The Election & the Paris Agreement: Part 2

Following Tuesday’s election, a lot of people back home have asked us,  
What does this mean for climate change, US climate policy, and the Paris Agreement?

One aspect of this question, the impact of the new leadership on domestic actions, was addressed in Part 1 of this post. However, the election has a broader impact as well.

We found that the international community was also following the election closely, and many individuals felt they will be impacted by its outcome at least as much as the average American. As we went about our business observing the conference over the last several days, we took stock of the mood in Marrakech and the best guesses of members of the climate community who crossed out path. Here is a sampling of quotes and impressions on the subject:

What does a Trump presidency mean for the implementation of the Paris Agreement?

“There’s nothing we can do, [but] it’s a step back on climate policy”

– members from the Kazakhstan party delegation on the election. They also mentioned that implications of a Trump presidency on the Paris Agreement are fairly unknown.

Elections are “a process, and the strategy of the [U.S.] government and state will not change”

– observer from a Bangladeshi NGO. He does not support the election result, but does not believe Trump will have the power to change policies in his 4 years.

A representative from the Côte d’Ivoire delegation discussed the turnaround from the administrations of President Obama to President-elect Trump: It was influential that the U.S. was included in the Paris Agreement, but now the international community is waiting to see what Trump’s take on it will be. Trump is considered a fairly unknown force, but the subtext of our conversation was that, as an international power, it would be problematic if the U.S. were to drop out of the agreement. Many countries are waiting to see what the U.S. will do before they make significant moves.

“I think he will not change everything. There is [already] a policy for America”

– 2nd delegate from Côte D’ivoire on how Trump may be unable to change existing trends in U.S. policy.

When America sneezes, Zimbabwe catches pneumonia. If Trump makes bad calls as a President, they’re going to have implications on third world, developing countries like mine. For example, if he pulls out of the Paris Agreement, Zimbabwe, which is already a vulnerable country, is going to be even more vulnerable without support and finance to deal with climate change.”

– Zimbabwean Woman. Contrasting opinions on the impact of the change of American leadership seem to indicate the total lack of confidence on what will actually happen with American policy in the future.

A civil society member, who refused to be identified but was willing to speak to us, mentions that Trump “is a businessman. He puts more energy [towards putting down] marginalized people and discrimination.” She believes we need a bottom-up movement of people caring about their world, since top-down is not happening. “If human beings think about the earth, and the future and future generations, then politics doesn’t matter… If everybody feels that he or she is responsible for the earth, then we can have collective action.”

“If you’re setting off for a just transition and people don’t feel included and like they’re benefiting from the transition, it’s likely to go away.”

– African speaker at an event on the Zero Carbon Transition on how the inequality perpetuated by U.S. politics will prevent us from reaching clean energy goals in an equitable way.

“In the long run, we are very apprehensive about what [Trump] plans to do… If he withdraws from the UNFCCC, that is a very bad sign for the rest of the world.

– Saleemul Huq, IIED/ICCCAD.

Saleemul continues, “you Americans are going to be let down by their own government who doesn’t care about you or about climate change.” Developed countries are used to reaching out to victims of developing countries, but now the rest of the world needs to reach out to “the victims of the United States of America.” A former negotiator and individual who has been to literally every COP ever, Saleemul believes that the international community will consider sanctions against the U.S., suing the U.S., and “will declare [figurative/unarmed] war if the U.S. withdraws from the body of nations working to address climate change.”

“I’m sure you’re all struggling, as I am, to digest what happened yesterday in the US. And I’m sure you’re all wondering, as I am, how the US’s involvement in the Paris Agreement and climate change will impact us all. The answer is, we don’t know.

But I want to remind you of one thing that we do know: WE KNOW that the work we’re doing here collectively today, throughout the next two weeks, and what we’re doing in our home states will continue.

If the U.S. government is going to step back, that means we all need to step up. Political events do not and cannot change the reality of climate change … We all have important work to do and we need to get on it.”

Anonymous speaker at start of Beyond Deforestation panel

Unsurprisingly, party delegates from the Netherlands and the U.S. declined to comment specifically on the election. The guy from the State Department was definitely distressed when I started asking questions, and Avik found out later that all U.S. representatives have been on lock-down physically and instructed not to talk to anyone.

