A year ago, at the United Nations COP 21 climate summit in Paris, everyone was cheering a magnificent achievement: despite the odds, more than 190 countries had agreed to fight dangerous climate change, to keep global average temperature rises to no more than 2C (and with an ambition for no more than 1.5C) by the end of this century. The word “historic” is used a lot to describe world events like this, but the Paris Agreement deserves that description.
Perhaps even more impressive than the agreement itself was how quickly it came into legal force - scores of countries have now ratified the agreement and it became binding law on November 4. International treaties often take years or decades to come into force.
And then there was last week’s Donald Trump bombshell. Trump is an avowed climate sceptic, variously thinking it is all a Chinese conspiracy or otherwise believing that acting to protect climate would somehow damage the US economy. He’s promised, during his election campaign, to pull the US out of the Paris agreement. All a stark contrast to the Obama administration’s impressive leadership on the same issue.
At the COP22 meeting in Marrakech, the Trump factor has been on everyone’s lips.
“Obviously, an election took place in my country and I know it has left some here and elsewhere feeling uncertain about the future,” said John Kerry in remarks to attendees on Wednesday. Today, Kerry represents a world leader in climate diplomacy.
But will the United States retain that position under President-elect Donald Trump?
Kerry is an astute diplomat and would not be drawn to make any specific criticisms of Donald Trump’s position on climate change. But he was clear that climate change should not be a partisan issue and gave warnings about the importance of governments (including his own) acting on the issue in the future.
“If we fall short, it will be the single greatest instance in modern history of a generation in a time of crisis abdicating responsibility for the future,” said Kerry. “And it won’t just be a policy failure; because of the nature of this challenge, it will be a moral failure, a betrayal of devastating consequence.”
Just before his speech at COP22, Kerry had unveiled an ambitious plan to make deep cuts in US carbon emissions by 2050. This plan is highly unlikely to survive in Donald Trump’s administration but will, nevertheless, serve as a useful public record of what the US is capable, if its government has the will.
Donald Trump’s election last week sent shockwaves through the COP22 meeting but, a few days on, a new resolve seems to have emerged.
The international desire to tackle climate, as outlined in the Paris Agreement, is still strong, whether or not the US is at the lead. There’s no doubt that, if the US pulled out of the Paris Agreement, it would be a major diplomatic setback.
But that wouldn’t derail the process, Lord Nick Stern, a world-leading climate economist at the London School of Economics, told me. And he is reserving judgement on the Trump administration’s treatment of the issue until we know more about the team the new president intends to put in place.
Lord Stern also said that, whether or not Trump thinks climate change is an important issue, investing in clean technology could be a way for the new president to create the new manufacturing jobs that Trump has promised to middle America.
Climate action in the US will continue, even if the federal government doesn’t push it forward (or even obstructs it). Major cities, states, companies across the country are already reducing their carbon footprint and investing in new technology for a cleaner environment.
“Paris was meant to rise above political cycles,” said Liz Gallagher or climate group E3G. “It wasn’t incumbent on one single country.”
How the world acts in the next few, critical, years will determine whether or not we avoid dangerous climate change by the end of this century.
With the election of Donald Trump, that task has become a little harder - but climate scientists, enlightened politicians and businesses seem to be determined to stay on the right path.