‘He Who Shall Not Be Named’: Even In Absentia, Donald Trump Overshadows COP22

How this year’s climate talks became an ongoing press conference directed at Donald Trump.
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Members of International delegations play with a giant globe outside the COP22 climate conference on November 18th, 2016, in Marrakesh, Morocco. (Photo: Fadel Senna/AFP/Getty Images)

Donald Trump is on the lips of everyone and no one at the exact same time.

As with God or Voldemort — and in Marrakech, the opinion’s much closer to Voldemort — there’s a sense that every important public conversation or bit of political theater is in some way ultimately about him. But no one will mention his name.

“You’re probably duly concerned about the future in the United States,” Deb Markowitz, secretary of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, told an unusually packed panel audience earlier this week, “about he who shall not be named.” Then, she sought to reassure everyone.

There are a thousand silver linings to be found as the COP22 draws to a close: That Trump hasn’t said anything overtly hostile to the agreement since being elected last week. That China is stepping forward. That businesses are stepping up. And that whatever choice Trump makes (as leader of a country that had, untilthe presidential electiona week ago, been the global leader on climate), the rest of the world is movingforward without him.

While much of what happens at these talks, and in particularthefiner points of bureaucratic negotiation — over transparency, ambition, and who will pay for what — happens behind the scenes, it would not be an overstatement to say that the public-facing side of climate talks was very much an ongoing press conference directed at Trump.

We saw it in the highly theatrical adoption of the Marrakech Proclamation on Thursday, where foreign leaders joined hands so enthusiastically you’d think the historic Paris Agreement had been adopted all over again. And we saw it in the bizarre victory lap taken this morning by COP22 President Salaheddine Mezouar, who cavorted around the media center for a full 30 minutes on Friday morning, saluting and shaking the hands of random journalists hours before his press conference was scheduled to take place.

Most of all we saw it in the words and actions of U.S. officials. In what is likely his last great diplomatic act, Secretary of State John Kerry spent the better part of an hour enumerating the reasons Trump should embrace the global climate effort, all while never once saying Trump’s name. Meanwhile, U.S. Special Climate Envoy Jonathan Pershing, when asked about whether the U.S. would continue to be able to meet its climate commitments in the era of Trump offered only his “personal view” in the affirmative.

White House advisor Brian Deese was already looking past Trump entirely. “The path of fighting climate change is long and doesn’t exactly go in a straight line,” he said on a panel earlier this week. “But I don’t think that should keep those who are working on this issue from thinking ambitiously.”

But perhaps it’s Greenpeace chief Jennifer Morgan who distilled it most clearly. In an exchange with a reporters on Friday, outside a final forum on climate-vulnerable communities, she said there are not one but two central messages of this COP.

The first, of course, is the bureaucratic one: Get the rules done so the Paris Agreement can be implemented — and in that realm it largely succeeded.

As for the second one,or the “other” one as she put it? She’s both saying and not saying.

“The other one is to see it in the context of what just happened in the United States with this election,” she began in typically vague fashion. “You have the world come together and issue a proclamation undauntedly saying we’re moving forward. So I think this agreement shows a deeper commitment to multilateralism than the Paris Agreement, then we had coming into this,” she added. “It’s like a ‘yes and we’re moving forward.’”

That kind of positive message of change feels more like a hopeful holdover from the outgoing Barack Obama era than may be warranted as the halls of COP empty out on Friday afternoon. But absent a devastating and perhaps imminent message from Trump, the rest of the world has not given into despair. These days America may not be feeling, as Hillary Clinton would say, “Stronger Together.” But in Marrakech, on the final day of COP, the rest of the world is.

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