During the United Nations climate negotiations in Katowice, Poland, in December, the cavernous modern convention center at the heart of this grim industrial city was like a spaceship in coal country. Outside, the air was so sulfurous and polluted it gave at least one negotiator a nosebleed as they walked from their hotel to the conference center.
Katowice is the coal capital of the European Union, where hills are hollowed out with mines and the livelihoods of some 90,000 workers are dependent on what the Polish prime minister has called “black gold.” Inside the center, thousands of climate negotiators in dark suits — many of whom had likely never seen a chunk of coal in their lives — scurried down echoing hallways and engaged in long meetings about arcane differences in the language of a document designed to stop the world from burning fossil fuels and save civilization from itself. For 23 years now, climate negotiators have been holding meetings like this, producing millions of hours of talk and millions of pages of documents. And for 23 years, the world has edged closer to climate catastrophe. In Katowice, that failure was apparent with every breath you took.
The task for diplomats in Katowice seemed, at first glance, simple: Flesh out the rules for the Paris Agreement, the landmark 2015 accord in which virtually every nation in the world agreed to voluntarily take action to limit warming to 2 C (3.6 F). What metric will be used to count greenhouse-gas emissions in each country? Which sectors (power plants, vehicles, industrial, etc.) will be counted? Who will verify that the reporting is accurate? These questions might sound trivial, but getting them right is the difference between saving the world and an accounting scam. It is all the more tricky because greenhouse-gas emissions can be seen as a proxy for economic growth, and the notion that a nation like China would allow Americans — or anyone else — to poke around and verify these numbers, sort of the way that nuclear-arms inspectors poke around a missile base, is not easy to accept. Especially given that the U.S. and China are in the midst of a trade war.
But the biggest threat to the climate agreement in Katowice wasn’t paranoid leaders worried about other nations spying on economic data. It was the impulsive stupidity of President Donald Trump, who, as he has made clear in dozens of remarks and tweets, is a shameless and unrepentant climate denier. After Trump spent his presidential campaign touting the wonders of coal, it surprised no one that a few months after being sworn into office he announced he was pulling the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement. By the terms of the agreement itself, the U.S. can’t officially leave until 2020. But Trump, who has zero respect for such norms, could have ordered the State Department not to send a team of negotiators to Katowice. Without the largest economy in the world present, the conference would have been rendered meaningless. Trump also could have sent a team of negotiators with instructions to blow up the talks, as he had blown up the G7 agreement last year. If the Katowice meeting had collapsed, it would have been the end of any global effort to limit carbon pollution for the foreseeable future.
But none of that happened. “At some level, a decision was made to send an experienced team from the State Department,” says Todd Stern, who led U.S. climate negotiations under President Barack Obama and is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. The U.S. not only participated in the negotiations, but the diplomats from the State Department, headed by veteran climate negotiator Trigg Talley, Stern’s former deputy, held the negotiations together and actually strengthened the Paris Agreement’s rulebook. “The unspoken goal of the U.S. team,” says one negotiator, “was to negotiate an agreement that the U.S. could live with, and could use to get back in when the next president is elected.”
Nobody I’ve talked to in the world of climate activism believes this was Trump’s plan. “I don’t think Trump even knew Katowice was happening,” former Secretary of State John Kerry tells Rolling Stone. Instead, the U.S.’s role in Katowice was seen by some negotiators as a quiet insurgency by career diplomats to keep America’s place at the table in global climate negotiations. (In fact, I was asked by several participants not to write about it, lest someone in the White House get wind of it and seek revenge.) While Trump was busy tweeting about Robert Mueller’s “witch hunt,” a bare-bones crew of about 20 diplomats (half the number at the Paris talks) went about their business of saving the world. Or at least saving the Paris climate agreement, which, given the desperation of our times, is no small thing.
THE PARIS AGREEMENT was imperfect, not ambitious enough, and failed to address the many inequities of climate-change impacts. But it was a platform from which a better, stronger agreement could be built. It was also a triumph of American diplomacy. Obama understood that there would be no deal in Paris if China wasn’t on board. China had long argued that it was still a poor, developing country that should be exempt from the rules that govern richer, more developed nations like in Europe, the U.S. and the U.K. After all, Chinese leaders argued, the U.S. and the EU had largely caused the problem of climate change by dumping billions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere over the past 100 years or so — why shouldn’t they be the ones responsible for cleaning it up? This divide between rich and poor nations, and what the rich nations of the world owe the poor, has always been the flashpoint in climate negotiations.
During his second term in office, Obama dispatched Kerry to China to begin talks about how to resolve this rich-nation/poor-nation divide. China had recently surpassed the U.S. to become the largest greenhouse-gas polluter in the world — they could hardly claim that they were not part of the problem. Kerry convinced Chinese leaders of the benefits of tackling climate change, including the boom in clean-energy technology like solar panels, which China saw as a major manufacturing opportunity. Obama followed up with phone calls and talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping. The result: In Paris, the U.S. and China were more or less on the same page, both using their political muscle to make sure the negotiations didn’t falter. And though the Paris deal wasn’t perfect, it resolved a lot of the old disputes between nations and set the world on a new path.
