KATOWICE, Poland – Trump administration officials at high-stakes climate talks here offered an unapologetic defense of fossil fuels Monday, arguing that a rapid retreat from coal, oil and gas was unrealistic.
While that stance brought scorn from environmentalists and countries that favor stronger action to fight global warming, there are signs that the administration is finding a receptive audience among other major fossil-fuel producers, including Russia, Saudi Arabia and Australia.
President Donald Trump’s international energy and climate adviser, Wells Griffith, hosted a panel discussion on fossil fuels at the U.N. conference, arguing that the developing world would be heavily reliant on coal, oil and gas for some time and that it was in the world’s interest to find more efficient ways of developing and burning those fuels.
The panel was interrupted by scores of noisy protesters who chanted, “Shame on you!” and “Keep it in the ground!”
“The United States has an abundance of natural resources and is not going to keep them in the ground,” Griffith said. “We strongly believe that no country should have to sacrifice their economic prosperity or energy security in pursuit of environmental sustainability.”
Despite the protests, it appeared that the U.S. was emerging as the leader of an informal fossil-fuel bloc in a way that hasn’t been seen since Trump announced that the country would withdraw from the Paris Agreement on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Also on the panel was Patrick Suckling, Australia’s ambassador for the environment, who agreed that “fossil fuels are projected to be a major source of energy for a significant time to come.” He spoke in favor of technology for capturing carbon dioxide from coal plants and burying it, and noted that such technology could be exported.
The public endorsement of fossil fuels came two days after the Trump administration helped block the U.N. climate conference from embracing the findings of a major scientific report on global warming. It amounted to a show of disdain for the Paris pact at a gathering meant to establish a set of rules for implementing it.
The United States — along with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Russia — refused to allow a collective statement that would “welcome” the report, issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which detailed a variety of strategies for cutting global fossil-fuel emissions roughly in half by 2030 in order to avoid many dangerous effects of climate change.
Instead, the countries, all major oil and gas exporters, demanded the conference only “note” the existence of the report and thank the scientists for their work.
While the difference between welcoming and noting a report might seem slight, in the world of diplomacy it essentially means the difference between endorsement and neutrality. The 2015 Paris Agreement almost fell apart in a feud over the words “should” versus “shall.”
In seeking to water down the language adopting the IPCC report, delegates said, the Trump administration sent a powerful message that it rejects not only the Paris accord but also the scientific underpinning of the negotiations.
“I don’t see any reason why any government or country can deny what the science says,” said Amjad Abdulla of the Maldives, chief negotiator for a bloc of island nations known as the Alliance of Small Island States. “It sends a very bad signal.”
The U.N. report forecast what would happen if average global temperatures rose by 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, over preindustrial levels and warned “there is no documented historic precedent” for the scale of changes needed to avoid the worst damage.
The U.S. alignment with Kuwait, Russia and particularly Saudi Arabia also injected a new dynamic that several diplomats said they found worrisome. Saudi Arabia in particular has long been accused of outright obstruction in the climate talks. Several diplomats said seeing America standing with Saudi Arabia in rejecting science was shocking.
“The U.S. along with Saudi Arabia are playing a clear and calculated spoiling role in the climate change negotiations,” said Ian Fry, the lead negotiator for Tuvalu. He called the countries’ official indifference to the U.N. report “truly disturbing.”
Others noted that the U.S. and Saudi Arabia were at odds on some issues, like whether developed and developing countries should be held to the same transparency standards for meeting emissions-cutting goals, and dismissed the idea that the countries were working together in a coordinated way to derail the talks.
The disagreement over the U.N. report may have helped to fundamentally alter the perception of what role the United States intends to play from now on under the Trump administration.