By: Renee Juliene Kurunungan

The latest united Nations conference on Climate Change – the aftermath of the groundbreaking climate agreement signed in Paris prior to the election of President Donald Trump – got underway on Nov. 7 without the United States and immediately found Nicaragua and Syria committing to global climate action, isolating the US further.

In a striking riposte to Trump, the US even found itself isolated its own major local governments including California, Oregon and Washington as well as other governments and businesses. In addition in seeming opposition to the administration the White House itself signed off on a statement by 13 federal agencies on Nov. 3 that climate change is real, caused by human activity and responsible for major damage to the environment.

Nicaragua, which decided in 2015 that it wouldn’t sign the Paris Agreement over what it said was a lack of commitment to cutting greenhouse gases, announced on Oct. 23 that it has decided to join.

“It is the only instrument we have in the world that allows the unity of intentions and efforts to face up to climate change and natural disasters,” Nicaragua Vice President Rosario Murillo said in a local radio interview.

On Nov. 7, even Syria, battered by a disastrous civil war that has taken hundreds of thousands of lives and left millions more refugees, also announced it would join, leaving the United States the only nation to opt out of a comprehensive agreement designed to limit greenhouse gases before they strangle much of the earth and leave it open to climactic disaster. 

“I confirm that the Syrian Arab Republic supports the implementation of Paris climate change accord, in order to achieve the desired global goals and to reflect the principles of justice and shared responsibility, but in accordance with the capabilities of each of the signatories,” Syria’s Deputy Minister of Local Administration and Environment M. Wadah Katmawi said.

A negotiating member close to the Syrian delegation commented: “The assessment of the impact of a commitment such as the Paris Accord on the economy of a country at war takes time. The decision whether or not to join the Agreement and its impacts were being discussed in recent months. Syria was convinced by partners that this was the best way forward.” When asked if the ‘partners’ mentioned referred to Syria’s close ally Russia, the source refused to comment.

“We should celebrate that the US is being completely isolated, and the Syrian delegation made the right choice. We should, however, not glorify the Syrian delegation because they still represent (President Bashar) Al-Assad.”

United States will not change mind

In a statement, White House spokesperson Kelly Love said that the White House is withdrawing unless it can re-enter on terms more favorable for the country. It was during negotiations at COP 22 last year when Donald Trump won the United States presidency, leaving the negotiations tense. Since coming into office, Trump has cut the budget for climate science and has hired representatives of fossil fuel companies to be part of his administration, implementing a wide range of measure defying environmentalists not only in the US but across the globe. 

Nonetheless, commitments made at the COP 22 negotiations in Paris, including from local and state governments in the US, gave hope to what might be a disastrous decision from their president. During a speech in Marrakech, California Gov. Edmund Brown Jr., Oregon Governor Kate Brown, Washington Governor Jay Inslee, and British Columbia Premier Christy Clark issued a joint statement saying they will continue to take bold action to achieve the targets set in the Paris Agreement, mobilize resources and join other like-minded cities, states, and regions committed to action.

This year, US cities, states, and businesses reiterated their commitment to reach the Paris Agreement target, even without President Trump’s support. The coalition, America’s Pledge, is composed of 227 cities, nine states, and over 1,500 businesses and investors.

What happens now

The United States cannot simply withdraw from of the Paris Agreement. Nations that wish to withdraw must wait until Nov. 4, 2020 to do so. The US will have to continue to negotiate inside the UNFCCC, but what it will negotiate for and whose interests it will pursue remains unclear.

The fact that the United States is still one of the largest carbon emitters cannot be brushed aside. Even the US’s current climate commitments are rated by Climate Action Tracker as, “critically insufficient” noting that it is not consistent with the 2C degree goal. With Trump undermining the global deal, the United States has larger road block to reaching the already hard-to-reach 1.5-2 degree goal.

Negotiations inside the United Nations will continue and world leaders have been saying that they will move forward even without the US. This year’s COP is about increasing ambition and closing the gap between what needs to be done and what is being done. Seen as the Pacific COP with Fiji leading the negotiations, there are also high expectations on pushing forward issues close to small islands, such loss and damage.

Loss and damage, a concept of giving compensation to what has been lost and damaged because of climate impacts (such as human lives and habitats), remains to be a controversial topic at the climate negotiations.

One can hope that these negotiations will start and end with bula, the Fijian word meaning life.

Renee Juliene Kurunungan  is a Philippine observer at the Bonn talks and a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel