Donald Trump, president-elect of the United States. Photo by: Michael Vadon / CC BY

International negotiations on climate change have been a bright spot amidst a gloomy year for global cooperation. Brexit, the Syrian crisis, massive forced displacement, underfunded humanitarian relief, and right-wing nationalist rhetoric have all challenged the idea that countries can achieve collective progress on issues that transcend their borders.

The successful negotiation of last year’s Paris agreement, while only a first step to delivering real climate action, has been a rallying cry for the international community. These climate negotiations have served to contain a potentially explosive conversation riddled with accusation, blame, and demands within a relatively amicable framework of working groups, high-level speeches, and goodwill gestures.

But Donald Trump — who built his candidacy on an “anti-globalism” platform — has taken direct aim.

If Trump follows through on his pledge to remove the United States from the framework — by scrapping the Paris agreement or withdrawing from the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change altogether — he could also invite a slew of legal challenges and economic penalties from climate vulnerable countries that want to hold the world’s second largest carbon polluter accountable for the damage climate change is already inflicting on their populations.

These conversations are happening in the corridors of the 22nd Conference of Parties in Marrakech, Morocco, said Saleemul Huq, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Environment and Development from Bangladesh, who has supported least developed countries’ engagement in the climate negotiations process.

“As long as you’re in the UNFCCC negotiating with us, then it’s fine. We’ll come to an amicable settlement. The moment you withdraw means you’re no longer negotiating with us, the victims of you, the polluter. We’re going to come after you,” Huq said.

Countries experiencing impacts from climate change that exceed their ability to adapt — islands that become unlivable due to sea level rise or farmland lost to desertification, for example — are trying to quantify their “loss and damage,” a topic of growing importance as record global temperatures inflict real harm on climate vulnerable communities.

Legal action for climate damages has been very difficult to achieve, but if the U.S. removes itself from those discussions, Huq named a number of actions climate vulnerable countries could take to hold the U.S. accountable.

“We’ll have sanctions. We’ll go to the International Court of Justice … We’ll confiscate your ships when they visit us. There are many, many ways short of going to war that we can attack a country for being a rogue state,” he said.

Huq isn’t the only one to apply the “rogue” label to a potential climate-denying Trump administration that reneges on the U.S. government’s existing commitments.

‘It would be a tragedy for the United States and the people of the United States if the U.S. becomes a kind of rogue country, the only country in the world that is somehow not going to go ahead with the Paris agreement," Mary Robinson, Ireland’s former president and U.N. special envoy on El Nino and climate, told the Reuters Foundation this week.

French presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy has also proposed a penalty on U.S. inaction, calling on Europe to impose a carbon tax on American imports if Trump follows through on his plan to back away from climate talks.

Others see a longer term storm brewing if developed countries such as the U.S. don’t follow through on their climate commitments — and if developing countries continue to bear the ever-increasing brunt of extreme weather, drought, and sea level rise.

“If nothing concrete or radical happens in the next 10 or 15 years, I won’t be surprised if you see a huge movement against the developed world,” said Harjeet Singh, international climate policy manager for ActionAid. “You’ll reach a stage where developing countries would say, ‘we’ll just ban all your multinational companies.’ These things do come up,” Singh said.

Trump can’t kill climate action

Negotiators in Marrakech have put a positive public face on the election of a climate change denier to the American presidency — an event that would likely have thrown negotiations of the Paris agreement into disarray had it happened in the lead up to COP21, when high-level trust and cooperation between the U.S. and China proved vital to securing a deal.

The optimistic view is that with the Paris agreement now in hand, international energy markets, national governments, businesses, cities and local governments are now the centers of gravity for climate action. No single country — let alone president — has the power to derail global momentum toward reducing emissions, investing in renewables, and implementing national climate change plans because these actions don’t require international negotiation.

“Good things are happening. The energy curve is bending towards sustainability. The market is clearly headed toward clean energy, and that trend will only become more pronounced,” said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in his remarks Wednesday.

This year, global temperatures reached 1.2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, a dramatic increase due in part to the convergence of climate change with a powerful El Nino weather system, according to the World Meteorological Organization, which released its latest update this week. Against that backdrop, developing countries are finding that they have no choice but to invest in climate change adaptation.

“They are now moving into the phase where they will do it for their own benefit, not because of an agreement cobbled together in the middle of the night in some city in the world with a number of negotiators,” said Huq.

“In a sense the agreement has now become irrelevant for action,” he added.

Where the Paris agreement platform remains critical is in pushing countries to ratchet up their own ambitions over time. The commitments described in countries’ “intended nationally determined contributions” — the plans they all have to submit as party to the agreement — are not bold enough to prevent climate change from reaching dangerous levels. The idea is for everyone to come together every five years, report the actions they’ve taken, and commit to even greater ambition.

“This process — a cornerstone of our agreement — gives us a framework that is built to last, and a degree of global accountability that has never before existed,” Kerry said.

A road map to $100 billion

Financing is one area where Trump could inflict damage in the near term, and all signs so far suggest he will.

