Reflections on the Marrakech Climate Negotiations In Light of the American Election

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I arrived in Marrakech on Thursday am, November 10 just as the news of the election of Donald Trump was hitting the world like a large meteor hitting the Atlantic Ocean.

I had come to Marrakech to participate in international climate negotiations to which 193 countries had come in hope of making progress on finding a global solution to the increasingly frightening climate change emergency.  All 193 countries had agreed in Paris the year before to work together to try to limit warming to as close as possible to 1.5 degrees C but no more than 2 degrees C. The international community was convinced that their previous promise to work to limit warming to 2 degrees C was much too dangerous particularly for many desperately poor countries. Yet to achieve the new warming limits, nations will need to greatly strengthen their commitments made in Paris, a goal which was the organizing focus of the Marraketch meeting.

On the first day of the negotiations, I was listening to two women, one from the Maldives and the other from Bangladesh, describing the suffering their families and communities were already experiencing from floods and rising seas. They also pleaded for much more aggressive action from developed countries to reduce GHG emissions as  waves of grief, despair and sadness about the US election were reverberating through the huge Marrakech negotiating complex.

As I encountered colleagues from previous climate negotiations, every conversation began with sorrowful laments about the US election. Particularly those of us who were veterans of most of the 23 year climate negotiating history were painfully aware of the anomaly that the Obama administration represented compared to the administrations of prior US Presidents as a positive force in the international efforts to find a global solution to climate change’s enormous threats.  We therefore felt deep grief about the Trump election and his promise to rip up the Paris Agreement and reestablish coal as an energy source.

For most of the 23 year history of the climate negotiations, the United States, along with two or three other nations,  often played a blocking role in international efforts to find a global solution to climate change. In no small part because of the delay caused by US obstruction, the world is running out of time to prevent potentially very dangerous climate change despite the Obama’s administrations recent more positive commitments.

The climate change disinformation campaign funded by many fossil fuel companies and free market fundamentalist foundations that started in the United States in the late 1980s and moved to several other developed countries is in no small part responsible for the rise of atmospheric CO2 to 403 ppm from about 320 ppm, a level that existed when calls to control GHG emissions began in earnest in the 1970s.

Because the international community has not found a way yet to actually reduce global GHG emissions to safe levels, and some parts of the world are already experiencing life-threatening floods and droughts, killer heat waves and storm surges, and rises in tropical diseases, the success of US climate change opponents in blocking meaningful US climate change policies has created a monumental threat to the entire world. Now President-elect Trump is threatening to reinstate the United State as the chief obstructionist on climate change issues among nations.

Yet shortly before the Marrakech COP, optimism about chances for preventing catastrophic warming was rising as 55 countries representing 55% of global emissions ratified the Paris Agreement allowing the Paris deal to come into effect on October 4th of this year, more quickly than expected. At the beginning of the Marrakech negotiation session, it appeared to me that the Trump election had punctured the optimism filled balloon that was rising shortly before the Marrakech COP.

Compared to many of the first 21 international climate negotiating meetings, which are referred to as Conference of the Parties or COPs under the 1992 United Nations Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the agenda and expectations for the Marrakech session (COP22) were modest despite a growing sense of urgency and alarm among climate scientists that time is running short to prevent extraordinarily  dangerous climate change.

The most important agenda items for Marrakech were filling in details of general decisions made in the Paris Agreement that must be clarified if the accord’s goal of limiting warming to as close as possible to  1.5 degrees C but no greater than 2 degrees C has any chance of being achieved.

And so much of the Marrakech negotiations were focused on such non-sexy issues as:

(a) how a global dialogue that the Paris Agreement calls for on assessing the state of affairs in 2018 will be organized,

(b) how to assure the clarity and sufficiency of information that nations must provide with their commitments under the Paris agreement prior to five-year “stocktakes” and to implement the Paris Agreement’s “transparency mechanism,”

 (c) how to make progress on the financing promises of developed countries for developing country programs on adaptation and mitigation,

(d) how to assure that the Paris Agreement’s market mechanisms which give governments flexibility in how they achieve GHG emissions reduction commitments don’t undermine the Agreement’s warming limit goal.

Although these issues are not as politically explosive as issues that were under consideration in the other 21 COPs, they are nonetheless crucial steps that must be taken to implement the Paris accord.

The fog of sadness triggered by the Trump election coupled with the lack of visible progress on increasing the ambition of national commitments so urgently needed to keep warming to non-dangerous levels initially created a dark mood in the negotiating complex. However, as the negotiations continued into the second week, at least this writer was buoyed by the determination, if not outright defiance, of people and countries from around the world that I kept experiencing during the last few days of the COP.

In addition to the negotiations, much of what goes on at a COP are in numerous side-events, where reports are heard from non-government organizations, national and international scientific institutions, research organizations, and businesses supporting technologies that have hope of contributing to the solution to climate change. Being at a COP is like having a two-week intensive course on all that is going on with climate change around the world.

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At one of  the side events I attended, I began to notice the rise of a positive defiance that countries around the world were displaying about the future of the Paris Agreement despite the bad news from the United States. This positive mood was fueled in part by the numerous examples of rapid progress being made around the world in installing non-fossil energy. Also all countries acted at the COP as if they understood that climate change was a very serious global threat that urgently required the cooperation of all nations to prevent catastrophic harm to people and ecological systems on which life depends.

In one side event, the energy Secretary from Vermont reported that one in every twenty jobs in her state were in the solar industry and that solar energy is already transforming Vermont’s energy supply.

Johnathan Pershing, lead US negotiator, claimed that the US solar industry was employing over 2,500,000 people while only 86,000 were working in the coal industry.

One of the side events discussed growing cooperation on climate change between California and several Canadian Provinces along with growing regional cooperation around the world on climate issues

Many of the 193 countries participating in the Marrakech negotiations had displays which depicted not only significant amounts of installed renewable energy in their countries, but plans for greatly expanded use or climate friendly technologies including electric vehicles and green building in the years ahead.

There was considerable discussion in Marrakech about the rapidly expanding and ambitious role that cities around the world have committed to play to fight climate change. Recently 7,100 cities from 119 countries and six continents, representing more than 600 million inhabitants, over 8% of the world’s population have committed to cooperate together under the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy. In addition 20 of the world’s largest cities have committed to achieve carbon neutrality or at minimum to reduce GHG emissions by 80% by 2050. The cities include: Adelaide, Australia, Berlin, Germany, Boston MA, Boulder CO, Copenhagen,Denmark, London, United Kingdom, Melbourne, Australia, Minneapolis MN, New York City NY, Oslo, Norway, Portland OR, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, San Francisco CA, Seattle WA, Stockholm, Sweden, Sydney, Australia,Toronto, Canada, Vancouver, Canada, Washington, DC, and Yokohama, Japan.

Several times throughout the COP I heard participants proclaim defiantly that they were going to “Trump Proof” the world. They claimed they were going to go ahead with or without the United States.  Several claimed that if the United States pulled out of the Paris deal, they would pursue economic sanctions against the United States

The day before I left Marrakech, I felt a positive change in my mood. I had been affected by positive energy from thousands around the world attending the COP. They promised to strive to implement the Paris Agreement without the United States. However, only if the United States aggressively reduces its GHG emissions is there much hope of preventing climate change that will harm millions of the worlds poorest people because 20 % of global GHG emissions come from the United States..

The Marrakech COP produced a few very modest advancements in the Paris deal while deferring important decisions to the next COP which will be held in Bonn, Germany next year.

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar in Residence and Professor

Widener University Commonwealth Law School

dabrown57@gmail.com