Barack Obama saw the Paris Agreement as the keystone of a lustrous legacy but, like so many of his less-than-glittering achievements, the Trump victory has confounded that ambition. Nowhere was the president-elect’s shadow more chilling than at the UN’s latest catastropharian confab
Under the cold grey December skies of a Paris still reeling from Islamist atrocities, the countries of the world enorsed the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. The first climate conference since the Paris Agreement came into force took place under the cloudless skies of Marrakech. It should have been an occasion for celebration and self-congratulation. But there was little elation. The Paris Agreement had been structured to avoid the test of a two-thirds vote in the United States Senate. The strategy depended on American voters supplying a climate-friendly successor to President Obama. It didn’t turn out that way.
There is something strange about climate conferences – this one being the 22nd conference of the parties (COP) of the 1992 UN climate change convention. The world’s most prominent citizens attend, our age providing no higher form of cost-free virtue signalling than a COP. Yet what the negotiators discuss is of mind-numbing tedium – deciding, for example, whether to hold a workshop or invite submissions from parties and ask for the climate secretariat to provide a synthesis paper. It is an environment in which international bureaucrats are at their most effective in pulling the strings. Ministers have walk-on parts as servants of a process that the UN Climate Secretariat has set in motion, to smile nicely and congratulate each other on their collective efforts in saving the planet from catastrophe.
This year’s COP took place in a series of temporary trade-exhibition tents under the flight path of the local airport, as all were reminded each and every time a plane took off. On the tarmac of Marrakech airport is what must be the world’s largest private jet – larger than Air Force One – belonging to the low-carbon state of Kuwait. Unsurprisingly, climate conferences are irony-free zones. Participants go about their COP-business as if everything is normal, fearful that it is not.
Over COP 22, President-elect Donald Trump casts a chilling shadow. ‘My only worry is the money,’ a delegate from the Democratic Republic of Congo told Reuters. ‘It’s worrying when you know that Trump is a climate sceptic.’ Such candour was almost as hard to find as irony.
Week two was when the most important people arrive, so its first day was decreed to be gender and education day. Gender equality and the empowerment of women is written into the preamble of the Paris Agreement. ‘Gender justice is climate justice,’ as one feminist NGO puts it. There were Feminists for a Fossil Fuel Free Future in attendance. You can download a Gender Climate Tracker app for iPhone and Android. ‘Our existing economies are based on gender exploitative relationships,’ one speaker told a side meeting. ‘The first ecology is my body,’ another declared. Sexual and reproductive rights require climate justice. ‘Sixty percent of my body is water. What I’m drinking takes me to my city and to the health of the planet.’
Whatever the health of the planet, the climate-change process has taken a turn for the worse: Trump’s election is the worst setback to the climate change negotiations since they began a quarter of a century ago, when the first meeting of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee produced 1992’s UN framework convention on climate change. After the climate-and-gender session, the conference got serious. French President François Hollande threw down the gauntlet to the US president-elect, declaring last year’s Paris Agreement ‘irreversible from a legal point of view.’ The US must respect the climate commitments it had made, demanded Hollande, whose popularity earlier this year dropped to a record low of four percent. Was this a mouse roaring at a lion? Something like that for someone who is likely to be the first French president to be denied the chance of running for a second term.
Michael Kile: Derailing the Marrakech Express
On Wednesday, it was the turn of US Secretary of State John Kerry, who turned in a more credible roar of defiance, making up in authenticity what his speech lacked in coherence. ‘No one should doubt that the majority of Americans are determined to keep the commitments we have made,’ Kerry declaimed to loud applause. Then why didn’t the Obama Administration seek Congressional approval for the Clean Power Plan and send the Paris Agreement to the Senate for its advice and consent? ‘The United States is right now on our way to meeting all of the international targets that we’ve set,’ explained Kerry, ‘and because of the market decisions that are being made, I do not believe that that can, or will be reversed.’ If so, it shouldn’t matter if the Trump Administration annulled the Clean Power Plan?
