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A Paris Agreement Negotiator Explains How Screwed We Are

"The rest of the world is moving forward with cars and we’re betting on the horse and buggy."

by Jason Koebler
Jun 1 2017, 7:23pm

Image: Shutterstock

Paul Bodnar spent much of the last few years of his life negotiating the finer points of the Paris Agreement in President Obama's White House, where he was Senior Director of Energy and Climate Change for the National Security Council. At the Paris Climate Conference, he worked closely with Todd Stern, the United States's lead negotiator on the deal, which President Trump just announced America will withdraw from.

Bodnar is currently the Managing Director of the Rocky Mountain Institute think tank, where he works on sustainable finance. I called Bodnar to try to make sense of Trump's decision and to discuss how screwed we might be.

MOTHERBOARD: When you hear the US is pulling out of something you dedicated years of your life to, what comes to mind?
Paul Bodnar: What comes to mind is the phrase "shooting yourself in the foot." Regardless of your views on climate policy, the fact is 195 countries have decided that they're going to be making this transition to a clean energy economy, not only because it's important to head off the worst effects of climate change but because of the other benefits it has. We're effectively saying we don't want to be part of that, which means we're going to lose out on an opportunity to lean in to an $8 trillion global market for clean energy technologies and services. If you're passionate about economic competitiveness, that's a disappointment regardless of your views on climate change.

"The State Department is a weakened institution"

When we talked before, you said the agreement was as much a diplomacy win as it was a win for the environment. How will this affect our global standing?
Our standing in the world and ability to exercise leadership when we want to will come down a few notches—maybe permanently, because we're not projecting ourselves as a trustworthy country. It will negatively impact our ability to lead on terrorism and other multilayer issues that require balancing interests.

It's a sad day for American foreign policy. There are a whole number of initiatives that operate in and around the multilateral climate process that the US may get shut out of or may shut itself out of. Whether that's collaboration on clean energy research and development or other solutions that benefit american exporters, we're not even at the table.

"It's important for the international community to understand the US is not some black hole for climate action"

The Paris Agreement involved a lot of negotiation by the State Department. Trump's State Department has hundreds of vacant positions right now. Do you think this would have happened with a fully stocked State Department?
I do think it's probably a contributing factor that the entire upper management of the State Department apparatus is missing. Secretary Tillerson may have heard more alarm bells from other leads who are not there to talk about the diplomatic ramifications of a withdrawal and how serious that may be. It fell to him to make the case, and he was an advocate of staying in the agreement, but yeah—the State Department is a weakened institution without its core of senior diplomats in place.

Emmanuel Macron said American climate researchers are welcome in France. Is brain drain a real concern?
Our share of global clean energy patents is already on the decline, which is a great indicator of where important research is happening. By cutting funding for the National Labs responsible for breakthrough technologies and withdrawing us from the world, that will not benefit the US economy and it is not going to help keep the best and brightest on American shores.

"We have our Dr. Jekyll phases and in those phases we work with the international community to build structures that will withstand us when we turn into Mr. Hyde."

Is there any reason—not for hope, but maybe not for doom and gloom? Some states and cities have said they'll honor Paris even after the US pulls out. Is that cause for optimism?
Yes. States, cities, and businesses have made clear they're moving ahead regardless. It's important for the international community to understand the US is not some black hole for climate action, but it's a contested space. The federal government is pulling back but a huge wave of nonfederal actors have stepped forward.

You mentioned it's a 'contested space' in the US—but climate change is not controversial elsewhere. So we're alone, more or less.
Well we're not alone, we have Nicaragua and Syria for company. But it's true and puzzling that across other major countries there is a broad political consensus and opportunity for tackling climate change. The analogy I think of is we're arguing about whether the horse and buggy or the automobile is future of transportation. The rest of the world is moving forward with cars and we're betting on the horse and buggy. We risk being left in the dust if we think that we're going to spend the next few decades trying to make coal great again.

You worked on this for years of your life. Are you, on a personal level, really bummed?
We are a little bit like Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde. We have our Dr. Jekyll phases and in those phases we work with the international community to build structures that will withstand us when we turn into Mr. Hyde. I'm pretty confident the structure of Paris will stand. Ultimately it's good news that we created an international framework for climate action that can withstand one of the world's largest and most powerful countries withdrawing a few years after it's signed.