At U.N. Climate Conference, Treading Lightly Around the Americans

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If world leaders are angry at the United States for rejecting the Paris climate change agreement, few at United Nations climate talks here are openly showing it.

Delegates from the largest industrial countries to the smallest island states are tiptoeing around the single largest topic of discussion here — the American retreat from leadership on climate change and the Trump administration’s moves to undermine domestic global warming policy and international climate diplomacy.

President Emmanuel Macron of France on Wednesday challenged Europe to “replace America” in financing the United Nations climate change science body, though he did not directly criticize President Trump’s decision to eliminate American contributions to it. The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, praised a coalition of American governors and mayors who, in contrast to the White House stance, are still working to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

Leaders of other nations, from the island of Nauru to landlocked Niger, barely alluded in public remarks to the new posture of the United States, historically the world’s largest emitter of planet-warming gases and now the only country to reject a global solution to climate change.

Achim Steiner, the administrator of the United Nations Development Program, said openly criticizing the Trump administration on climate change would be pointless.

“What is to be gained?” he asked. “The reaction to the U.S. decision was loud and clear from every world leader, so to then go on and on is very unproductive.”

Diplomats are pulling their punches behind the scenes, too. In private negotiating sessions, career State Department staffers have been making headway on technical issues to strengthen the Paris accord. A White House official said none of the American delegates has faced open antagonism.

“We’ve got the best negotiating team in the world. I think that everyone recognizes that here,” said the official, George David Banks, a senior energy adviser to President Trump. “That is one of the reasons other delegations are very supportive of making sure the U.S. delegation is as involved as possible.”

Not everyone is treating the United States with kid gloves, of course. Environmental activists denounced the Trump administration’s planned withdrawal from the Paris agreement at every turn. Mr. Banks on Tuesday found himself cornered by Kumi Naidoo, a South African human rights activist and former executive director of Greenpeace, who told him that “U.S. policies are killing our people.”

But observers agree that most delegates are trying to remain respectful of their American counterparts, whatever private misgivings they may harbor. Many members of the State Department team of career diplomats here are familiar players in these negotiations and are continuing to pursue longstanding objectives, like greater transparency on emissions cuts from developing countries.

Others see pragmatism at work. Mr. Trump, after all, cannot officially pull out of the Paris agreement until 2020. He has also held out the possibility that America might stay in the accord if it can negotiate new, though still undefined, terms.

“There’s this eternal hope that the world will change and the U.S. will come back into the fold, and we’re not allowed to disturb that hope,” said Ian Fry, lead negotiator for the Pacific Ocean island of Tuvalu.

Most, however, said that countries are moving on without the United States and have little interest in relitigating Mr. Trump’s Paris decision.

“The world just doesn’t have time to wait for the United States to decide what it’s doing,” Catherine McKenna, Canada’s environment minister, said. “We’re moving on.”

Yet the loss of American diplomatic heft here is also evident. The Trump administration brought just 48 people to the talks in Bonn, far fewer than in previous years. China, by contrast, registered 81 people for the conference, and Canada 161.

There also is the question of who is in charge. Under President Obama, the climate envoy Todd D. Stern had clear authority to speak for the White House on all negotiating positions. The current State Department official slated to lead the talks, Thomas A. Shannon Jr., canceled at the last minute because of a family emergency, leaving the negotiations largely in the hands of lower-ranking colleagues. Mr. Banks, the White House aide, is here, but he refers most questions to the State Department, which in turn has said it will not be holding any public briefings.

The lack of White House engagement has shifted the dynamics of climate negotiations, diplomats said. Miguel Arias Cañete, Europe’s commissioner for climate change issues, noted the Obama administration was “very active” in engaging China on climate change.

Now, Mr. Cañete said, Europe, along with Canada, has taken over the role of engaging China. “For sure the E.U. would prefer a very active United States here, but we are doing our best without them.”

Mr. Banks said he believed the rest of the world understood that America was indispensable in the climate negotiations regardless of whether it was a party to the Paris agreement.

“Here’s the truth,” he said. “When it gets tough, we stand up to China. We can’t expect the E.U. and others to do that.”

Content originally published on https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/15/climate/bonn-climate-conference.html by LISA FRIEDMAN and BRAD PLUMER