Halfway around the world, negotiators at a United Nations climate conference in Marrakesh, Morocco are coming to grips with the reality that Donald Trump will take the White House and stands to reverse years of U.S. progress on climate change.
This year’s meeting was meant to start adding teeth to the landmark Paris agreement passed last year and ratified this month. But the election of Trump, who vowed to withdraw the U.S. from the climate deal, is rattling environmentalists the world over.
“We cannot pretend that this outcome will be anything less than disturbing to those of us who care about climate stability and the role of the United States in the world,” said Nat Keohane, vice president for global climate at the Environmental Defense Fund.
“Clearly everyone is paying attention and it may very much affect the tone of the negotiations in the coming days,” said Mariana Panuncio-Feldman, who is representing the World Wildlife Fund at the Marrakesh talks. “There’s a shared sense that this climate crisis cannot wait, and so with that the mood is forge ahead.”
Trump has claimed that climate change is a hoax invented by China and that acting on it would cripple the American economy. Despite market forces that are driving coal plants out of business, Trump has also promised to revive the industry and lift government regulations, even saying that the core missions of the Environment Protection Agency are on the chopping block.
The Clean Power Plan, which set limits on carbon emissions from power plants, is already tied up in courts, but Trump has promised to rescind it (a Republican-controlled Congress passed legislation to do just that and is sure to do so again). Likewise, a rewrite of the Clean Water Act that expanded EPA’s authority to regulate water pollution. Trump has also said he’d ask TransCanada to reapply for the Keystone XL pipeline and would open up new areas of federal land to energy production.
These may not be as easy to execute as he promises—emboldened environmentalists will sue to try to protect all major regulations. Market forces such as abundant natural gas and cheapening renewable energy may continue to make coal production unappealing, while the logistic difficulties of drilling in the Arctic may keep companies away from federal waters.
But Trump’s actions will send a major signal to the rest of the world. The United States spent the Obama administration reversing its legacy as a climate laggard, using its economic power to nudge other countries along. A bilateral agreement with China to set long-term emission cuts (in China’s case, a vow to peak carbon emissions) helped to jumpstart talks that led to the 195-nation agreement in Paris last year setting a goal to limit global warming to below 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Now the U.S. will be led by the only head of state who does not believe in the science of climate change, even as the scientific consensus grows more certain and dire (on Election Day, the World Meteorological Organization issued a report on the “increasingly visible human footprint on extreme weather and climate events”). An analysis by Lux Research estimated that Trump’s energy policies would mean 3.4 billion tons greater emissions over eight years than Hillary Clinton’s plan, which would have continued and expanded Obama’s climate agenda.
The U.S. cannot officially withdraw from the U.N. agreement for four years, but a Trump White House could simply not hold up its commitments in the interim, taking the world’s second-largest emitter out of the table. Trump energy adviser Kevin Cramer, a North Dakota representative, had floated the idea of submitting the plan to the Senate for ratification, but the deal has already taken effect.
The fabric of the Paris deal—which relies on each country fulfilling its own commitments—makes it fragile to noncompliance, especially as negotiators still work out enforcement and reporting mechanisms. And fresh in people’s minds is the George W. Bush administration’s opposition to the Kyoto Protocol, which resulted in the U.S. declining to ratify it. International climate action has long relied on trust, since it takes on large emitters to blunt the curve of emission reductions.
Environmentalists sought to take a positive approach Wednesday, pointing to the momentum in the markets and in other countries that would be untouched by a Trump White House.
“The political landscape in the U.S. may have changed, but the reality of climate change hasn’t,” said Celia Gautier, policy adviser for Climate Action Network France. “Climate action will continue, including in the European Union, and the rest of the world will not wait for the U.S.”
A Chinese negotiator told Reuters that China would keep working, and expected the U.S. to do so as well. “If they resist this trend, I don’t think they’ll win the support of their people, and their country’s economic and social progress will also be affected,” Xie Zhenhua said. A letter to Trump from the presidents of the European Commission also mentioned climate change as a topic for the governments to work on.
Environmentalists also pointed to climate commitments from cities, states, and major businesses even in the United States that would continue under a Republican government.
EDF’s Koehane said that while climate change was a major difference between the two candidates, the 2016 election was “driven by economic insecurity and dislocation.”
“And a decision by the next president to go backward on climate change would only exacerbate those concerns—because the biggest source of economic instability in the long run will be climate change,” he said.
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