The UN’s climate chief has been unable to secure a meeting with the US state department as Donald Trump’s administration mulls whether to withdraw the US from the international climate effort.
Patricia Espinosa, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), is currently in the US and has sought a meeting with Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state, and other officials over the commitment of the new administration to global climate goals.
However, Espinosa said she had not had a response to her request and a state department official said there were no scheduled meetings to announce.
The official added: “As with many policies, this administration is conducting a broad review of international climate issues.”
Former US secretaries of state haven’t always met directly with the head of the UNFCCC, with meetings often conducted by the US climate envoy, a position currently vacant. However, the lack of response to Espinosa, the former foreign minister of Mexico, is unusual even given the nascency of the new administration.
“I don’t think it’s a good sign – it’s a snub,” said Maria Ivanova, a global governance expert at the University of Massachusetts. “Patricia Espinosa has been very gracious about this and she understands what it is like to be a foreign minister. But not responding to the executive secretary is not good manners.”
During the presidential campaign, Trump repeatedly vowed to “cancel” the Paris climate accord and stop all American payment to UN global warming programs. His administration’s stated aim is to slash payments to countries threatened by rising seas, crop failures and heatwaves.
Following his election win, Trump said he in fact had an “open mind” about the Paris deal while Tillerson has insisted that the US should have a “seat at the table” in climate talks without specifying exactly what America’s role should be.
There are elements within the administration pushing for a rapid exit from the international climate forum. Quitting the Paris deal, in which 196 nations pledged to keep the global temperature rise to below 2C, would take four years in total.
But exiting the UNFCCC itself would provide a faster route, at about a year, and this approach has been proposed by Steven Groves, a lawyer at the conservative Heritage Foundation, who was part of Trump’s state department landing team.
This stance has been countered by a group that reportedly includes Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter, and her husband, the Trump adviser Jared Kushner. The duo are understood to have convinced Trump to not include language critical of the Paris agreement in a forthcoming executive order. Dozens of large businesses, including Nike, Hewlett-Packard and Ikea, have also urged Trump to stick with the Paris deal.
“There seems to be a debate within the administration about this and it’s clear there are some voices who understand that withdrawing from Paris would have significant diplomatic repercussions,” said David Waskow, director of the international climate initiative at the World Resources Institute.
“Economically, it would also send the unfortunate signal that the US isn’t at the forefront of clean energy technology. There are plenty of reasons to stay within the agreement.”
While Trump has previously dismissed the science of global warming, the potential loss of American prestige and international influence could prove key in keeping the US involved in climate talks.
Climate is a top line issue in forums such as the G7 and G20 and China has already signaled that it will seek to move into a leadership position should the US pull back. Other countries may even exact punitive measures in response to American withdrawal from the effort to maintain a habitable planet.
“Those countries with high ambitions for Paris may impose border adjustment tariffs on the US, which would dramatically increase the prospect of a global trade war,” said John Sterman, director of MIT’s system dynamics group. “That is something that would be very unhelpful.
“If we withdraw from Paris or the UNFCCC, we make it much harder to limit the potentially catastrophic impacts of climate change. That would create a huge flow of refugees from the Middle East and elsewhere who will look to go to the US and Europe. There won’t be a wall big enough to keep out people fleeing floods and crop failures.”
Greenhouse gas emissions cuts pledged by countries at the Paris talks are still insufficient to keep the planet to the 2C warming limit. The world would still be on a pathway to a 3C, or more, temperature increase by the end of the century, which would accelerate sea level rise, trigger food and water insecurity and threaten whole ecosystems such as coral reefs.