‘No one can stop the new climate economy because the benefits are so enormous,’ Kerry continued. Tell that to out-of-work coal miners in Appalachia or voters in Rust Belt states who handed the presidency to Donald Trump. Moments later, the same Kerry was saying that government leadership was ‘absolutely essential.’ Time was running out, apparently. Do we have the collective will to save the planet from catastrophe, Kerry asked. ‘It won’t happen without leadership,’ was his answer.
At an emotional level, those brave words of reassurance were what the participants at the Marrakech conference craved. But the contradiction between the inevitability of wind and solar sweeping all before them and the veiled accusation that president-elect Donald Trump would be guilty of a moral betrayal if he backed off the commitments made by his predecessor showed that politics trumps arguments about inevitability. Even so, the unreality of the unstoppable clean-tech revolution was prominent in Kerry’s remarks. Developing countries wanted access to affordable energy, the Secretary of State acknowledged. More often than not, that meant coal.
Most of the huge growth in electricity demand in South East Asia will be met by coal, Kerry warned, negating the benefits of the new investment in renewables. Financing new coal-fired power stations was a form of suicide, Kerry declared. What was he or any other US politician going to do about it? Asian countries are going to do what they’re going to do and there’s very little America – or anyone else – might do to stop them. Without realizing it, Kerry’s argument demonstrates the sense of putting America first when it comes to energy policy.
Kerry’s state of climate confusion was one indicator of the crisis that Donald Trump’s election has sent through the halls of the UN climate change talks. That jitteriness was evident a couple of hours after Kerry had finished talking. To dramatize Trump’s campaign pledge to drop the Paris Agreement, CFACT’s Marc Morano, a climate sceptic, arranged a ritual shredding of the Paris Agreement in front of a life size cut-out of Trump. Hardly had the first page of the agreement disappeared into the shredder than UN security police intervened to save the rest of the document. Morano and his colleague, Craig Rucker, were then escorted away and banned from attending the rest of the conference for ‘their own safety and the safety of all participants,’ the UN said. It is hard to believe the UN police would have been deployed so swiftly if it had been pages of the US Constitution being fed into the shredder in front of a cut-out of Robert Mugabe.
The person responsible for bringing the quarter-century climate change process to the brink of irretrievable collapse is not Trump but the man he will succeed as president. After the abject failure of the Copenhagen climate summit in the first year of his presidency, President Obama embarked on a new climate strategy designed to avoid putting a fresh treaty before the US Senate. It had one major flaw: it depended on what didn’t happen when Americans confounded the pundits and rejected Hillary Clinton. However, the agreement had been booby-trapped to make it as difficult as possible for the US to back out. Speaking in February, after the Supreme Court slapped a stay on the Clean Power Plan and put a huge legal question mark over America’s ability to comply with the Paris Agreement, President Obama’s climate envoy, Todd Stern, explained that a Republican president was unlikely to scrap the Paris deal as it would have negative diplomatic implications.
Stern’s view fails to take account of the domestic repercussions of President Obama’s climate policies and the war on coal which helped deliver last week’s election outcome. Four of the top five coal-producing states voted Republican, including Pennsylvania, which swung from Blue to Red, and West Virginia, which gave Donald Trump his second-highest vote share.
Of the top-ten states most reliant on coal for their electricity, seven voted Republican last week, including VP-elect Mike Pence’s Indiana and swing state Ohio.
For the incoming Trump Administration, electoral calculations will mean the question of exiting the Paris Agreement is a matter of how, not if. Article 28 stipulates that parties must give a year’s notice of withdrawal once the Agreement has been in force for three years. That means the earliest the US could withdraw would be November 4, 2020. There is a quicker way. A party can give a year’s notice to leave the entire 1992 UN framework convention on climate change at any time.
It’s more than the shredding the Paris Agreement that could be Obama’s climate legacy. American participation in the 1992 framework convention could be heading for the shredder too.
Rupert Darwall is author of The Age of Global Warming – A History (Quartet, 2013)