By Published: Nov. 29, 2017

United States’ announced exit from Paris accords leaves opening for leadership, CU Boulder sociologist contends

While President Trump’s decision to leave the Paris climate agreement probably dismayed climate scientists, it did at least provide some interesting data for scholars who study trends in the negotiations.

One of those researchers is David Ciplet, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado Boulder who recently returned from the climate negotiations in Bonn, Germany, and who said other nations are mulling ways to fill the climate-leadership vacuum left by the United States.

Ciplet’s research, which includes a recently published study, suggests that the world’s most influential  states have shifted their governance over climate change mitigation to more market-based priorities in the last two decades, and that this development might not address the needs of the world’s most-vulnerable people.


David Ciplet

“The U.N. climate negotiations have long been heavily influenced by the United States’ reluctance to take bold action on the issue,” Ciplet said recently.

“With the Trump administration largely absent from the negotiations in Bonn, there was at least a feeling among many participants that leadership could take new forms. This does not, of course, mean that the world doesn’t need the United States to dramatically step up its game on climate action.”

While the Obama Administration favored strong climate action, the Paris Agreement was written specifically so that it could be adopted without a vote by Congress, which was dominated by the Republican Party at the time. Years earlier, after heavily influencing its content under then-President Bill Clinton, the United States never ratified the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.

Ciplet, a sociologist in the Environmental Studies Program, along with co-authors Timmons Roberts and Mizan Khan, published a study of how the market-driven forces have affected international efforts to mitigate climate change through a 25-year history.

Published in the September edition of Global Environmental Change, their study “Climate change and the transition to neoliberal environmental governance,” found that U.N. governance of the issue has gradually become more and more affected by market-driven concerns—liberal meaning more “laissez faire” in economic parlance.

Even without the Trump administration’s climate-change stance, Ciplet said there was a profound difference in how responsibility to slowing climate change was being addressed at the U.N. over time.

“We’re in a very different space than even a decade ago; a decade ago, there was real consideration of a framework that the large polluters (nations) would be explicitly responsible for reducing emissions and contributing economic resources in relation to their responsibility,” Ciplet said.

We’re negotiating over who should have the right to pollute, how much pollution can safely be emitted, and who should bear the costs of transitioning to a green economy."

“Now we have more of a voluntary framework that is less explicit about who is responsible for ultimately cleaning up this mess. Bonn was more or less about hammering down details of how states would use transparency and peer pressure to encourage more ambitious action on climate change, especially in the near term.”

The voluntary and bottom-up process established in recent years has meant that many of the most important decisions concerning climate change are being made in domestic contexts, and in bilateral agreements between nations outside of the formal U.N. process. For example, the United States and China reached a bilateral agreement on climate change in 2014, and other nations and the European Union have also sought such arrangements.

Ciplet said the problem with such a bottom-up and voluntary approach is that U.N. climate negotiations have historically provided a platform for advocates seeking to protect the rights of smaller, less-powerful nations.

“The U.N. process has really been one of the only places in the world for the countries that are excluded from economic progress to make demands of equity,” he said. If basic decisions such as who should be responsible for reducing emissions and providing finances to help other countries adapt to climate change are made outside of the formal U.N. process, Ciplet argues that issues of inequality may gain less traction.

“The biggest polluters are often negotiating outside of this process,” he said. “So it’s very hard to imagine how we’ll make decisions that adequately address issues around equity and justice facing the most vulnerable countries to climate-change impacts, such as the 48 Least Developed Countries, and the rights of marginalized groups such as indigenous peoples.”

In the case of developing nations, Ciplet noted, many are relying on cheap fossil fuels to help them develop out of poverty. Unless the wealthy nations financially support a clean-energy transition in the Least Developed Countries, he said, these nations will have no choice but to use fossil fuels to develop their economies.

“We’re negotiating over who should have the right to pollute, how much pollution can safely be emitted, and who should bear the costs of transitioning to a green economy,” he said. “Who gets to use that atmospheric space and what framework should determine that?”

Climate-negotiation milestones
1992: U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change
1997: Kyoto Protocol, introduced legally binding emission reduction targets for developed countries
2015: Paris Agreement, develops plan to limit global warming to less than 2 degrees C
2017: COP23 climate change summit in Bonn

These questions, he said, were not meaningfully addressed in Bonn, but progress was made in ensuring that a process is created in which states will discuss whether commitments and actions are sufficient for preventing catastrophic climate change.

“With current commitments made by states, we are currently on track for more than 3 degrees Celsius of global average warming, which is far more than the safer 1.5-degree Celsius target established in Paris,” Ciplet said. “On the issue of equity, very little of the promised money has been delivered to impacted countries by the wealthy states responsible for causing the climate problem.”

Ciplet thought one interesting aspect at Bonn was the Powering Past Coal alliance, started by the United Kingdom, Canada and the Marshall Islands, which were joined by 12 other countries. But by far the most confrontational was the Trump administration’s decision to use the only event it hosted for a conference touting the effectiveness of “clean coal,” which refers to carbon capture and sequestration at coal-burning facilities.

“Efforts to phase out coal have definitely emerged as a unifying point — we simply cannot continue to burn coal and stay within the confines of the Paris Agreement,” he said.

“In Bonn the most extreme case was the Trump Administration, in the most clear kind of market-driven example, advocating for the expansion of fossil fuels and coal. More than half the people left the room” during the U.S. event.

“There’s little support for that blatant level of open kowtowing to the fossil fuel industry,” Ciplet said, “but most polluting countries are still falling far short of taking action to end fossil fuel use commensurate with what is needed for a stable climate.”