MARRAKESH, Morocco — 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.
Meanwhile, the rest of the world — especially China, India and the European Union — are moving rapidly toward decarbonizing their economies with 21st century technologies. The expected result is not only cleaner skies and possibly slowing the rate of global warming, but also creating millions of new jobs in an array of rapidly expanding green-energy sectors.
"Germany has set up a system of legislation and subsidies to move away from fossil fuels toward renewable energy," Martin Kaiser, executive director of programs for Greenpeace International in Berlin, told me.
"We are now at about 30 percent of our energy coming from renewables for the country. That's enough for 30 million homes. That's quite a lot," said Kaiser. "During summer, with so much sun and wind, we have 100 percent energy from renewables. We are at a real turning point of closing centralized coal and nuclear power stations and moving to a decentralized system of renewable energy." In such a world, one must ask, who will buy America's oil, gas and coal?
Policy payback predicted
Delegates in Marrakesh suggest darkly that a Trump Administration could cause the US to lose its standing on the world stage, while also losing out in the global competition to implement green-energy innovations.
Further backlash was suggested if the US shirks its Paris commitments. Trade agreements could falter, as could military cooperation. Economic sanctions are possible. And there is talk of a carbon tax levied on the US for failing to meet its carbon-reducing pledges while other countries are working to achieve theirs.
"Much of what drove Trump's election was a mood of economic insecurity and dislocation," said Alex Hanafi, the multilateral climate strategy manager for the Environmental Defense Fund. "For Trump to go backward on climate policy would only make those concerns worse."
"What will cause more economic insecurity and dislocation going forward is an unstable climate," he added. "If he was to walk back progress, [climate change] would hurt the US more than the Paris Agreement."
"President-elect Trump will soon be perhaps the most powerful person in the world," UCS's Meyer conceded. "But even he will not be powerful enough to change the laws of physics or wish away the serious impacts climate change is having on people in the US and around the world."
"We are in a crazy world"
Manuel Pulgar-Vidal is Peru's former minister of the environment. In that role, he hosted the UN's 2014 climate summit in Lima and co-hosted 2015's landmark Paris summit. He is now leader of the World Wildlife Fund's Climate and Energy Practice based in Berlin.
In an interview with Mongabay, he sought to put Trump's election in a global context.
"We should have consideration of what is happening in the world," Pulgar-Vidal said. "Look at the Brexit in England, the no-vote in Colombia for the peace agreement, and now the Trump election. We are in a crazy world. Even though we are in a time of uncertainty because of the US election, there is no way to turn away from what scientists have shown us. Failure to act now will lead to catastrophic consequences."
Pulgar-Vidal pointed out that since the Paris Agreement has entered the force of international law, the world has come together — with more than 110 countries ratifying the accord in recent weeks, including the United States.
With or without future US leadership, he said, continued climate progress will be made.
"Not all climate action is at the federal level," EDF's Hanafi stressed. "You are seeing cities, states and businesses taking action because it's in their health and economic interests. That's not going to change with this election. From Tesla to Walmart to Google, so many companies are moving forward because they see an economic opportunity. The market is driving a lot of these actions in a way that federal regulations aren't going to touch."
A stunning result just the same
In Marrakesh, there is a strong sense that no matter what team of climate deniers Trump puts in place, the climate change policy train has now left the station. New global leadership will fill any US void, delegates say, and the goal of keeping global temperatures from rising another 0.5 degree Celsius by 2100 remains intact.
Hanafi acknowledged that US leadership had been critical in achieving the Paris Agreement. "But we're over the hump now," he said, "and there will be further momentum no matter what a Trump Administration does."
It's also true that an attitude of disgust and astonishment pervades this 22nd UN climate meeting. Many ask — how did it happen? How did the American public, privileged as it is compared to so much of the world, elect a media celebrity with no foreign policy experience, a man who has blatantly and irresponsibly politicized a dire environmental reality?
"It's a tragic and devastating message to have someone in the most powerful position in the world being a climate denier," said Asad Rehman, head of international climate for Friends of the Earth International in London. "This is unprecedented: someone who ignores the research of his own science community, his own military. There are not many people left in the world who deny the reality of climate science."
While Trump aggressively pursues the rhetoric of denial, "the reality is, climate change is being experienced by people right now all around the world with super typhoons, killer droughts and floods," Rehman concluded. "Millions have already been devastated, including many in the US. The real problem is that Trump's rhetoric could mean less action, which could mean more devastating impacts for the poorest people in the world."
Environment and Climate Change