Sometime around 2 o’clock in the morning in a hotel bar in Marrakech, where dozens of NGO representatives gathered to watch the U.S. presidential election results roll in, the optimistic afterglow from the Paris climate agreement’s rapid entry into force began to fade away.
“OK, now I’m nervous,” said one attendee at the unofficial COP22 watch party, after Donald Trump secured the critical state of Ohio as part of his shocking, successful bid for the presidency of the United States.
This was the “doomsday scenario” for international climate change negotiators, as Heather Coleman, climate change policy manager at Oxfam, put it in the days leading up to the two-week conference. Those who slept at all here in Marrakech woke up to exactly that.
Trump’s election is a major blow to advocates for robust proactive measures to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Not only has Trump described global warming as a hoax and pledged to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris agreement, but he has also built his campaign on a foundation of deep skepticism about what America gains from participating in international coalitions such as the one striving to stave off dangerous levels of climate change.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon congratulates U.S. President-elect Donald Trump and looks forward, as the future for U.N. funding comes under question.
Those pushing for ambitious climate action now see a limited window to move their agenda forward — and hope they can mount an “education period” to convince Trump of his responsibility to uphold U.S. commitments, including domestic emissions reductions and financing for developing countries to help them adapt.
A coalition of faith groups, development organizations, environmental groups and businesses that have been pushing — at President Barack Obama’s request — for the U.S. Congress to approve funding for the Green Climate Fund, for example, will now add President-elect Donald Trump to its list of people to influence, said Alden Myer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists.
“This is not a handout. This is not charity. This is an investment in our children’s future. This is an investment in the security and wellbeing of the planet,” Myer said.
“There may be an education period needed here, but we will revitalize and expand that coalition and include President-elect Trump among those we are reaching out to with these broad voices of American society,” he added.
The sense of uncertainty about how Trump will handle climate commitments is already having an impact on political discussions here at COP22.
The election of Donald Trump as the next U.S. president is sure to send shockwaves throughout the global development community as worries rise about his aid policy and stated position on climate change.
A delegation from Ukraine discussed the outcome of the election on benches outside the conference site’s restaurant. They shared only their first names, in order to discuss sensitive political issues. One member of the delegation, Tatiana, suggested that now negotiators will be reluctant to make commitments, since they do not know what the policy of the next U.S. administration will be.
Alternatively, she speculated that parties could try to get more done in these two weeks, given the concerns about what Trump might bring to the process.
Another member of the delegation, Taras, said that seemed unlikely, since the Paris agreement’s timeline for action is already a lengthy one. The first significant meeting to take stock of what countries are achieving is not planned until 2018. It will be impossible to get done in two weeks, what parties to the Paris agreement plan to do over the course of two years, he said.
Attendees from the U.S. took the outcome — and its implications for the Marrakech conference — a bit more personally.
“I’m somewhere between afraid and embarrassed to show up in the meetings,” said Dehlia Hannah, a research curator at Arizona State University and COP22 observer.
Ben Hugues, an investment manager at Camco Clean Energy, was more optimistic that negotiations will continue as planned. The field he works in — African renewable energy — appears primed for growth “with or without the United States,” Hugues said.
In their responses to Trump’s victory, NGO leaders, activists and climate change champions repeatedly stressed this point — that global momentum is moving in the direction of decarbonized economies and investments in renewable energy. Trump alone, many of them said, will not be able to turn the tide.
Trump’s most direct attack against the international climate change effort came in a speech on energy he delivered in May. “We’re going to cancel the Paris climate agreement and stop all payment of U.S. tax dollars to U.N. global warming programs," Trump said.
As many have pointed out, it would take a Trump administration four years to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris treaty — concern about Trump’s candidacy was one of the factors behind the quick ratification. He could, however, inflict plenty of damage to its credibility and success by refusing to support financing, emissions reductions, and policy commitments necessary to achieve the agreement’s goals.
But COP22 attendees pointed out that undermining the treaty would come with a political cost.
“Inaction would have consequences,” said Myer.
“If the U.S. pulls out of this process and is seen as going as a rogue nation on climate change, that will have implications for everything else on President Trump’s agenda when he wants to deal with foreign leaders, and I think he will soon come to understand that,” he added.
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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