Trump sends civil servants to major climate talks

Source: Jean Chemnick, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, September 5, 2018

The Trump administration is expected to send career staff — not political appointees — to high-stakes international climate talks that kick off this week in Bangkok and continue into the fall.

The White House and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo haven’t nominated officials for posts that would typically represent the United States at those talks, and civil servants are preparing to attend.

The lack of political envoys at international climate talks is the latest evidence that the negotiations aren’t a high priority for a president who proudly signaled plans to withdraw from the Paris climate accord. The administration maintains that it will have an active presence at this fall’s negotiations to ensure national interests, but some conservatives say the administration is missing a valuable chance to push its energy agenda abroad.

“The United States continues to actively participate in ongoing climate negotiations to protect and advance U.S. interests and approaches, in particular ensuring a level playing field,” said a State Department spokesman.

But Office of Global Change Director Trigg Talley, a career official who is expected to represent the United States in Bangkok, is said to have had limited interaction with President Trump’s political team, and that worries some conservatives. He also played a key role in negotiating the Paris Agreement in 2015 under President Obama.

“If this kind of flies under the radar and [Trump’s political team is] not ingrained in the discussions as to what Trigg ought to say and how the United States is going to participate, I think then it becomes a huge missed opportunity,” said Nick Loris, an energy economist at the Heritage Foundation.

The Bangkok meeting this week aims to make progress on a rulebook for the Paris climate accord. That rulebook is due to be substantially completed by year’s end.

Talley will also be the point person at next month’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change meeting in South Korea, which could turn up the pressure to tighten emissions commitments by banishing the notion that the world will be safe if temperatures rise by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. And he may still be effectively the point person when the rulebook is finalized — if it is — in Katowice, Poland, in December.

Some business advocates see Talley as a reliable voice for long-held U.S. positions on issues like transparency and shared responsibility, as well as a role for businesses in the Paris process.

“We have a lot of confidence in Trigg Talley and in the U.S. delegation that attends these meetings,” said Norine Kennedy, vice president of strategic international engagement for energy and environment at the U.S. Council for International Business. “They understand where we are, and we have had a good working relationship and dialogue with them.”

But some conservatives note that he’s not the pro-energy dominance firebrand they’ve been looking for.

Myron Ebell, director of the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Center for Energy and Environment, lamented the White House’s failure to appoint the right staff to write a National Climate Assessment that reflects administration views, or to steer U.N. climate negotiations.

“It’s like they’re missing in action,” he said. “The presidential personnel operation in the White House has been totally incompetent and understaffed, and the president doesn’t seem to think that there’s anything wrong about that.”

“Having Trigg Talley back at the U.N. climate meetings is another missed opportunity for the administration to push back hard on the U.N. Paris climate pact,” said Marc Morano, publisher of Climate Depot, which disputes consensus climate science. He said he had hoped that Pompeo, who as a congressman took a dim view of both climate science and the U.N. process, “would coordinate a more hostile-to-the-U.N. team to attend the U.N. climate discussions.”

It’s less clear who will represent the United States at the high-level talks in the second week of the Poland conference.

Judith Garber, a career official, represented the United States at climate talks in Bonn, Germany, last year. She has since been nominated to be ambassador to Cyprus.

Garber has effectively served as acting assistant secretary of State for the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs (OES) for 4 ½ years. (She changed her title to principal deputy assistant secretary last year for technical reasons.)

No pick has been named for assistant secretary of OES, and the appointment is said to be a relatively low staffing priority. That office only recently got its first political appointee: Jon Harrison, a senior adviser. There’s no word yet on whether a chief climate negotiator will ever be named.

White House climate adviser Wells Griffith seems likely to attend December’s round of climate talks in Katowice.

George David Banks, his predecessor, attended last year’s talks in Bonn, but his involvement, while controversial, was viewed as peripheral to the discussions in which State Department career staff participated.

Banks, who is now an executive vice president at the American Council for Capital Formation, said it was a role better played by a White House staffer than an OES official.

“They could certainly benefit from having a political who can push the clean fossil narrative in the context of the international climate negotiations, but I’d want to emphasize that that role is more of a talking point role just because of the limits that OES has,” he said, noting that the main task at hand in Katowice will be writing guidelines for Paris implementation, not touting “energy dominance.”

“The more important piece of this is active White House engagement in the international climate discussion, simply because the White House carries with it the weight of the administration and the U.S. government, instead of just one small piece of it,” he said. “I hope that the White House will continue to attend the climate discussions and really drive home the importance of advancing a cleaner fossil discussion within those venues.”

But Kennedy of the U.S. Council for International Business said an OES assistant secretary would be key to safeguarding U.S. business interests not only in Paris but in other venues, like the Global Pact for the Environment proposed by French President Emmanuel Macron last year.

“There are some more specifically environmental deliberations or discussions that come at us next year where it would, I think, be quite valuable to have that triangle firmly in place,” she said, referring to the OES position and assistant secretaries of State for economic and business affairs and for energy resources, who have already been confirmed.

There is a very small club of conservatives with international climate bona fides in Washington, and several of its members say they’ve given State and the White House suggestions about who should fill the assistant secretary and negotiator posts.

The last conservative to hold the climate negotiator position was Harlan Watson, President George W. Bush’s special envoy to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Asked whether he would be interested in resuming the post under Trump, Watson instead suggested Stephen Eule, vice president for climate and technology at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Global Energy Institute, as “a person who is ready to assume the duties of such a position on day one.”

The two men served together on the staff of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee in the late 1990s. Eule declined to comment.