"And they used to love us
No one likes us,
I don’t know why,
We may not be perfect,
But heaven knows we try"
— Randy Newman, “Political Science.”
Imagine a complex of beautiful, modern buildings on the UN campus hugging the Rhine River in Bonn, Germany, the birthplace of Beethoven.
Imagine that within that complex there is a critical international conference on the most pressing issue facing the planet. Every country on earth has sent a substantial delegation of diplomats, scientists and economists to that conference, and each delegation is empowered to pledge some of its country’s resources to help address the problem.
Every country except one, that is. That country — the richest, most powerful and, arguably, most technologically advanced on the planet — has sent a token delegation that’s empowered to tell the rest of the world that it will not help solve the problem. Adding insult to injury, that country’s delegation promotes the antithesis to the solutions.
This was the scene at the early November COP23 UN climate change conference in Bonn, a gathering of the world’s nations charged with strengthening the historic 2015 COP21 Paris Climate Accord’s agreements. COP23 agenda items included ways to bolster the COP21 emissions pledges, which currently are insufficient to keep global warming below the dangerous 2ºC level; determining how much developed nations should compensate developing nations for mitigation of and adaption to climate change caused by the developed nations; and consideration of new technological and economic approaches to reducing emissions and sequestering atmospheric carbon.
While the rest of the world debated these issues, the skeletal U.S. delegation, in its sole public presentation, advanced a proposal that virtually all of the other delegates, the COP23 public audience and climate experts worldwide immediately condemned as toxic: In order to fight global warming, we should burn more coal and other fossil fuels, along with developing non-renewable nuclear energy.
The panel delivering that message featured executives of two major U.S. coal companies, along with representatives of other fossil fuel companies and a nuclear energy corporation that’s currently in with federal funders — but no solar or wind industry representatives. The panel was led by one David Banks, the U.S. President’s chief climate advisor, who confessed during an interview at COP23 that he doesn’t understand the importance or even the meaning of the 2ºC danger threshold.
Stating that fossil fuels will continue to be used, Banks tried to make the case that we must burn “cheap” coal to help bring people out of poverty so they can be more environmentally responsible, and, therefore, we should burn it as cleanly and efficiently as possible. His remarks were seconded by an executive of a coal company that has sponsored numerous groups that deny global warming and lobby against environmental regulations. She promoted the idea of “clean coal” energy generation using carbon capture and storage (CCS). To make her case, she cited the “success” of the Petra Nova CCS project, a money-losing coal-fired electrical plant in Texas that captures its CO2 emissions and stores them by flushing remnant oil out of underground reservoirs.
To cap off the panel’s presentation, Barry Worthington, Director of the U.S. Energy Association, claimed that the major oil companies he represents are already cutting carbon and said, “Frankly, we don’t need the Paris plan.”
Imagine 200 mostly young COP23 guests interrupting the panel’s presentation with a protest song, then leaving the room, while others remained and asked hostile questions.
Imagine, too, the swift reaction of governments and NGOs to the “pathetic isolation” and irrelevance of the official U.S. delegation at COP23. We’ll air their objections in upcoming columns, but for now we’ll ask the U.S. panel a rhetorical question: “If CO2 doesn’t cause global warming, why do we need CCS at our ecological house?”