The stunning election of Donald Trump as the next president of the United States left delegates meeting at the 22nd United Nations Climate Summit in Marrakesh, Morocco, aghast and shaken, with emotions ranging from defiance to wishful encouragement.
Making an economic appeal to the president-elect’s pro-business nature, Christiana Figueres, the former executive secretary of recent UN climate summits, said, “Beyond national politics, modernization of the energy system and of basic infrastructure is good for the US economy, for jobs, for growth.”
Michael Brune, executive director of The Sierra Club, didn’t mince words: “Donald Trump now has the unflattering distinction of being the only head of state in the entire world to reject the scientific consensus that mankind is driving climate change. No matter what happens, Trump can’t change the fact that wind and solar energy are rapidly becoming more affordable and accessible than dirty fossil fuels.”
The delegates cannot be blamed for feeling anxious and dismayed. Barack Obama is the first US president to make climate change policy a centerpiece of his legacy. His secretary of state, John Kerry, played a crucial role in pushing through the Paris Agreement last December. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton promised to build on Obama’s legacy.
But it will be Trump occupying the White House in January. And as Brune noted, Trump has dismissed climate science as “a hoax” and promised to “cancel” any commitment his predecessor made in the Paris Agreement.
No fast exit
That promise won’t be easy to keep. Leaders of more than 75 nations representing over 60 percent of global carbon emissions ratified the Paris Agreement in just 10 months (55 countries and 55 percent were needed), giving it the force of international law on November 4.
All 195 countries in Paris are now obligated to their voluntary pledges to reduce carbon emissions and abide by all provisions of the agreement for three years before they can seek to withdraw from it. Withdraw would take another year, UN officials say, or an entire presidential term.
“The Paris Agreement was signed and ratified not by a president, but by the United States itself,” said Carroll Muffett, president of the Center for International Environmental Law. “As a matter of international law, and as a matter of human survival, the nations of the world can, must, and will hold the US to its climate commitments.”
Hilda Heine is president of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, a nation whose very existence is threatened by sea-level rise. She reminded Trump of his soon-to-be shared global responsibilities.
“Trump has been the source of a lot of bluster on climate change over the last year,” she said, “but now that the… realities of leadership settle in, I expect he will realize that climate change is a threat to his people and to the countries which share seas with the US, including my own.”
Tina Johnson, policy director of the US Climate Action Network, seemed to appeal to Trump’s competitive nature:
“He has the opportunity to catalyze further action on climate that sends a clear signal to investors to keep the transition to a renewable-powered economy on track. China, India and other economic competitors are racing to be the global clean-energy superpower, and the US doesn’t want to be left behind.”
The goals in Marrakesh
The goal of the Paris Agreement is to move rapidly toward a zero-carbon economy in order to slow the rate of global warming and keep planetary temperatures from rising another 0.5 degrees Celsius by 2100. Delegates in Marrakesh are working to develop the “operational manual” to achieve a range of ambitious goals. Aggressive participation by the US, the world’s second-largest greenhouse gas emitter behind China, is deemed crucial.
The earth has experienced its hottest years on record for more than a dozen consecutive years. Global average temperatures have already risen 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) since 1900, resulting in melting ice caps, rising sea levels, dying coral reefs, enduring drought and storms of unprecedented ferocity.
“From infrastructure to foreign aid, every decision the next president makes should be made through the lens of bold climate action,” said May Boeve, executive director of 350.org a climate action NGO. “It’s not enough to just admit that climate change is real. We need a president who will dramatically accelerate the transition from fossil fuels to 100 percent renewable energy for all.”
Knowing that their appeals may fall on deaf ears, some UN delegates are preparing to increase pressure on mayors of major global cities like Beijing, New Delhi, Tokyo, Bangkok, and Los Angeles to step up their efforts to reduce their carbon footprint.
Still, the US government’s role looms large. And it’s not just Trump who expresses hostility toward climate change; Republicans, who in January will control both the House and the Senate, have shown no interest in backing Obama’s climate change initiatives.
But one delegate, Annaka Peterson, a senior program officer with Oxfam America, an NGO, made the appeal just the same.
“The world won’t wait for the US and neither will the climate,” Peterson said. “This year, the impacts of climate change cost the US hundreds of billions of dollars, and put 40 million people in southern Africa alone at risk of hunger. The next president needs to work with Congress to go further faster to cut emissions and protect the rights of men and women on the front line of the climate crisis.”