Trump team advocates burning fossil fuels, even as U.S. scientists sound alarm on melting Arctic

“The Arctic is shouting that something needs to be done," said Rafe Pomerance, chairman of Arctic 21.
Image: Protesters call for political and economic reforms to combat climate change during the United Nations Summit on Climate Change (COP24) in Katowice, Poland, on Dec. 8, 2018.
Protesters call for political and economic reforms to combat climate change during the United Nations Summit on Climate Change (COP24) in Katowice, Poland, on Dec. 8, 2018.Martyn Aim / Getty Images

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By James Rainey

The Trump administration continued its rejection of mainstream climate science — and embraced Earth-warming fossil fuels — in the second week of the United Nations climate conference in Poland. Those contrarian views emerged even as U.S. government scientists on Tuesday reported that humanity’s actions are driving up temperatures rapidly, with devastating impacts for the Arctic and the rest of the globe.

Negotiations continued this week among diplomats from 200 nations in the industrial city of Katowice, trying to reach an agreement in which countries commit to greater reductions of greenhouse gases. The U.S. is party to those talks behind closed doors, even as Trump and his representatives question the scientific consensus on global warming.

Over the weekend, the U.S. joined Russia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait as the only countries that declined to “welcome” an international report on the destructive fallout that will occur if temperature increases can't be limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius over pre-Industrial levels. All four nations export oil, and the report called for fossil fuels to be phased out by 2050.

America further divorced itself from most other nations on Monday, when it held a panel at the climate talks promoting the long-term burning of coal and natural gas. U.S. officials argued that the carbon fuels are necessary because renewable sources will not provide enough electric power in the short run.

Protesters temporarily stopped the pro-fossil fuel panel with calls of “Shame!” and “Keep it in the ground!”

Sea ice is seen from NASA's Operation IceBridge research aircraft on March 29, 2017 above Ellesmere Island, Canada.Mario Tama / Getty Images

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The controversy erupted in Poland the day before the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released a “report card” summarizing “new and rapidly emerging threats” driven by warming in the Arctic. Among the observations in the report:

•Temperatures in the Arctic are increasing at twice the rate of the rest of the globe.

•Sheet ice continues to decline in Greenland and the rest of the Arctic, where it is thinner and covers less area than in the past.

•Caribou population dipped, in a two-decade decline that has cut herds nearly in half.

The impacts might be easy to ignore if they were confined to the Arctic. But the warming of air in the north has disrupted the high-atmosphere jet stream that guides weather systems in the Northern Hemisphere. The result has been “wavier” and slower weather patterns — exacerbating drought, heat waves and wildfires across western North America, while bringing unseasonably cold weather to the Southeast, the report card says.

“There is less reflectivity from the Arctic, so the planet gets warmer and sea levels rise,” said Rafe Pomerance, chairman of Arctic 21, a network of groups focused on the Arctic and climate change. “The Arctic is shouting that something needs to be done…. But, at the same time, you see the U.S., in particular, lacking direction and political will.”

The World Wildlife Fund also pointed to the Arctic report as a call to action.

“Warming temperatures are thawing permafrost and shrinking Arctic sea ice,” Margaret Williams, the WWF's managing director for U.S. Arctic programs, said in a statement. “As leaders meet this week at the U.N. climate talks in Poland, we urge them to run, not crawl, towards reducing emissions and accelerating a clean energy transition. Our Earth, and all species that call it home, depend on it.”

Over the past two years, Trump’s agencies have supported the burning of more coal for electricity, announced a rollback of vehicle fuel efficiency standards that limit the burning of gasoline and scratched other policies designed to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

Those changes come despite the views of career scientists, including those inside the U.S. government, who urge limits on greenhouse gases to rein in global warming. In addition to Tuesday’s NOAA report, 13 federal agencies released a report the day after Thanksgiving describing dire outcomes that will come if heat-trapping gases are not reduced, from warming that could make a future Chicago feel like present-day Las Vegas, to spikes in disease-carrying mosquitoes.

The climate conference in Katowice continues through Friday. After a week of technical reports, diplomats this week are trying to get the world’s nations to ramp up commitments they made during the 2015 Paris climate summit to reduce greenhouse gases. Much of the debate centers on how stringent oversight and transparency should be, with China and some developing nations saying they do not want to give up too much information about their internal affairs.

Despite the Trump administration's skepticism of climate change, the U.S. delegation could still push for greater commitments, and transparency, from other governments, according to some experts at the climate talks.

A pair of career State Department diplomats are leading the U.S. delegation. One is Judith Garber, a diplomat who in the past has pledged that the U.S. would “continue to be a leader” on clean energy development. The other is Trigg Talley, director of the Office of Global Change, who helped negotiate the Paris accord.

Pomerance, who participated in climate talks for the State Department in the 1990s, said there is no way to know what kind of progress is being made behind closed doors. “These negotiations tend to use up all the time that is allotted to them,” Pomerance said. “There are still three days to go. That is a lot of time.”