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Trump made a surprise appearance at a U.N. climate change conference. Here’s how activists reacted

While the president’s unexpected appearance might have been lauded by climate activists, many were not satisfied with his brief participation.

President Donald Trump listens during the United Nations Climate Action Summit during the General Assembly, Monday, Sept. 23, 2019, in New York.
Evan Vucci, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — Despite expectations that President Donald Trump would snub a day-long United Nations summit on climate change, he made a surprise visit Monday morning and stayed for less than 15 minutes.

The president’s surprise attendance is set against the backdrop of global demonstrations designed to urge political action on climate change. On Friday, millions of people around the world, including in the U.S., walked out of their schools and workplaces. On the morning before the U.N. event, dozens of climate activists were arrested after they blocked major intersections in Washington, D.C., CBS News reported.

While the president’s unexpected appearance might have been lauded by climate activists, many were not satisfied with his brief participation.

The climate summit brings together leaders from more than 60 countries, including England, Germany, France and India, in an attempt to hold signatories of the 2016 Paris climate agreement to their commitments to reduce carbon emissions. Trump has faced both criticism and praise for starting the process of withdrawing from that non-binding accord, which he says unfairly punishes the U.S. while not imposing meaningful obligations on the world’s leading polluters.

“I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” Trump said in 2017 when he first announced his plans for withdrawal.

Rachel Kyte, the U.N.’s special representative for sustainable energy for all, said the summit is meant to be a response to protestors’ calls for action and will encourage commitments that go beyond the Paris pact.

“The climate emergency has been declared by people, and especially young people on the streets, the world over, and this is about an appropriate response to that emergency,” Kyte said, according to ABC News.

The World Meteorological Organization recently published new data showing 2014 to 2019 is the warmest five-year-period on record. And a special report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says nations may have as little as 12 years to cut their greenhouse gas emissions sharply enough to avoid serious harm to humanity caused by rising seas, spreading illnesses, worsening storms and other effects of a changing climate.

Trump has a history of questioning links between human activity and climate change, and has rolled back multiple environmental regulations and initiatives, like the Clean Power Plan. He has chosen not to attend other climate-related meetings in the past, including the annual G-7 climate sessions in France this year and in Quebec in 2018. Ahead of Monday’s U.N. climate summit, White House staff indicated the president would not attend and instead would participate in an unrelated U.N. conference on religious freedom scheduled for the same day.

Two evangelical pastors on Fox News praised Trump for his reported intentions to skip the meeting on the “imaginary” climate crisis for the “real” problem of religious persecution. But on Sunday, Trump told reporters that his absence from the climate event would not be “a snub” and expressed his concern about flooding in Houston and Ohio.

“The floods are very important to me, and climate change — everything is very important,” Trump said.

In the end, the president decided to make an appearance after all, finding a seat in the auditorium just as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi took the stage, according to pool reports.

“The world needs to act now,” Modi said, prompting applause from the president, USA Today reported.

The U.N.’s special climate envoy and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg thanked Trump for attending, according to Time. Bloomberg said it might prove useful to Trump “when you formulate climate policy,” a comment which elicited some laughter and applause from the audience. The president did not address the crowd.

“I’m a big believer in clean air and clean water. And all countries should get together and do that. And they should do it for themselves. Very, very important,” Trump said later in comments broadcast by C-SPAN.

Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel addresses the Climate Action Summit in the United Nations General Assembly, at U.N. headquarters, Monday, Sept. 23, 2019.
Jason DeCrow, Associated Press

“It’s odd for him to show face at the UN Climate Action Summit at all given his indifference to climate change. Then again, Trump loves attention,” Yessenia Funes wrote for Gizmodo. “Just FYI, Mr. President: 15 minutes of showing face will do nothing to protect our air, water, or planet. Effective and urgent climate policy will.”

Young people are becoming increasingly active in the climate change debate. Earlier this month, 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg arrived in New York City after traveling across the Atlantic Ocean in a zero-emission yacht to avoid the greenhouse gas emissions from commercial airplanes, according to CBS News.

Thunberg told members of Congress last week that President Trump’s actions on climate change set a bad example for other countries.

Today, few countries are on track to meet even the modest pollution cuts they agreed to in the Paris accord, the Los Angeles Times reported. And analysts are paying close attention to China, the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases.

Environmental activist Greta Thunberg, of Sweden, addresses the Climate Action Summit in the United Nations General Assembly, at U.N. headquarters, Monday, Sept. 23, 2019.
Jason DeCrow, Associated Press

“I am from Sweden, a small country. And there, it is the same argument. ‘Why should we do anything, just look at the U.S.,’ they say. So, just so you know, that is being used against you as well,” she said last week.

Democratic presidential candidates have promised to recommit to the Paris agreement and re-engage with the U.N. on climate if elected in 2020.

Marchia Bernicat, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, is representing the United States at the U.N. climate summit, a spokesperson from the State Department told ABC News. The spokesperson said the U.S. is a world leader in innovative technologies and will “continue to be a leader in assisting our partners to reduce emissions, protect natural resources like forests, increase resilience, and respond to natural disasters.”