People, planet, and the path ahead
Environmental activists hold a banner during a protest against President-elect Donald Trump at the Climate Conference, known as COP22, in Marrakech, Morocco, on Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2016. The election of a US president who has called global warming a "hoax" alarmed environmentalists and climate scientists and raised questions about whether America, once again, would pull out of an international climate deal.
Mosa'ab Elshamy/AP | Caption

'Trump effect' will test global momentum on climate change

Negotiators from around the world, gathered in Morocco, are trying to build on last year's landmark Paris agreement to cut carbon emissions. 

Donald Trump’s presidential victory throws into doubt America’s policy stance on the major global issue of climate change – and does so at a pivotal moment, just as nations from around the world are trying to solidify and build on a landmark accord to slash carbon emissions nation by nation.

Mr. Trump has called climate change a hoax and said he would “cancel” the Paris climate agreement reached by nearly 200 nations last year. That agreement, the details of which negotiators are now discussing at a UN conference in Marrakech, legally requires that countries monitor and report their progress on emissions of heat-trapping gases. But it doesn’t bind them to actually meet their pledged targets for reducing emissions.

The US alongside China, the world’s two largest carbon-emitting nations, had played a major role in building momentum for the Paris deal.

Now, with the Paris agreement newly in force as of last week, it’s not clear if Trump will actually pull America out of the deal. But he can certainly withdraw US leadership on climate action – with repercussions for both US carbon emissions and international momentum on the issue.

“It is going to be difficult if the federal government pulls out of the game for the states, the cities and the businesses to do it on their own,” Alden Meyer,  director of strategy and policy with the Union of Concerned Scientists, said at a press conference in Marrakech. “It is an ambitious target especially, when you’re trying to do it without the support of the Congress.”

And for international action, Trump’s surprise win – which stunned diplomats here – is already shaking up discussions at this year’s climate conference here, where the focus is on putting the Paris deal into action.

Trump’s election puts US negotiators here in a tough spot: It’s difficult to make any promises to international colleagues given what the shift a Trump White House would mean, compared with the Obama administration.

Country officials working on the rules guiding transparency for reporting emissions under the Paris agreement were told to keep forging ahead despite the uncertainty Trump's ascension meant.

"It's like all the hard work of Paris could be wiped away," said Jamie Ovia, an official working on transparency issues for Tuvalu.

The State Department declined to comment on Trump’s election and its effect on the talks.

Kalee Kreider, a climate negotiations veteran and former Al Gore adviser, noted it’s not the first United Nations conference thrown into turmoil by a US election. Diplomats ultimately couldn’t agree on much at the 2000 conference at the Hague when the outcome of the election between Vice President Gore and George W. Bush was unclear.

Ambitious carbon targets in doubt

Many negotiators and environmental activists cautioned against reading the Trump effect as a deal-killer for the 11-month-old Paris climate agreement, which aims to keep global temperatures from rising 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels by 2100, or a more aspirational target of 1.5 degrees.

But they still said meeting the emissions reduction commitment President Obama made in Paris to slash US emissions between 26 and 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025 is now in jeopardy.

“It’s up to the countries how they want to respond,” Kreider told the Christian Science Monitor. “I think that in Paris we got over this hump and countries decided this was in their national interest. This election will test that.”

Mariana Panuncio-Feldman, senior director of international climate cooperation with the World Wildlife Fund, said that while “the window of opportunity is very short,” the 1.5 degrees goal is still possible.

“I do not think that is dead,” she said during the press conference.

But that mark would be difficult to achieve even without a looming Trump presidency. Current global commitments would still allow global temperatures to increase by 3.4 degrees at century’s end, according to estimates by the United Nations Environmental Program.

Trump wants to kill an Obama administration rule to limit carbon emissions from power plants, which is tied up in the federal courts. Scrapping the regulation would require a separate rulemaking that also would undoubtedly end up in court – though with a current Supreme Court vacancy and Republicans in control of Congress and the White House, the high court may tilt to the right. Meeting the nation’s emissions target without that regulation, or another policy to drastically crunch carbon, would be difficult.

And beyond that Clean Power Plan, other new climate policies would be needed to reach the US target for emissions, experts say. That doesn’t appear to be on Trump’s agenda.

"I hope the climatologists are as wrong as the pollsters because the US is going to do zippo to combat climate change," tweeted James Pethokoukis, a fellow at the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute.

The president-elect has slammed the Environmental Protection Agency, and the head of Trump’s EPA transition team, Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, is skeptical that human activity drives climate change. Trump also has said he wants to scrap all federal funding on clean energy while boosting coal and natural gas jobs, though the two energy sources directly compete with each other in the US electricity system.

“We cannot pretend that such an outcome would be anything less than disturbing to those of us who care about climate stability and the role of the United States in the world. That said, this was not an election about climate policy or about any policy – this was an election driven by economic insecurity and dislocation. And a decision by the next President to go backward on climate change would only exacerbate those concerns,” Nat Keohane, vice president of global climate with the Environmental Defense Fund, said in a statement.

'A single man cannot stop it'

With Republicans controlling both the White House and Congress, it’s also doubtful the US will OK financial aid the Obama administration has said it would send to developing countries to help them adapt to climate change.

Still, Mr. Meyer at the Union of Concerned Scientists held out hope that substantive measures under the Paris deal wouldn’t suffer, despite the election’s “psychological” effect on negotiators.

Tosi Mpanu-Mpanu, a negotiator from the Democratic Republic of Congo and chairman of the group of least developed countries at the conference, told the Monitor that he is remaining “optimistic” that a President Trump departs from “worrisome” comments he made as candidate Trump.

“There is a movement,” he said. “A single man cannot stop it.”

As far as clean energy goes, prices for solar have plummeted enough to keep projects flowing. US tax incentives for wind and solar energy are already on track to phase out through 2019 and 2021, respectively. Federal funding for basic research continues to enjoy bipartisan support, though in the US environmental groups fear more of those increasingly scarce dollars will shift toward fossil fuels.

State and regional policies, along with businesses, are also likely to continue chipping away at emissions, says Catherine Abreu, executive director of Climate Action Network Canada. She says that’s what happened under former conservative Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who slow-walked his country’s action to curb emissions to help the country’s oil sands industry.

Pressure on Trump from outside US

On top of all that, the international pressure to remain in the Paris deal is significant. Even China, which was long considered a laggard on the issue, has warned Trump against nixing the US commitment made last year.

The Paris agreement also has entered into force. That means Trump can only signal a US exit from the deal after three years, with an actual departure occurring a year after that in 2020. Or he may be able to withdraw from the entire United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, giving an official goodbye to the UN climate effort as early as 2018, climate-policy experts say. [Editor's note: This paragraph has been changed to correct the time sequences involved in a possible withdrawal from the Paris agreement.]

Many delegates said they expect international pressure and some policy inertia will keep a Trump presidency from straying too far from the Paris deal.

And some environmental groups here said they’re hopeful Trump will simply decide tackling climate change is in his best interest.

It’s perhaps a long hope, given his previous statements and the Republican Congress’ record on climate. But just hours after the election has concluded, the idea of hope is what’s on offer here.

“It definitely will be more difficult,” Katherine Egland, chairman of environmental and climate justice with the NAACP, told the Monitor in Marrakech. “But I do believe president-elect Trump has an opportunity to grow.”

Reporting for this story was supported by the International Reporting Project.