EXPERT COMMENT: Negotiating for the climate - COP22 versus Donald Trump


The 22nd session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 22) has just taken place in Marrakech, Morocco. In light of the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, Simon Chin Yee and Lauren Gifford blogged from the conference, reflecting on what the election might mean for global climate change policy.

Diplomats have converged on Marrakech for the latest installment of the international climate change conference, COP22 (Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change). This annual summit brings together negotiators, scientists, activists and heads of state from 195 countries, plus the EU and Palestine.

Following last year’s adoption of the landmark Paris Agreement, COP22’s main aim is to put the newly-ratified agreement into motion. However, the spectre of the Trump presidency hangs over the proceedings like the sword of Damocles. On 11 November, halfway through COP22, Venezuelan representative and well known pot-stirrer, Claudia Salerno Caldera, asked the US delegation what we were all thinking: What will happen when Trump comes to power?

Now, with the conservative Republican right prevailing over all branches of US government, Trump’s rule means the US will aggressively scale back on all environmental protection, and will most certainly withdraw from the Paris Agreement. Trump plans to eliminate the US Climate Action Plan and the Clean Power Plan, which designates CO2 as a pollutant. He vows to ‘end the war on coal,’ ‘transform the US into a net energy exporter,’ and open all federal lands and waters to drilling.

It is a result far more devastating than any pre-election predictions. It means the US will revert to a fossil fuel-focused economy, limit or remove subsidies for renewables, and disregard any steps toward a clean energy future. It is the polar opposite of the visioning happening among countries of the world in Marrakech this week.

The Paris Agreement

The Paris Agreement was put into place for three main reasons. First, to limit temperature increases to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. Second, to increase resilience to climate change through adaptation measure. And third, to increase finance to address climate issues.Admirable targets. In a statement made at COP21’s closing plenary, Edna Molewa, South Africa’s Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs, shared what many seasoned COP veterans were saying, that this agreement was ‘not perfect, but … it represents a solid foundation from which we can launch our enhanced action with renewed determination’.

One of the outcomes from this Agreement was the wide acknowledgement of ‘responsibility.’ For the first time, all parties – not just developed countries – committed to take action to address climate challenge. On the 3 September 2016, Barack Obama ratified the Paris agreement which came into force on the 4 November. Five days later, Trump was declared president-elect of the United States of America.

The Paris Agreement was ratified in record time. In under one year, 105 member states signed on, including China, India and the US. The agreement may not be perfect, but as a tool its importance should not be underestimated. A statementmade during COP21 by Enele Sopoaga, Prime Minister of Tuvalu, urged member states to ‘urgently cut greenhouse gases, and dramatically transform the global economy to a renewable energy pathway. Any further temperature increase beyond 1.5°C will spell the total demise of Tuvalu, and other low lying island nations’. However, Trump has threatened to pull out of the Paris Agreement. What does this mean for COP22, the Paris Climate Agreement and the future of the global climate agenda?

There seem to be two distinct conversations happening on what the future of climate politics might look like. The UN is focusing on nuance – how and when the Paris Accord was ratified, and how it could be upheld – while the US is experiencing widespread panic and dread about a political future that not only refuses to acknowledge climate change as a reality, but rolls back all federal and UN-level policy to a place that privileges expanded fossil fuel extraction and infrastructure. Both of these conversations are important.

It might take international geo-political pressure from places like China and the EU – who have made significant climate commitments – to keep the US at least somewhat involved in climate mitigation.
Simon Chin Yee and Lauren Gifford

More specifically, COP22 is focusing on renewable energy. The United States’ attitude towards energy sources, especially big oil, has always been a thorn in the side of these climate agreements – just look at the Kyoto Accord, which the US never ratified.

There has been a global shift toward renewables, and the chief executive of Dubai’s CLS Energy Consultants firm stated that ‘COP22 is important to help get the momentum going but in the end it is down to economics to scale the industry up’. Andrew Steer, president of the DC-based World Resource institute, has another take on it. He believes ‘America has numerous opportunities to create a modern, high-efficiency economy that is suited for the 21st century’ and that Trump as a businessman will see the market for clean energy sources.

Meanwhile, Trump is appointing fossil fuel advocates to his cabinet and staff, including the likely appointment of fellow reality star Sarah Palin, of “Drill, baby, drill!” fame, as Secretary of Interior, to oversee public lands. Those public lands will likely be open to more fossil fuel extraction, threatening fragile ecosystems, biodiversity, and local communities.

Moving Forward

Trump’s move into the White House certainly caused ripples through COP22. Whether Trump believes climate change is a hoax created by the Chinese or not, he ‘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’. The COP process is centered around the idea that all the countries of the world have common but differentiated responsibility to address and mitigate climate change.

So what happens when one of the world’s largest polluters – historically and per capita – denies responsibility, or even refuses to acknowledge a climate crisis? ​With the election of Donald Trump as US president, long-standing debates over carbon markets vs taxes, the designation of adaptation funding, and responsibilities for loss and damage, now seem like a distant progressive dream. When the largest economy in the world appoints climate denialists, nationalists who shun international relations, oil execs and financiers to oversee environmental management, the UN target of 2 degrees now seems wildly, and sadly, out of reach.

Yet seasoned COP delegates are a resilient group. While we should not kid ourselves that a US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement will be a blow, we must also remember that 189 climate action plans came out of Paris. Trump’s election will not stop the surge of climate activity that has taken place over recent years, and may even give it a boost of energy to ensure that it is alive and well.

We remain hopeful for policy advancements on the global scale, and there is a huge job to do - regardless of who is in the White House.

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