The Obama administration pledged $3 billion to the Green Climate Fund — roughly a third of the total international pledge to one of the key vehicles for delivering climate finance to developing countries. So far $500 million has made its way from the U.S. Treasury to the GCF. IIED’s Huq maintains that this will slow to a trickle — or come to a dead stop — under Trump.

“Whether [Trump] actually chooses to withdraw from the [Paris] agreement, he will cut funding for sure — funding to the UNFCCC, to the Least Developed Country Fund, to the Adaptation Fund, to the GCF — will go to zero by next year. Absolutely certain. That’s the one thing he can do, he will do,” Huq said.

Finance, particularly for adaptation, has remained a sticky issue in Marrakech, as countries dig into what needs to happen to turn the ambition of the Paris agreement into bankable projects and national investments. Developing countries need money if they’re going to implement the national plans that make up the backbone of the Paris agreement; and they are urging developed countries to follow through on their financing commitments.

In May the U.N. Environmental Program released a report estimating that the cost of adapting to climate change in developing countries could rise to between $280 billion and $500 billion per year by 2050 — four to five times greater than previous estimates.

In the Paris agreement, negotiators set a floor of $100 billion in climate finance by 2020. Between now and then, they need to show progress toward reaching — and then surpassing — that sum.

In October, donor countries released a road map, which projects that public finance from developed countries and the multilateral development banks could amount to roughly $67 billion in 2020, up from an average of $41 billion in 2013 and 2014, according to the report.

Part of that $67 billion will leverage additional private finance, donors say, leaving them confident they will meet the $100 billion by 2020 goal.

But developing countries aren’t rushing to welcome the $100 billion road map, even though doing so is one of the agenda items here in Morocco. Many of them allege donors are overcounting the climate finance they are contributing and using inconsistent accounting methodologies that make it difficult to keep track.

“The road map to delivering real money needs to be drawn without smoke and mirrors accounting strategies,” said Tosi Mpanu-Mpanu, chair of the Least Developed Countries Group, a negotiating bloc representing the 48 poorest states.

Donor countries included grants and loans in their calculations. So while it may be true that development finance institutions have made financing available to countries for climate change-related investments, those countries are responsible for paying back those loans.

The line between development assistance and climate finance is also tricky to parse. An agriculture program in sub-Saharan Africa, for example, might include elements of climate adaptation, but how much of that program’s budget should be counted as climate finance, and how much of it should be counted as official development assistance?

Critics of the accounting methodologies used so far say donors are double-counting ODA as climate finance in many cases, despite the fact that climate change creates additional burdens for vulnerable countries — beyond the development challenges they already face.

Singh appreciates that developed countries are talking about delivering on their promises, but “the moment you get into details, you find that most of this money is a repackaged, double-counted, fudged money. Developed countries themselves are finding it hard to say confidently that it’s new and additional finance,” he added.

Muddling through a messy financing picture has been a long-standing part of the challenge governments and development organizations face when they look for the resources to implement programs. COP22 and the meetings that follow it over the next two years are supposed to lend some clarity to climate finance accounting rules and create a common methodology for donors to adopt.

“It’s never going to be this kind of very linear, clear picture,” said Magdy Martinez-Soliman, U.N. assistant secretary-general.

Martinez-Soliman pointed to a variety of examples where climate finance is flowing to vulnerable countries — from the Global Environmental Facility, for example, which supports developing countries to meet the objectives of international environmental agreements.

But he also noted that while money tends to get the bulk of the attention at conferences like this one, cash isn’t the only thing developing countries need. Technology transfer and knowledge sharing are critical parts of the agreement between countries as well, an especially important component for countries that can’t afford research and development yet need improvements to their transportation systems, energy matrix or construction techniques.

“Sometimes the debate is simplified into ‘cash for climate,’” Martinez-Soliman added.

The waiting is over

In the wake of Trump’s election, numerous world leaders have reiterated their commitments to this international climate negotiation process.

Chinese officials have made numerous statement about their own intentions to proceed with climate action, as well as their willingness to step into the leadership vacuum an uncooperative Trump administration could create.

For now everyone remains at the table, and the afterglow of a successful Paris agreement still lends momentum to a climate conversation at a critical juncture. For the remainder of this COP delegates will focus on setting the rules for future meetings and achieving some key early wins — such as the replenishment of the Adaptation Fund, which is seeking $80 million to stay afloat.

But countries such as Bangladesh, one of the most climate vulnerable countries in the world, aren’t waiting around for someone to deliver a magical financing solution to their climate change problems.

Developing country delegations attend COP every year, where they receive promises instead of delivery, Huq said. In the meantime, climate change is hitting them hard back home.

“I’m now arguing that we need to go back home and just tackle climate change and leave one guy here to negotiate,” Huq said. “This hang up of, ‘we will do things if we get money’ has to be abandoned. We will do things ourselves, whatever we can, and if somebody wants to help us with money that’s fine. But we’re not going to wait for it. The waiting is over.”

Stay tuned to Devex for more news and analysis of what the Trump administration will mean for global development. Read more coverage here and subscribe to The Development Newswire.

About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.