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November 14, 2017

It’s an unfortunate fact of life that in any international space, the U.S. takes up more than its fair share of space. Paradoxically, at the UN climate negotiations going on now in Bonn, the U.S. is getting more attention than ever from the press, despite – or because of – the Trump administration’s announcement earlier this year that it would be withdrawing from the Paris Agreement on climate change.

In other words, even in a space we claim to be abandoning, we’re still getting all the attention.

There are really at least three different crowds representing the United States here:

  • the official government delegation, which has been up to all its usual ugly tricks;
  • the “We’re Still In” crowd of pro-climate elected officials and VIPs, who are trying to take up the mantle of climate action since the Trump administration wants nothing to do with it; and
  • the climate justice activists, who were ashamed of the U.S. in this space even before Trump came along, and obviously aren’t feeling any better about it now.

The less said about the official delegation, the better. While they haven’t (yet) taken a radically Trump-like direction and tried to blow everything up, they’ve been obstructionist as usual on all the things that matter most to developing countries. A huge issue is that of financial support for countries facing irreparable “loss and damage” due to climate impacts – for example, sea level rise for small island countries. The U.S. led a bloc of countries in refusing to even discuss loss and damage finance.

Similarly, developing countries want to hear what the world’s rich countries are doing in terms of climate action before 2020 (the Paris Agreement pledges don’t go into effect until 2020, and so an entire track of negotiations has been going on in parallel since 2012 to implement pre-2020 action as well). The U.S. and other rich countries refuse to even allow a discussion of pre-2020 action to be put on the agenda here in Bonn.

These positions are hardly new, but the fact that the U.S. has announced its intention to leave the Paris Agreement makes them particularly appalling. Yesterday, a group of US NGOs delivered thousands of petitions to the tiny US delegation office, asking the U.S. negotiators to stand down, stop blocking progress and let the rest of the world get on with the work. The petition was received by an extremely angry delegate who shut the door on the activists and refused to engage.

The “We’re Still In” crowd is much more interesting. They’ve paid for and erected a massive tent outside the official negotiation venue, dubbed the U.S. Climate Action Center, complete with free coffee and wifi. A host of elected officials, including five senators and several governors, have given speeches along with various business leaders, saying that the Trump administration does not speak for the real United States here.

This is really quite unprecedented. Try to imagine if any other country did this – a group of government officials staging a massive, expensive, and highly public protest against another group of government officials. It’s sort of mind-boggling and awesome.

It’s also not entirely unproblematic. The people who spoke at the U.S. Climate Action Center are not exactly all champions of the world we need if we’re to fix the climate crisis. There were folks from Wal-Mart and other big corporations whose climate and environmental efforts are still little more than greenwashing (to say nothing of their labor policies). There were former Obama administration negotiators who, in these negotiations, literally did the same things the current US delegation is doing – blocking progress on crucial issues like loss & damage, climate finance, pre-2020 action. There was Jerry Brown, governor of California, who has close ties to the oil industry.

What unifies this set of people? They are all from the U.S., of course, and they are all better than Donald Trump when it comes to climate change.

That is, of course, a remarkably low bar. So while it’s been undeniably helpful to have an alternative US presence here, taking airtime away from the Trump administration’s negotiators, it’s also a dangerous trap to pretend that this alternative US crowd are the climate champions we need. Luckily, the third US crowd – the climate justice activists and people directly affected by climate impacts, pipeline construction and more – have also been out in force to hold these folks to account, and pressure them to become climate champions.

Last week, when Governor Brown first addressed the crowd at the U.S. Climate Action Center, he was confronted by activists angry at his positions on fracking and California’s market-based “cap and trade” mechanism of limiting greenhouse gas emissions. This model has been a proven failure in many contexts and is a distraction from the kind of actual regulation that is needed. Many of those same activists were out in force yesterday at an official US-government event promoting coal and nuclear power as climate solutions, staging a beautiful action in which they disrupted the event with song and then walked out, leaving the room mostly empty. They were supported outside by a huge gathering of protestors (pictured above) chanting loudly enough to be heard in the meeting room.

So when trying to make sense of the U.S. at these negotiations, pay attention to all three camps: the Trump administration, out of necessity and to inform our resistance; We’re Still In, as an impressive example of a mainstream refusal to accept the Trump agenda; and the activists, for a clear-eyed vision of what we really need. Indeed, pay attention to the activists most of all. It’s only the climate justice movement whose narratives and demands, difficult and utopian as they may seem, point towards a world in which we achieve a truly just and sustainable world.