The 22nd United Nations climate summit began as a wonky, low-profile affair. Nearly 200 nations, finally agreeing to keep the world from burning up, began writing the rulebook by which the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement could be achieved, while seeking the trillions needed to move quickly away from fossil fuels to a green-energy economy.
Then things blew up. On the second day of the two-week COP22 conference, American voters elected Republican nominee Donald Trump as president, the guy who calls climate change “a hoax” perpetuated by the Chinese.
Trump didn’t wait to put his hand on the Bible to begin undermining the global environment, along with the will of the international community: he vowed this week to withdraw the US from its carbon-reduction commitments in the Paris Agreement as quickly as possible. He also recommended an avowed climate denier, Myron Ebell, to head the EPA.
Suddenly, the Marrakesh meeting had a new, and urgent, storyline.
“While progress was made on a number of negotiating issues during this first week of the climate talks here, much of the conversation since has focused on the implications of a Trump presidency,” said Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).
On Wednesday, Secretary of State John Kerry, instrumental in negotiating the Paris Agreement, angrily underscored Meyer’s point: “This is bigger than one person, one president. We have to figure out how we’re going to stop this [Trump’s plan]… No one has the right to make decisions that affect billions of people based solely on ideology or without proper input.”
Just before Kerry spoke, the US released its first long-term climate plan under the Paris Agreement. It would reduce national emissions by 80 percent by 2050, measured against 2005 levels.
President Barrack Obama’s team — including Secretary of State Kerry — has provided unprecedented leadership in recent climate talks. Two years ago, the US persuaded China to pledge to pursue a vastly reduced coal-burning future for its energy needs. China, choking on the smog of its own rapid industrialization, had little choice. This groundbreaking partnership proved to be a game changer.
When the world’s two leading greenhouse gas emitters found common ground at the UN climate summit in Lima, Peru in 2014, the rest of the world quickly fell in line. That joint leadership made the historic Paris Agreement possible last December — the first time ever that 195 nations agreed to reduce their carbon footprints to slow global warming; an agreement that went into force early in November 2016 and in record time.
China to take leadership role
Now it’s likely — as during the eight years of the George W. Bush administration — that the US will go AWOL, abandoning its international climate change policy leadership role and its responsibilities to the international community and to the planet.
At a COP22 press conference, Jonathan Pershing, the lead US negotiator in Marrakesh, stressed that he knows nothing about Trump’s transition team for climate policy; no one has been in touch.
“What I do know, however, is that [due to] the power of the movement and the enormous momentum created in Paris, and built throughout the year since; [the] parties are deeply invested in seeing this work bear real fruit. It is no longer a question of whether to accelerate the [Paris] Agreement’s implementation, but rather a question of when and how.”
On the same day, at another COP22 press conference, China’s Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin dismissed Trump’s assertion that China was behind a climate-change “hoax,” presumably to steal American jobs, as Trump has alleged.
Prior to the US election, Xie Zhenhua, China’s top climate negotiator, also rejected Trump’s “hoax” assertion. He was reported saying, “I believe a wise political leader should take policy stances that conform with global trends. If they resist this trend, I don’t think they’ll win the support of their people, and their country’s economic and social progress will also be affected.”
The Trump campaign’s energy plan is arguably straight out of the 1950s: more oil and gas leases on federal lands, more offshore drilling, more fracking, “stopping the war on coal,” and pulling the teeth out of any EPA regulation that would slow fossil fuel production and consumption. This includes killing Obama’s Clean Energy Act. As the world’s nations work to cut carbon emissions, Trump will go rogue, upping America’s greenhouse gas releases.
Look for China to step into the vacuum created by Trump’s failure to lead, observers at COP22 say, in a move that could have far-reaching negative implications for future US foreign policy, and for the US economy.
“China intends to move forward,” Pershing said. “It doesn’t surprise me. The Paris Agreement was struck on the basis of national circumstances and national interests. It serves their development trajectory. I’m hearing the same from the Brazilians and Mexicans, from Canada and from smaller nations like Costa Rica and Colombia.”
More sun and wind, less oil, gas and coal
In COP22 press conferences, panel discussions and multiple interviews, delegates familiar with Trump’s policy proposals stress that the age of fossil fuels — built on antiquated 19th century energy technologies such as coal — is all but over.
Renewable energy sources like wind and solar continue to drop in price, thus making fossil fuel investments less practical. Companies such as ExxonMobil and Chevron have told their shareholders as much. Banks are paying attention and loaning billions of dollars for renewable energy installations worldwide. Loans for coal extraction are practically non-existent. Recent projections point to a similar, looming economic collapse for the oil industry.
Steve Sawyer, secretary general of the Global Wind Energy Council in Belgium, told me he “is horrified, horrified, horrified” at Trump’s election. Then with a wry smile, he added: “79 percent of all wind power installations in the US are in Republican Congressional districts,” such as Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas, North and South Dakota and Iowa.