This year’s international climate negotiations in Bonn, Germany, are supposed to focus on increasing ambition and making progress on issues like finance, adaptation, loss and damage. At COP23, countries need to come together to work out ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions faster. A new report from the United Nations Environment Program has highlighted that we risk three degrees of warming by the century’s end unless countries act more quickly.

Instead, President Donald Trump has thrown a spanner in the works by announcing his intent to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. The United States is the largest single contributor to climate change, so this looks like a real problem. But what does it actually mean?

For starters, the US hasn’t actually withdrawn from the Paris Agreement, yet. The earliest they can do so is likely to be in November 2020, when Trump is up for re-election. If he runs again, he’ll almost certainly face a pro-climate action challenger.

US climate negotiators will still be present in Bonn, but it’s not clear what role they’ll play. Given Trump’s hostility to climate action and his fondness for coal, they’re unlikely to be productive. It’s believed that the Trump administration will use the negotiations to emphasise the importance of continuing to use coal, natural gas and nuclear energy – two of which are major contributors to greenhouse gas emissions.

We also know that Trump has been hostile to the Green Climate Fund, which supports developing nations to respond to climate change, saying it was “costing the United States a vast fortune” of “billions and billions and billions” of dollars.

In reality, US contributions to date have been much smaller, totalling USD 1 billion out of a total pledge of USD 3 billion. It’s unlikely that more funds will be forthcoming in the near future, which will anger some developing nations that have already accused the US of not paying its fair share.

But there are reasons to be hopeful that the US can play a productive role in Bonn and beyond. Every other level of the US government will be represented and, for the most part, they’ll be there to show their commitment to the pledge the US made in Paris.

Thousands of mayors, governors, tribal leaders, CEOs and American citizens are working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. These parallel efforts, and a coalition called We Are Still In, represent more than half the US population and 54% of US economic output. Jerry Brown, the governor of California, and Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City, have launched an initiative to compile and quantify these actions, with the aim of ensuring that the US reduces its carbon emissions as pledged under the Paris Agreement.

They have political and economic incentives to do so. Polling shows that Americans strongly support the Paris Agreement and the development clean energy. The clean energy industry is booming, with solar photovoltaic installers and wind turbine service technicians being the two fastest growing jobs in the country.

And there are other incentives to act. A leaked draft of the forthcoming US National Climate Assessment finds that climate change is already amplifying extreme weather events such as hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, and wildfires such as those in California.

This hurricane season is expected to be the costliest in history and the US stands to suffer billions more climate-related costs, potentially reaching USD 35 billion a year by 2050. The mayor of Puerto Rico’s San Juan, which was devastated by Hurricane Maria, is likely to attend the conference and make the case for the US to play its part.

And in the absence of US leadership in the negotiations, other actors are likely to step up. President Xi recently renewed China’s commitment to climate action and the Paris Agreement. But there are limits to the role China can play as it is not classified as a developed country. Under normal circumstances, the European Union would be expected to provide leadership in Bonn, but ongoing German coalition and Brexit negotiations may limit its ability to do so.

To stop dangerous climate change, the US will need to meet and probably exceed its Paris Agreement targets. The efforts of cities, states and businesses are to be welcomed and can make a real difference, but the sooner the federal government is back, engaged and serious about its international commitments, the better.

Tan Copsey is a director at Climate Nexus, a strategic communications group dedicated to highlighting the impacts of climate change and clean energy solutions in the United States.

This article was first published on

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