Overall, it’s clear: people outside of the US are also fearful of the implications of Trump’s presidency on the environment, but all is definitely not lost. We have felt truly supported by the community here, as well as inspired by the commitment of many to go on with their good work.

14956435_10157655230015175_2276380381684724227_nA final word of thanks to our week 1 delegates and to Sachi Graber and Ember McCoy for their willingness to dive deeper in this question through this post.

The Business of Free. Something to learn for climate change?

“We could have saved [the Earth] but we were too damned cheap.”  -Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., A Man Without a Country.

Recently, I became aware of a Pew Research Center poll that found overwhelming support for requiring better fuel efficiency for vehicles (79%), funding for alternative energy (74%), and strong support for spending more on mass transit (63%) and tax incentives for hybrid or electric vehicles (60%).

Americans seem very willing to spend public funds on improving energy efficiency and developing alternative sources of energy that have lower greenhouse gas emissions. Not surprisingly, however, given the American allergy to taxes, support for internalizing the cost of greenhouse gas emissions into the price of energy is not popular. The Pew Center poll did not even bother to ask about increasing prices for carbon-heavy energy.

Many economists tell us that this is a mistake. Market-based policies such as taxes are more efficient than fuel economy regulations or R&D funding. We could pay less overall for the same greenhouse gas reductions by implementing the unpopular polices in place of the popular. In a departure from Kurt Vonnegut’s line above, many Americans are willing to spend public funds on relatively expensive policies but not on the cheaper ones. So why do they prefer the more expensive options?

When presented with this question, I can’t help but think about the strategies of monetizing free content from online media. People don’t want to pay for climate pollution when it has been so conveniently free for so long. Facing the same situation with free media content, many media companies are developing pay strategies that are presumably more acceptable to their customers than tacking a price sticker on a service that was free yesterday. One strategy, which the NY Times is now following, is to allow free content up to a specific limit after which the consumer must pay. Another is to add content at the same time as levying a charge so that consumers feel they are gaining more from the service for their money. Extending this analogy to paying to abate climate change, perhaps Americans are comfortable paying for higher fuel-efficient vehicles, R&D, and mass transit because they feel like they are getting more in return for their money.

Does this notion really relate to climate pollution? I’m not sure, but I think it’s worth looking into. A BBC World Service poll in 2007 reported that 46% of Americans supported paying more for coal and oil but this support rose to 74% if the revenue was devoted to improving efficiency and developing new sources of energy.


Its Time to Move Beyond Sputnik Moments and Coors-Light Solutions

Since the publication of Silent Spring in 1962, environmentalism, especially in the United States, has largely been driven by Sputnik moments and Coors-Light solutions: catalyzing events that drove a call for silver bullet solutions.

The events were emotional and tangible: a river on fire; a housing development built upon a toxic waste site; the explosion of a chemical plant in India; a massive hole in the planet’s figurative sunblock.  These events drove the average citizen to call out for change because they could connect the crisis to own lives: most  know water should not be on fire, want their children to be able to play outside without fear of what is in the soil or air, and know someone who has skin cancer.  Hearing this call, those in power passed historic, silver bullet solutions such as the Montreal Protocol.

The threat posed by climate change is precisely the opposite.  It is long term, complex and not tangible in the typical sense.  There isn’t going to be a Sputnik moment which convinces the body public that our reliance on decomposed dinosaurs imperils us and future generations.  Unlike the substances banned under the Montreal protocol, there are no substitutes which can easily and inexpensively replace dino at the core of our global economic system.

COP-15 in Copenhagen failed in part due to this continued faith in a silver bullet solution: binding treaty which would put the world on a path to sustainability.  After a week in Cancun, I am beginning to see signs that this lesson, if nothing else, has been learned.  The discussion is no longer solely focused on attaching a price to carbon, but an array of issues from adaptation and agricultural intensification to mitigation efforts outside of the traditional United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

There is no doubt that the science underlying of climate change and the repercussions of inaction only grow more dire with each passing year.  Theses impacts aren’t just in the future, the canary is already making quite a racket: historic loss of Arctic ice pack, cities submerged and unprecedented monsoons.  But we can’t continue to let a quest for perfection impede progress.  At the risk of offending the all animal lovers, a shotgun might not be as glamourous a way to take down a canary as a rifle, but you surely stand of a better chance of actually hitting your target.

Written by DOUG GLANCY.