VICE Impact had a chance to interview Jesse Bragg, media director for Corporate Accountability International (CAI), at the end of the first day of the Bonn Climate Change Conference on May 8, 2017. Bragg is at the talks, hosted by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), in Germany now.
VICE Impact: What are some of the primary goals Corporate Accountability International hopes to achieve at the Bonn Conference?
Jesse Bragg: Our primary objective is to take a significant step forward toward establishing a conflict of interest policy [on which groups are allowed at the negotiating table at UN conferences.] It's already quite significant that this discussion is happening, so our primary objective is to make sure that there's something to grab onto—that walking away from the Bonn talks there's some sort of next steps that parties can take at COP 23 to advance this issue.
Like in anything else, the more this is talked about, the more people explore this, the less trade associations like the World Coal Association can operate without scrutiny. So simply, it's like a mini public climate shifting campaign within the UN and changing people's opinions, opening their eyes to the fact that this has been going on for too long.
What are some of the ways these fossil fuel industry lobbyists have impacted UN talks? They were at the table in Morocco at COP 22 …
It's very difficult to pick exactly where in an agreement, or where in a negotiation, these trade associations, or these corporations, have their impact. What I can tell you about is the U.S.'s position on the Paris Agreement. The U.S. is largely known as "the great uniter" around the Paris Agreement, but the reality is that while that they may have been able to use their power to unite countries around the Paris Agreement, they also used that same political power to make sure they had their criteria [solidified within the Paris Agreement], which was: it couldn't be binding; it had to be a voluntary set of commitments; there was no way we were going to get any sort of strict emissions requirements out of it—and that's at the behest of the fossil fuel industry and their influence over Congress, the Obama administration, previous administrations, and delegates in that space.
That has set the Paris Agreement as a diplomatic victory, but it's not adequate. The Paris Agreement is not going to solve the climate crisis on its own. And so, for all of the celebration… some NGOs said that the Paris Agreement was a death sentence for millions around the world, because we'll rest upon our laurels with that agreement. And if that's the case, we can look to the fossil fuel industry and others that sort of tied the hands of the U.S. to make sure that this agreement met their criteria.
There's a lot of support among developing countries that are present at these talks toward establishing a formal—or a step toward a—conflict of interest policy. Is their position in line with that of CAI's?
The initial call for this was from Ecuador and echoed by a few other countries, which was for the Secretariat to the UNFCCC to study other existing examples in the UN system and elsewhere that have been used to identify and address conflicts of interest.
That's it. It was just a study! And even the mention of "conflict of interest" was shut down by the U.S., Australia, the EU, and Brazil. So that's where it started. It took an issue that these developing countries were already passionate about, and moved them to be a little bit angry that their voices weren't being heard.
But I can't really speak to how the other parties feel about it. I know that there's broad support amongst developing countries, but I also know that even just from my day at the negotiations today that certain countries, especially those of the European Union, are lobbying very hard against this conflict of interest measure and talking to these developing countries and using their influence to try and convince them either not to speak up, not to show up—whatever it takes to get their way. So we're eager to hear kind of how these countries express themselves on it. And we're hoping that developed countries don't muffle around to get their way on it.
There have obviously been a lot of rumors swirling around that President Trump might make a decision one way or another to pull out of the Paris Agreement . And obviously it's also been an interesting moment for the U.S.'s role in these talks post-Paris just given Trump's overall attitude toward the agreement. How is the United States being received even on day one?
The vast majority of the view is that they've lost all credibility. Stay or go, there's no reason why other parties need to back down to the U.S. The U.S. is now—and will continue to be as long as it undermines climate policy at home—a bad faith negotiator because they have no intention of advancing the interests of the planet, or climate policy.
When you talk to allies from the Global South, the idea that the U.S. delegation… would be here and continue to carry out their duties as if nothing has changed, and possibly to the detriment of many people, is infuriating to them. We had a press conference this morning with a couple allies from the South Pacific who were talking about that exact point, and the conclusion is that regardless of the what the Trump administration decides on this, the people who will suffer the most—other than those around the world who are already suffering from climate change—are those in the US. And the U.S.—especially because it isn't bringing any money to the table—should have no influence over these negotiations anymore.
That's a little depressing.
The optimistic view is that this could be an opportunity for the Global South. For a long time the U.S. has been notorious for getting involved in global agreements, grinding them down to the lowest common denominator, and then not committing. They've done that on the Rights of a Child, Human Rights, Tobacco Treaty—and the Paris Agreement is basically the written form of signing a treaty, but not ratifying it. It's not legally binding.
So they do all this damage to these agreements. It's entirely possible that if enough countries decide, "You know, we're not going to listen to the U.S. anymore, they're not helping to fund this, to address the crisis to begin with—and in fact, they're trying to worsen the crisis by propping up the coal industry and others," if this does happen, there's an opportunity for some real progress to made in the next four years, and then we'll just have to figure out how to get the U.S. caught back up to speed once we get a more reasonable administration in the White House.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.