A First Look at COP23: The Agenda, the Role of the United States, and Why We’re Hopeful


(Photo above from Delegate Advisor Matt Irish of the plenary at COP23.)


On Monday, November 6, 2017, the delegation from Fiji will and formally commence the 23rd United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s Conference of Parties, where the nations of the world discuss, debate, and develop worldwide action on climate change. Among the 20,000+ negotiators, diplomats, advocates, and heads of state in attendance, the University of Michigan’s delegation will be on the ground, absorbing the science, policy, and stories of the Conference of Parties to bring home to Ann Arbor. Here’s a quick first look at what we’re expecting: What’s on the agenda, what we expect from the United States, and why we’re hopeful.

What’s on the Agenda

With two of the most powerful Atlantic storms ever recorded as its backdrop and with the small island country of Fiji at the helm, stepping up ambition is likely to be a common theme at this year’s COP. Much of the formal activity will take place around defining the ‘rulebook’ that will be used at next year’s talanoa dialogue, where parties will review progress toward their emissions goals and have an opportunity to publicly strengthen their ambition. While preparatory action for next year’s COP may not seem exciting, determining how emissions are counted is important: As one expert noted, “What we can count, we can cut.” We’ll be monitoring the negotiations and reporting back on what the ‘rulebook’ means for climate action in the future.

What to Expect from the United States

Despite the United States’ announcement that they intend to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, they are still formally a part of the Agreement until 2020 and remain a ratified member of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The United States delegation will still be a party to all formal negotiations and participate in the presentations and side events that accompany the COP.  Consistent with expectations, their delegation this year is expected to partner with fossil industry giants to promote fossil fuels and nuclear power on a high-level presentation. One of the things we’ll be watching closely is how the United States—who have publicly announced their intention to withdraw—will be viewed as a negotiator by the other parties at the table. Regardless of their negotiating position, the loss of the greatest cumulative greenhouse gas emitter is a blow to the Agreement.


(Map from Data-Driven Yale showing universities committed to acting on climate change)

Why We’re Hopeful

Even with disheartening activity from the United States, there’s still reason to be hopeful for climate action. In 2009, Nobel laureate and collective action expert Elinor Ostrom introduced a ‘polycentric’ approach to climate action. Rather than emphasizing a central over-arching global climate policy, Ostrom proposed, we could achieve more by focusing on action at many scales, from our households all the way up to international co-operation. In the wake of the United States’ announcement of their intention to withdraw, we’re seeing first-hand the strength of the polycentric approach.

Climate leaders in the United States are already embarking on a bold experiment in polycentric action. America’s Pledge on Climate is a coalition of states, cities, companies and universities who have committed to support international action on climate change. So far, the coalition includes 13 states, 350 mayors, 3,000 businesses and 700 universities–and the numbers are growing. We’re proud to represent the University of Michigan, who joined the We Are Still In movement of America’s Pledge (with some prompting from a student-led campaign) on October 27. Representative from the coalition will be at the Conference of Parties this year, connecting with other national and sub-national actors on how to best lead and coordinate efforts on climate action.

And our neighbors across the world aren’t backing down. Peers like India and China are making progress toward achieving the Nationally Determined Contributions they set out in 2015, and they haven’t shown any signs of slowing as the United States has backed down from its commitments. Especially given the fallout from the US’s withdrawal from the Kyoto protocol in 2002, the world’s steadfast response to the climate challenge is a reason to be optimistic.

We’re at just the outset of the first Conference of Parties since the United States’ withdrawal, and although we’re hopeful it can be difficult to predict the outcome of 197-party negotiations. Regardless of the outcome, it’s clear that facing the climate challenge will require leaders at all scales, and cities, states, and universities are already rising to the challenge.



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