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US defence of its climate approach draws protesters’ guffaws

US administration’s ‘fossil fuels can be part of the solution’ stance contradicted in Poland

Protesters disrupt a panel discussion on fossil fuels that Wells Griffith, President Donald Trump’s international energy and climate adviser, was hosting in Katowice, Poland. Photograph: Karolina Jonderko/The New York Times

The US is leading a global energy revolution by using innovative technologies to deliver a combination of “clean coal”, nuclear power and fracked gas, while also delivering major reductions in carbon emissions.

That was the repeated message of a US administration delegation in a side meeting on Monday at the UN climate summit in Katowice. It was greeted with derision by more than 120 protesters – all Americans.

It came with the imprimatur of president Donald Trump: the US would not be subject to agreements that hamstrung economic growth while allowing China to operate with high emissions.

“No country should sacrifice economic prosperity and energy security in the pursuit of environmental sustainability. We believe in all of these goals,” declared his emissary Wells Griffith, senior director for energy at the National Security Council.

It was dismissed as a distraction by negotiators, bolstered by the arrival of 130 ministers, who began scaling up efforts to agree a rulebook on fully implementing the Paris pact on climate change. Their task has been made more difficult by the US coalescing with big oil and gas-producing countries in not acknowledging the significance of UN’s latest climate science verdict delivered in a Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report.

It was a guffaw from one protester that prompted all the protesters to laugh in unison. Their tone suggested the US message was laughable, not funny. Protesters in turn seized a microphone to outline stories of climate change toll. Others waved banners and chanted “Keep it in the ground” and “Shame on you”.

“I’m 19 years old and I’m pissed,” shouted Vic Barrett, a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed in 2015 by 21 young people against the US government for allowing activities that harm the climate.

“I am currently suing my government for perpetuating the global climate change crisis ... Young people are at the forefront of leading solutions to address the climate crises and we won’t back down.”

“Trump’s presence here” was a cruel joke, said Aneesa Khan, a SustainUS youth delegation leader. The president’s only priority was “ensuring fossil fuel CEOs squeeze every last dollar out of our communities”.

Burning issue

The event was called “US innovative technologies spur economic dynamism”, but focused mostly on benefits of burning fossil fuels more efficiently.

Although associated industries are the main source of the carbon emissions that are causing global warming, speakers said the US would expand production for the sake of global energy security and planned new coal plants with technology it hoped to export to other countries.

Mr Griffith said it was important to be pragmatic in dealing with climate change in a world still heavily reliant on fossil fuels.

“Alarmism should not silence realism ... This administration does not see the benefit of being part of an agreement which impedes US economic growth and jobs,” he added.

“Since taking office, this administration has proposed to roll back measures to cut methane leaks from oil and gas operations, made it easier for companies to dump coal ash into drinking water and, just days ago, proposed easing carbon pollution rules for new coal-fired power plants,” said Dan Lashof, director of the World Resources Institute.

“This sideshow in Poland would be laughable if the consequences of climate change weren’t so deadly serious,” he added.

The US government delegation was joined by Australian environment ambassador Patrick Suckling. The Australian government has adopted a controversial pro-coal policy. Mr Suckling stressed he was “very happy to be on this panel”, and commended the US for providing better solutions in pulling every lever for emissions reduction.

Financial crash

The US administration’s “fossil fuels can be part of the solution” stance was contradicted earlier as global investors, managing $32 trillion, issued a warning to governments, demanding urgent cuts in carbon emissions and “the phasing out of all coal burning”.

Such action was needed to avoid a financial crash several times worse than the 2008 crisis, they said. The investors, including some of the world’s biggest pension funds, insurers and asset managers, said fossil fuel subsidies must end and substantial taxes on carbon must be introduced.

“The long-term nature of the challenge has, in our view, met a zombie-like response by many,” said Chris Newton of IFM Investors, which manages $80 billion and is one of the 415 groups that has signed the Global Investor Statement. “This is a recipe for disaster as the impacts of climate change can be sudden, severe and catastrophic.”

Negotiators insisted slow progress was being made but finance for poorer countries to fight climate impacts remained a stumbling block. In a new draft text any reference to the IPCC report was removed.