In Katowice, the optimism and momentum of Paris were gone. The U.S. and China were embroiled in a trade war. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a powerful voice for climate action in Paris, was undermined by her own political and economic troubles. Brazil had recently elected a president who thinks climate change should be solved through “family planning.” And instead of Obama leading the charge and trying to pull the world together, you had Trump, who wanted to blow everything up. “Without American leadership, everyone is just laying back,” says Kerry. “Nobody was out there calling attention to the fact that we are on a suicidal trajectory.”
In 2015, when the Paris Agreement was negotiated, many economists believed that global greenhouse-gas emissions had peaked and would decline as clean-energy prices declined and wind and solar power displaced fossil fuels. But that was not the case. In 2018, greenhouse-gas emissions climbed by 2.7 percent, a startling increase that underscored just how unserious the world is about dealing with climate change.
Even worse, recent analysis has made it clear that the level of pollution cuts by 2030 that nations committed to in Paris is nowhere near enough to stave off catastrophe. According to Carbon Tracker, a nonprofit that models climate scenarios, even if the commitments made in Paris were achieved, it would still push the climate far beyond the goal of limiting warming to 1.5 C. Unless nations of the world take dramatic action to increase their ambition to cut emissions, climate chaos is all but guaranteed.
Just how dire things were became clear a few months before Katowice, when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which is the gold standard for climate science, issued a report that suggested even 1.5 C of warming would lead to a radically altered planet, with more wildfires, quickly rising seas and more deadly heat. To avoid that fate, the IPCC report suggested that greenhouse-gas pollution needed to be cut in half in the next 12 years, then fall to zero by 2050 (to limit warming to 2 C, emissions would have to fall to zero by 2075). “[The IPCC report is] like a deafening, piercing smoke alarm going off in the kitchen,” Erik Solheim, former executive director of the U.N. Environment Program, told The Washington Post. “We have to put out the fire.”
When the report was released at a meeting in South Korea in October, old tensions between the U.S. and China erupted. According to one attendee at the meeting, a midlevel Chinese negotiator cornered U.S. climate negotiator Talley in a hallway and had a “heated” conversation with him. “The Chinese negotiator was basically letting the U.S. know that they were not going to be pushed around by the U.S. anymore, and that in Katowice, there were red lines that the Chinese were not going to cross,” the source says. (Talley declined to comment for this article.) “After that, I worried that Katowice would erupt into a fistfight between the U.S. and China.”
CLIMATE NEGOTIATIONS always start with high-minded calls to action, then quickly devolve into diplomatic mud wrestling. On the opening day of the conference in Katowice, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres, who has long been a powerful advocate for climate action, did his best to inspire attendees. “It is hard to overstate the urgency of our situation,” Guterres said in a speech to negotiators. “Even as we witness devastating climate impacts causing havoc across the world, we are still not doing enough, nor moving fast enough, to prevent irreversible and catastrophic climate disruption.” But it was British documentary filmmaker Sir David Attenborough who best summed up what is at stake: “If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilizations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.”
The U.S. delegation was split into two teams. The first was the political operatives, headed by Wells Griffith, a failed Alabama candidate for U.S. Congress who somehow wheedled his way into a job at the Department of Energy. Among other things, Griffith hosted a side event in Katowice, touting the importance of “energy security” for the U.S. and the virtues of “cleaner” fossil fuels. Griffith’s event was interrupted by protesters who stood up and chanted, “Keep it in the ground!” It was a made-for-TV event, one that was apparently crafted to play to Trump’s base on Fox News. George David Banks, a Republican who worked as Trump’s adviser on climate until he resigned after admitting he’d smoked pot, put on a similar sideshow at a U.N. climate session in 2017. “It’s all Kabuki,” Banks tells me. “The protesters are part of the show. The more environmental activists we get marching and shouting at these events, the happier we are. It’s all about playing to the political base back home.”
How did it play at the conference itself? “This event will have no impact on this meeting,” Andrew Light, a former U.S. State Department negotiator and now a senior fellow at the World Resources Institute, told a reporter shortly after the event concluded. “This event has an audience of one person — and that is President Trump.”
A similar moment occurred during the first week of the conference, when the U.S., Russia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait all refused to “welcome” the bombshell IPCC report on the impacts of 1.5 C of warming. Those countries instead asked to “note,” rather than “welcome,” the report’s findings because they refused to endorse the science behind it. Many media outlets played it as a big story — and it was shocking to see the U.S. aligning itself with corrupt fossil-fuel regimes. “It was pretty clear that this was a directive that came straight from the White House,” says Light. Many wrote the move off as political theater. “In the end, whether a report is ‘noted’ or ‘welcomed’ makes no difference,” says Kaveh Guilanpour, lead negotiator for the Marshall Islands and the director of climate change at the nonprofit Independent Diplomat. “It’s the science itself that matters.” (In the final text, the Katowice agreement “welcomes the timely completion” of the IPCC report.) Or as Ralph Regenvanu, Vanuatu’s minister of foreign affairs, put it, “Whether you ‘welcome’ or ‘note’ or shamelessly ignore the science altogether, the fact remains that this is catastrophic for humanity.”
