Jonathan Pershing, the U.S. special envoy for climate change. Photo by: U.S. State Department

Jonathan Pershing, the U.S. special envoy for climate change, found himself in a difficult position last month as he tried to convince others at the COP22 climate talks in Marrakech, Morocco, that Donald Trump’s presidency would not reverse their progress.

“Am I optimistic? Not entirely,” Pershing said of the incoming administration at a talk Thursday at the University of California, Berkeley. “The question really is how to square the language they’ve used with the reality that I see, and that the rest of the scientific community sees.”

His visit fell days after Trump selected oil executive Rex Tillerson as his secretary of state. And just before news emerged this week that the Trump transition team is investigating what the State Department spends on international environmental efforts, raising concerns among critics and civil servants as they did when they requested the names of people involved in international climate negotiations.

Now, as questions remain about the future of U.S. leadership, including on issues related to climate, it appears the role of U.S. special envoy for climate might be eliminated entirely. But that is among the least of Pershing’s worries, he said, in a talk that looked at how far the world had come while also asking what's next.

“I am hopeful that the new administration will recognize a couple things,” Pershing said.

First, he said, the issue of climate change has garnered so much attention and support that moving away from the commitments the U.S. has made may not be worth the cost. Second, there are clear benefits that would come from action, and those benefits would extend to issues the administration has identified as a priority, including national security. By recognizing these realities, the administration could turn climate change into a nonpartisan issue, he explained.

The climate positions of Scott Pruitt, who has been nominated to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, Ryan Zinke who has been nominated as the secretary of the interior and Rick Perry who has been nominated to be the energy secretary, are at odds with views of the people they represent, according to polling data that said 78 percent of Americans see climate change as important, Pershing said.

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The way the world went forward without the U.S., or even in spite of the U.S., with the Kyoto Protocol is “instructive for where we are today,” he added.

“[At COP22] The global community said, ‘Independent of what this president-elect has said about climate, we the world community believe the importance of the issue has not changed. We intend to move forward with this issue,’” Pershing said.

Over time, global consensus has emerged not only around the need for action on climate change, but also around the fact that the global community cannot solve this problem with action from developed countries alone, Pershing said. Pershing said he has concerns about the future of the relationship between U.S. and China, and how damage to that bilateral relationship might affect climate change.

The NDC Partnership, an initiative launched at COP22, co-chaired by Germany and Morocco, and designed to ensure that developing countries achieve their climate commitments, is the kind of cross-border collaboration this problem demands, he said. Despite the fact that other countries have stepped up, no country can fill the void of the U.S. and China, Pershing said.

“Rare is it for China to make a public statement about another nation, and China has made several now with regards to climate change and the new administration,” he said. “That’s startling. Very unusual for China. I think it bespeaks the level of concern they have around a potential change in U.S. policy.”

Early in his career, Pershing spent five years working in oil and gas in Alaska, before taking on roles including the lead negotiator representing the U.S. at meetings of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. He mentioned that job to make the point that work in that industry does not make someone unfit for climate change leadership.

“Let me say a word about Mr. Tillerson,” Pershing said. “He might be your best bet on climate change.”

Exxon Mobil, the world’s largest publicly traded oil and gas company, where Tillerson is chairman and CEO, recently acknowledged the connection between greenhouse gases and climate change and argued the U.S. should remain in the Paris agreement to address the risks posed by climate change, Pershing said. And Tillerson himself has said a carbon tax would be the best way to reflect the cost of carbon in the economic decisions of actors ranging from consumers to companies.

“I myself would not have picked an oil exec as the head of the State Department, but having said that, he may be someone who can generate something real,” Pershing said.

It remains to be seen what funds will remain under a president who said he will “cancel all wasteful climate change spending.” For example, while the Global Climate Change Initiative, which aims to integrate climate change considerations into foreign assistance from the U.S. Agency for International Development, has champions in the U.S. Senate, the new budget environment could put the program at risk, Pershing said. Other funding, such as the $3 billion the U.S. pledged to commit to the United Nations Green Climate Fund as part of the Paris agreement could also be threatened, he said.

The International Energy Agency has estimated that $5 trillion of investment in clean energy will be needed by 2020 to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius compared with pre-industrial times, a global target agreed upon in Paris, Pershing said. All paths to that goal will require substantial finance, new policy, and rapid deployment of technology, he added.

He highlighted Mission Innovation, an initiative of 22 countries and the European Union, and the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, which announced a $1 billion fund last week, as examples of the kinds of efforts needed to accelerate clean energy innovation.

Technology alone will not solve the problems the world faces, Pershing said, and the key question is about the pace of innovation. “Does it go fast enough to exceed the rate of change in the climate system?” he said.

At the time of his talk, Pershing said he had not yet met with the transition team, but that he had heard that the Heritage Foundation, which is a driver of reorganization at the State Department, would recommend cutting the use of special envoys and representatives. But, he said, the agenda could continue without someone in his role.

“The envoy was a quick pathway to getting a very senior figure in to make something happen,” Pershing said. “But it’s now happening.”

The implementation strategy may not require the same role, he said.

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

  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.