear indication that the negotiations between the UNFCCC parties were anything but. The reports from the various working groups almost uniformly reported limited progress and what we now know was a fruitless search for ‘landing pads’. The negotiations were mired in differences, petty and otherwise. 

As an American, it is difficult to assess the significance of the meaningful absence of the United States. Given that, from what I say the absence was palatable. The CoP president invoked ambition. Let’s consider the possible contenders to lead (or generate) that ambition in the absence of the United States. 

Russia: Leaving aside that Putin has denied the science and the Russian government just published a report highlighting the ‘benefits’ of climate change, Russia just does not have the global heft. With a nominal GDP somewhere in the neighborhood of $1.3 trillion, Russia does not have the economic mass to change global climate policy inertia.  

China: Sometimes China under Xi Jinping’s leadership is feted as a new global leader to fill the void left by the United States. Certainly, China can and should take credit for climate friendly advancements like the dramatic drop in the price of solar photovoltaics. But in the run up to CoP 25 China sent pretty clear signals it would not be leading the way. And China’s agenda is parochial, not global. Look for example at the message on China’s pavilion:

A picture containing text from China's national pavillion at CoP 25

In the first instance Chinese policy is driven by internal concerns. And reports indicate that Chinese credibility on global climate policy is undermined by a failure to match words with deeds. For example, while global use of coal has dropped Chinese use has continued to grow—so much so that Chinese grown in energy production from coal more than offset global reductions. 

EU: The EU is doing good things on climate, and has been the only global-level actor making any progress on the issue. But the EU is also not quite a state actor and can only go as far as the 28 27 member states will tolerate. True, climate policy falls under the European Commission’s common market regulatory competency and so the EU has more autonomy here than on many policy matters. But addressing climate change requires a wholesale redevelopment of the foundations of modern political economies, which far exceeds the Commission’s market regulation competency. Thus, barring a change in the governance structure, the EU will struggle to take the kinds of…ambitious…climate policies that the IPCC indicates are necessary to avoid the worst effects of climate change. 

As a state with fully vested agential capabilities, the historically largest emitter of climate change gases, and the world’s largest economy, the United States is the only actor with the possibility of overcoming the bickering that paralyzed CoP 25. But there is little hope that will happen. Some would like to blame Trump, but in this case he is a symptom rather than a cause. As Josh has shown, when Americans reach consensus on the need for environmental policy, the federal government acts. But when that consensus is missing, government policy is inconsistent. Hello climate policy! So ultimately blame lies with Americans and their failure to acknowledge and act on climate science. What CoP 25 so painfully demonstrates is that Americans are not just sinking themselves by continuing to invest in 19th century carbon-intensive energy technology, they will pull down the rest of the world with them.

Hope, one might argue, lies in the possibility that President Trump may lose the 2020 election, thereby restoring US leadership. Even if Trump loses (and leaving aside Josh’s argument), that will not come in time for the 2020 CoP—a crucial meeting in which signatories to the Paris Agreement are scheduled to announce new, enhanced Nationally Determined Contributions superseding those put forward (and mostly unmet) during the 2015 CoP that created the Paris framework. If the world misses 2020, the Paris framework stands a very good chance of coming unraveled. Doing so would take down the years of work it took to get even that limited agreement. After seeing the failure in Madrid up close, I think have only the faintest and fading glimmers of hope that the international system can generate real progress in time to head off the worst effects of climate change.