Beyond the political operatives, the U.S. also sent a team of seasoned climate negotiators from the State Department, headed by Talley, an affable, soft-spoken guy, invariably polite, who is in every way the opposite of Trumpian bluster. For Talley and his team, the serious part of the work was on the details of the rulebook. “When the conference began, there were still hundreds of pages of bracketed and blank text,” says Guilanpour. To hammer out the details, Talley and the U.S. delegation worked in backrooms with negotiators from China and other nations. “In these kinds of negotiations, the key is understanding when someone is bluffing and when they are not,” says Elliot Diringer, executive vice president at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. “That takes knowledge and experience.” Unlike in Paris, the U.S. team was playing a weak hand. With Trump doing everything he could to boost fossil fuels and undermine climate science, the U.S. had little political leverage or moral authority to help sway negotiations.
Of all the issues on the table, transparency was the toughest to resolve. How open were nations willing to be about their emissions? And when they claimed emissions reductions, how did other nations know they weren’t bullshitting them? Getting these details right was hugely important for building confidence in the agreement and reassuring skeptics that reductions were real, not just a numbers game.
For developing countries, the question of measuring and monitoring emissions is particularly tricky, not because they are trying to scam the system but because they just don’t have the technology and expertise to do it. “For many developing countries, it is not a matter of hiding the ball, but rather finding the ball,” says Dan Dudek, vice president for Asia at the Environmental Defense Fund. “Rule of law, emissions reporting, legal accountability, enforcement are all a work in progress for most developing countries. As you might imagine, these topics and capacities are not always highest on the priority list.”
One issue that was a particular sticking point was figuring out when the counting of emissions would officially begin under the Paris Agreement. Would the start date be the same for all countries, or would some developing nations have flexibility? In Katowice, China had been holding out for a start date of 2026, while the U.S. pushed for 2022. In the end, after weeks of negotiating, the deal ended up at 2024, with some flexibility for developing nations. “This might seem like a small detail, but it is the kind of thing, if it’s not handled right, that can stall negotiations and lead to much bigger problems,” says Brookings’ Stern.
Among other things, Talley and his team managed to keep the peace with China. Andrew Rakestraw, a climate negotiator with the U.S. State Department, had been quietly co-chairing meetings with Chinese officials for nearly two years prior to Katowice to help iron out differences and shore up trust, according to a source familiar with the talks. In Katowice, the U.S. team gave enough ground on flexibility in the rules for developing nations to ensure that the old tiff with the developed world never opened, and yet remained rigorous enough to give the agreement real teeth. “What the U.S. team accomplished was a diplomatic tour de force,” says Guilanpour. Stern, who knows this terrain better than anyone, agrees: “In the end, we got pretty strong rules of the road. I’m not sure that the results would have been better under, say, a Hillary Clinton administration.”
A number of the toughest issues, such as how poor nations will be compensated for loss and damages, were, as usual, put off until the next conference in 2020. And despite the ever-accelerating risks the world faces from climate change, there was no sign that nations were ready to dramatically increase their ambitions to cut greenhouse gases. As 15-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg put it in a talk that was widely circulated on social media, “Until you start focusing on what needs to be done rather than what is politically possible, there is no hope. We cannot solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis.” Or as Kerry tells me, “The U.S. team in Katowice did a great job. But there is no reason to be sanguine. We are still on cruise control, and participating in a mutual suicide pact for the planet.”
Nevertheless, what went down in Katowice was a small but not imperceptible sign that maybe all hope is not lost. “The Paris Agreement could have died in Katowice,” says Li Shuo, head of Greenpeace-China. “Instead, it lives. The question now is, ‘Who will step up and show some ambition and political leadership?’ ” Or as Guilanpour puts it, “The age of climate negotiations is now over. It is time for the age of ambition to begin.” At least until 2020, when the U.S. presidential election might inject some urgency into taking action on climate, that ambition is more likely to come from China than America. “The Chinese understand what’s at stake,” says Kerry. Given Trump’s claim that climate change is a Chinese hoax, it would be a great irony if climate change were, in fact, the issue that allows China to assert itself as a global leader. However it plays out, in Katowice, at a moment when liberal democracies are tottering and nationalism is on the rise, there was a feeling of triumph even among hard-nosed critics of climate agreements and a sense that, for the moment, the forces of darkness had been vanquished. “In Katowice,” says Jennifer Morgan, executive director of Greenpeace International, “I think everyone decided that we were not going to let one corrupt, morally bankrupt person destroy the world. Even if that person is the president of the United States.”
This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Kaveh Guilanpour’s name. We regret the error.