Talking About the Elephant in the Room—COP22 Reacts to Trump’s Election

Talking About the Elephant in the Room—COP22 Reacts to Trump’s Election

Elizabeth Beardsley from the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) speaks in a panel at COP22 (Photo credit: Emily Li)
Elizabeth Beardsley from the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) speaks in a panel at COP22 (Photo credit: Emily Li)

“Before we open up for a Q&A,” said Karen Florini, “I’d like to remind everybody that the questions must be directly related to the topic of this panel, and not about the events of last night—as much as you’d like to ask them.”

Florini, a deputy special envoy for climate change from the U.S. Department of State, had the unenviable responsibility of moderating a U.S. Green Building Council discussion on how health impacts could inspire local climate action—the day after the United States presidential election. Despite her best efforts, she couldn’t stop a flurry of pointed questions about how “new leadership” in the federal government could affect green building policies, inciting her PR manager to shadow her closely throughout the session.

If you’ve somehow managed to stay unaware of the reality show that’s been unfolding in America, I’m impressed. In an effort to remain nonpartisan, I’ll let Donald Trump say his talking points for me—how Mexican immigrants bring drugs, rapists, and crime to the states; how he can do anything as a celebrity, including grab women by their genitals; and how climate change is a “hoax perpetuated by the Chinese.” Did I mention he’s been elected by the American people to one of the most powerful positions on the planet?

Given Trump’s position on climate change—he once said that we “need global warming” because it was snowing in New York—talk of the election was inescapable at COP22, even if a lot of it was hushed around press offices. (We approached several UN representatives and officials unwilling to give us much more than, “I’m sorry, but I’m not allowed to talk about this.” One UN representative from the Norwegian delegation added, “I hope it will not affect too much of what’s happening here. I hope he changes his mind.”) Otherwise, however, Trump was on the tip of most delegates’ tongues—a universally sour flavor for climate activists across a variety of cultures and identities.

Gertrude Kabusimbi Kenyangi, Ugandan forestry activist from the United Nations Women and Gender Consistency (Photo credit: Jennie Sun)
Gertrude Kabusimbi Kenyangi, Ugandan forestry activist from the United Nations Women and Gender Consistency (Photo credit: Jennie Sun)

“Of course Trump being elected is not good,” said Laughlin Artz, the Executive Director of “2020 or Bust,” a global initiative dedicated to generating climate awareness and action. “As a climate activist, as a gay man, as somebody with a brain, it is not good.”

Gertrude Kabusimbi Kenyangi, a Ugandan forestry activist from the United Nations Women and Gender Consistency, echoed Artz’ frustration. “I am very, very disappointed in the outcome of the U.S. elections. I followed them really closely,” she said. “We are going to have a lot of problems. I think it’s not good news for minorities, it’s not good news for people of color, and it’s not good news even for Caucasians—it’s not good news for anyone.”

Every delegate at COP22 that we spoke with, no matter where they were from, knew about the United States presidential election results by the next morning. But even when we were out in the bustling alleyways of Marrakesh, outside of the bubble of the conference and almost 5,000 miles away from the U.S., we couldn’t escape the news. From waiters to taxi drivers to street vendors, it seemed the majority of Marrakesh had added “Trump” and “Hillary” to their English vocabularies. Their favorite phrases seemed to be, “You like Trump?” and “Trump bad?”

Power plants at sunset (Photo credit: Liberty Photography)
Power plants at sunset (Photo credit: Liberty Photography)

Most people can answer that first query for themselves, but the details of the second one are still being debated, especially in the context of the work being done at COP22. What will Trump’s leadership mean exactly for America’s role in taking climate action? While the consensus is that his election is all-around bad news for international climate policy, the question at this point is how bad, and bad in what ways.

Right now, unfortunately, the answers to those questions are “really bad,” and “in almost every way,” respectively. In his “America First Energy Plan,” Trump pledged to cancel United States participation in the Paris climate agreement, stop all American funding of UN climate change programs, and abandon the Clean Power Plan—a pillar of the Obama administration’s approach to curtailing carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, and widely considered the U.S.’ single biggest domestic accomplishment on climate. Trump also named Myron Ebell, an outspoken climate skeptic who’s asserted that any warming caused by greenhouse gas pollution is “modest and could be beneficial,” to head his Environmental Protection Agency transition team.

“It is a risk that he will denounce the Paris Agreement, it is a risk that he will completely dissemble the United Nations, I mean all that stuff is a risk,” said Artz bracingly. A youth representative also pointed out that his policies will likely have international repercussions. “The actions that take place in America affect everybody in the world,” she said. “That’s why this is so disappointing and shocking. I think people… weren’t thinking about how their decisions affect the rest of the world.”

Skyline of the city of Santa Monica, CA (Photo credit: Irina Patrascu Gheorghita)
Skyline of the city of Santa Monica, CA (Photo credit: Irina Patrascu Gheorghita)

On the other hand, climate leaders in non-profits as well as local and state governments are asserting that Trump’s leadership of the United States will have minimal impacts on localized climate policies. For instance, progressive cities, like Santa Monica, California, are already ahead of federal regulations under the Obama administration in transforming state clean energy policies. For them, sustainable change is common sense, inspired by social and economic incentives independent of federal support.

“We don’t necessarily look at other levels of government,” said Pam O’Connor, who serves on the Santa Monica City Council. “We’re taking care of ourselves.”

Despite the leadership of several trailblazing cities, the question remains: how is the rest of the country going to move forward without national leadership on the climate action front? Ready or not, climate change is here. The answer isn’t to flee the country (although the temptation grows the more I fall in love with Morocco)—the answer is to stand our ground and fight for the change that we might not see from the White House. The consensus from delegates is that change is going to begin with the grassroots.

People's Climate protest in Melbourne on Sunday, September 21, 2014 (Photo credit: Takver)
People’s Climate protest in Melbourne on Sunday, September 21, 2014 (Photo credit: Takver)

“It’s going to be civil society that steps in… and says, ‘This is our problem, this is our deal, this is our planet, this is our humanity, this is our future, and we are going to take the action to do something about it, and the government can do whatever the government does,’” said Artz. “It’s an opportunity to really wake up.”

Sadie Phoenix Alexa, a representative from the Canadian Youth Delegation, added to that by describing what exactly civil society stepping in might look like to her.

“People are going to be rioting on the streets,” said Alexa. “Civil disobedience—that is the only way for a lot of people to express a lot of their frustration, because they feel they’re not going to get any answers anywhere else.”

All across the United States, protests have already started. Getting answers, though, is a whole other story—one we might not have time for.

Photos used under Creative Commons licenses from Liberty Photography, Irina Patrascu Gheorghita, and Takver

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