As America votes, climate delegates hold their breath in Marrakech

By Michael Igoe 07 November 2016

World leaders gather in Marrakech, Morocco, for COP22.

Streaks of lightning lit the ochre walls of Marrakech’s medina Sunday night, as thousands of delegates, observers and journalists arrived in the Moroccan city to move a global climate change framework forward into action.

But, if the forecast is to be believed, the rain and thunderstorms will soon clear, welcoming in a stretch of sunny weather. With Tuesday’s U.S. presidential elections coinciding with the second day of this global climate conference — and one candidate representing a direct threat to U.S. climate policy — the metaphor is apt to many conference attendees even as some fear it might be premature.

Donald Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, is the proverbial cloud hanging over Marrakech, where 20,000 people have gathered at the 22nd Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change — or COP22. Participants aim to pivot the climate change conversation from procedural agreement to concrete action. But while the United States played a key role in brokering the groundbreaking Paris agreement during President Obama’s second term, Trump has taken direct aim at the global climate action framework, pledging to withdraw the U.S. from a treaty that took years to negotiate.

Some of the most stressful election watch parties this year will likely be held far from America’s swing states and instead be hosted in Marrakech’s typically serene riads, the traditional houses with interior courtyards and gardens that are now full to capacity with COP22 visitors.

“We’ll be up all night,” said Liz Gallagher, senior policy adviser at E3G, a nonprofit climate change policy organization.

The stakes are high. Commitments outlined in the Paris agreement don’t go far enough to prevent “dangerous” climate change, considered to be warming over 2 degrees celsius. The significance of the treaty is that it describes a framework for countries to take more ambitious action over time — and to collectively report and discuss those actions at agreed upon times. COP22 attendees hope the conversation about “ratcheting up” the Paris agreement in order to meet emissions reductions and climate finance goals will begin in earnest over the next two weeks.

Gallagher worries that even the specter of a Trump presidency — and certainly the reality of one if he wins the election — might pull the legs out from under that movement to achieve greater ambition and more precision when it comes to what states are willing and able to do and when.

“COPs are built on psychology as well as formal negotiating positions,” she said. “If things kind of spiral out of control and the ship isn’t steadied, then what you could see is that clarity being lost and people kind of hedging their bets because they’re not sure where the U.S. is going.”

But it is hard to say if Trump’s opposition to the Paris agreement has had a material effect on discussions so far. The first days of COP22 are as much about celebrating progress made in the past year, as they are about hard-headed negotiations.

“I think we’re lucky that [the election is] happening in the first week,” Gallagher said. “At least — fingers crossed — we’ll know the results relatively soon.”

Not surprisingly, most of COP22’s attendees hope those results will signal a Hillary Clinton victory. The prevailing view is Clinton would stay the post-Paris agreement course and build on President Obama’s efforts to position the U.S. as a central actor in international negotiations. Clinton’s victory, in other words, would allow those assembled here in Marrakech to carry on with the work they have ahead of them and to push each other to adopt a more ambitious trajectory.

If Trump were elected, however, it’s easy to imagine a distinct shift in tone.

“What Marrakech can do is continue to deepen trust. What this would do is really break down those threads of trust that have been woven and take us back in terms of our ability to work together as a global community on this issue,” said Heather Coleman, climate change policy manager at Oxfam.

“I don’t think that it will be complete pandemonium, but I do think there will be quite a bit of disappointment and fear,” she added.

Part of the reason there was such a strong push to get the Paris agreement finalized and ratified was to safeguard the Obama administration’s climate policy gains against the uncertainty of this election year. Because of the treaty’s procedural rules, it would take Trump four years — an entire presidential term — to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris agreement.

Some conservative groups have even suggested the U.S. pull out of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change entirely. That could theoretically happen faster — and would include a withdrawal from the Paris agreement — but is a much more drastic action.

But there is plenty that a Trump administration could undo in the shorter term. The $3 billion U.S. pledge to the Green Climate Fund — $500 million was already deposited earlier this year — could be at risk.

“It’s scary that if Mr. Trump wins the election that no money will be on the table,” said Meena Raman, secretary general of Friends of the Earth Malaysia. “It could actually drag everybody down.”

Trump could also choose not to support federal action — such as the Clean Power Plan — to help the U.S. meet the carbon emissions goals it signed onto as party to the agreement.

U.S. officials leading the COP delegation describe an international climate movement that will continue regardless of Trump’s opposition to it — and with or without an uncooperative U.S. administration, if he is elected.

“I think what we have seen in recent months and in fact in recent years is a recognized now inevitability of the transition to a low-carbon economy,” John Morton, director for energy and climate change for the White House National Security Council, told reporters ahead of the conference.

“We will see countries continuing to move forward at a fast clip irrespective of what happens ... Tuesday. I think the question may be what role and how quickly the U.S. moves,” he added.

Trump’s comments about withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris agreement haven’t gone unnoticed, however. They’ve even elicited rare public critical responses from other countries’ governments.

Two Chinese officials have now openly criticized Trump’s obstructionist rhetoric. “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,” said Xie Zhenhua, China’s top climate envoy, on Tuesday.

“I believe a wise political leader should take policy stances that conform with global trends,” he added.

On Friday, China’s Deputy Director of the National Centre for Climate Change Strategy Zou Ji said, “If Trump were to insist on doing things his own way, then he would pay a heavy price both politically and diplomatically," according to Reuters.

Brazil’s environment minister, José Sarney Filho, got more personal with his remarks. “I hope Trump doesn’t win,” he said.

It’s rare to see such direct political commentary on a U.S. election from foreign officials. Their remarks point to an international climate coalition that has worked hard to pull together — and has the political heft to defend its own legitimacy.

“There are powerhouse countries that are not happy with the rhetoric they’re hearing about the Paris agreement,” Coleman said.

“They’ve spent a lot of political capital getting this agreement over the finish line. They do not appreciate that there is a presidential candidate who has continually signaled as one of his top priorities — his first few days in office — that he will pull out of the Paris agreement,” she added.

Yet even if Trump does not win and COP22 delegates welcome Clinton as America’s next president, the election may still not allay all fears. Clinton may find her political and policy options greatly limited if she faces a U.S. Congress still controlled by Republicans, just as Obama has.

“We have to ask ourselves, how much can the president do under executive action to continue to deepen emission reductions and reach our Paris targets?” Coleman said.

“She’s going to be looking for opportunities to continue to do that, but without a Congress that backs [her], we’re going to continue to be trying to squeeze out small, incremental changes,” she added.

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About the author

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Michael Igoe@AlterIgoe

Michael Igoe is a senior correspondent for Devex. Based in Washington, D.C., he covers U.S. foreign aid and emerging trends in international development and humanitarian policy. Michael draws on his experience as both a journalist and international development practitioner in Central Asia to develop stories from an insider's perspective.

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