Secretary of State John Kerry held out hope during a Wednesday speech that Donald Trump would remain committed to the international climate regime, despite the president-elect’s insistence that he would pull the United States out of a global agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
“I know [the US election] has left some here feeling uncertain about the future. I obviously understand that uncertainty. While I can’t stand here and speculate about what policies our president-elect will pursue, I will tell you this … One of the things that I have learned is some issues look a little bit different when you’re actually in office than when you’re on the campaign trail. And the truth of it is that climate change shouldn’t be a partisan issue in the first place,” Secretary Kerry said to a packed room at the United Nations climate conference.
Trump’s surprise election has hung over the negotiations here, coming not even a year after President Obama and his administration helped orchestrate a landmark global agreement to combat climate change. That agreement, signed last year in Paris, aims to keep global temperatures from rising 2 degrees Celsius or more above preindustrial levels by 2100.
Kerry hinted that while future federal policy might not be as ambitious as the current administration would hope, other elements of United States societies – such as states, regional programs and businesses – are already moving on climate.
“No one should doubt the overwhelming majority of the citizens of the United States who know climate change is happening and who are determined to keep our commitments that were made in Paris,” Kerry said. "Government leadership is absolutely essential."
Polls on climate vary, but many show a majority of Americans believe climate change is caused by humans and that action should be taken. One 2015 survey found 61 percent of Americans agreeing with Pope Francis’s call for climate action, and 26 percent disagreeing.
Other nations are hesitant to say they expect the US to recede from the climate scene, even though Trump said on the campaign trail that he would “cancel” the Paris agreement and previously tweeted that climate change was “created by and for the Chinese.”
“I think we have to wait and see a few more months,” Liu Zhenmin, China’s chief negotiator, said at a Wednesday press conference. He later added that, “Climate change is not, as rumored, a hoax created by China.”
Kerry noted that the Paris pact is meant to be a starting point for nations to curb emissions.
His speech came just as the White House released its plan for slashing emissions by 2050 to 80 percent below 2005 levels, an announcement that’s largely been overshadowed by the potential reversal of climate course by the future Trump administration.
“The question now is whether or not we are going to have the will to get this job done. That’s the the question now – whether we will make the transition in time to do what we have to do to avoid catastrophic damage,” Kerry said. “I’m a realist. Time is not on our side.”
The agreement calls for countries to meet every five years to review progress on reaching emissions goals, which are non-binding. The non-binding nature of those targets has called into question whether the US will pull its weight alongside other nations under Trump, who could conceivably put in no further effort to slash greenhouse gases without formally withdrawing from the Paris agreement.
“We have to continue this fight, my friends. We have to continue to defy expectations,” Kerry said. “And we have to continue to hold each other accountable for the decisions that our nations make."
The plans for emissions cuts the 195 countries involved in the Paris agreement floated last year would still allow global temperatures to rise 3.4 degrees, according to the UN Environment program. That mark figured the US would meet Obama’s goal of lowering US emissions 26 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, a goal that now appears in jeopardy given Trump’s transition team insists he’ll nix US involvement in the UN plan.
The outgoing secretary of state expressed some optimism. He underscored an argument many environmental groups have made here since Trump won (those groups have attempted to appeal to the president-elect’s businessman persona) by saying he believed market forces will keep the US and other countries engaged. The Paris agreement was a “critical message to the marketplace” about the future of climate policy that will deter interest in developing fossil fuels like coal, which Kerry said would be “suicidal.”
“Ultimately, clean energy is expected to be a multi-trillion dollar market – the largest market the world has ever known,” he said. “And no nation will do well if it handicaps itself sitting on the sidelines.”
Environmental groups cheered Kerry’s speech, saying it was a spark for action.
“The global community is more united than ever in not just accepting the climate challenge, but in confronting it with action. Governments should react to Secretary Kerry´s call and continue to increase ambition,” Jennifer Morgan, executive director of Greenpeace International, said in a statement.
This story was supported by a fellowship from the International Reporting Project.