Obama and his team have just two months to lock down the climate gains they’ve made in the past two terms and devise new projects for Trump’s administration to unravel. In the meantime, they’re working hard to reassure the rest of the world — and to court Trump himself.
By Lucia Graves
U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change Jonathan Pershing speaks during a conference at COP22 in Marrakech on November 14th, 2016. (Photo: Fadel Senna/AFP/Getty Images)
On a mild Thursday evening in Washington, D.C., a week before COP22 began, Jonathan Pershing stood in a tent at a small party at the European Union ambassador’s house and tried to articulate what he saw as the rosy future of global climate talks. The newly chosen United States special envoy for climate change had been at the first rounds of United Nations climate talks just down the road in Chantilly, Virginia, 25 years before. Those talks, hesaid, had been as humble as Paris was flashy. No foreign ministers. No heads of state. Just think, Pershing told the assembled diplomats two weeks ago, what it might be like in another 25 years’ time.
Whatever paradise of LED lighting and electric vehicles Pershing had in mind, less than a week later, his fantasy COP already looks out of reach at talks in Marrakech, Morocco. With Donald Trump as America’s president-elect, everything had changed. Now, Pershing and other global leaders findthemselves answering for a man who’s called climate change a hoax and pledged to rip up the Paris agreement — all at a time when the U.S. is on track to blow past its carbon emissions budget in the next five years.
But if he felt disappointed, Pershing showed no signs of it in Marrakech this week, breezing right past all talk of Trump. “What I do know,” he told the media in his first major press avail Monday, “is the power of the movement and the enormous momentum created in Paris and built throughout the year since. Parties are deeply invested in seeing this work bear real fruit.”
It was a brave face and a good showing. So good it seemed he’d rehearsed his lines a hundred times in a mirror — until he took questions, and sounded exactly the same. It’s the same brave face on every U.S. diplomat at COP22, from U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz to White House Advisor Brian Deese: engaged, upbeat, full speed ahead. Secretary of State John Kerry, in his appearance on Wednesday, is expected to follow suit.
Climate has been central to Barack Obama’s presidency. And while questions about how Trump could unravel his executive actions on climate has been dominating the headlines, Obama’s made it clear he intends to take the long view. And he plans to finish the job in a sprint. “[We will] make sure we finish what we started, that we don’t let up in these last couple months because my goal is that, on January 21st, America is in the strongest position possible,” he said earlier this week, in his first news conference since the election.
That means Obama and his team have just two months to lock down the climate gains they’ve made in the past two terms and devise new projects for Trump’s administration to unravel. But so far he and U.S. diplomats have spent their public-facing time trying to assuage liberal fears that “all the work we did suddenly gets stripped away,” while quietly — and to all appearances rather hopelessly — courting Trump,even as advisors study legal options behind the scenes.
When addressing Democrats, the administration talks tough. “We got more done than any administration in the last who-knows-how-many decades; if they roll back 15 or 20 percent of that, we’re still 80 percent ahead,” Obama told Democratic National Committee stakeholders on a Monday call. “And that’s not going to be as easy as I think some people feel.” Yet Obama’s staff has offered few specifics about what they can do. In a time of transition, that may be the prudent decision, but it’s also because when it comes to Paris and the Clean Power Plan, the answer is “not much.”
John Sterman, a professor of system dynamics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has written that, with Trump in the White House and a Republican Congress, “there is little hope that the Clean Power Plan will survive in the Supreme Court or for federal action to meet the U.S. commitment under the Paris accord.”
As a result, the U.S. has turned to persuasion, emphasizing anything construable as Trump-friendly, like the falling price of wind and solar — and how good it’s all been for the U.S. economy. “What we’ve been able to show over the last five, six, eight years is that it’s possible to grow the economy really fast and possible to bring down carbon emissions as well,” Obamasaid. “It’s not just a bunch of rules that we’ve set up.”
On Tuesday night, Deese took that very tack, emphasizing in a panel discussion how the economy had improved under Obama while overall emissions had dropped. It isn’t just that it’s good for the world, he seemed to be saying, it’s that it’s good for the bottom line.
The irony is that, while the conversations here in Marrakech are often addressed to Trump, or to fears about Trump, Trump himself is rarely named. It was Deb Markowitz, secretary of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, seated on the same panel as Deese, who came the closest to bringing it up. “You’re probably duly concerned about the future in the United States,” she said, surveying the packed room. “About he who shall not be named.”
Then she too sought to assuage audience fears. “As a practical matter we’ve been through this before,” she said. Al Gore’s high-profile environmental pushwas followed by George W. Bush’s regressive policies there. Obama’s success with executive actions were preceded by failure with cap-and-trade. In the worst periods, Markowitz added, “there was a vacuum that was filled by state and local governments.”And that’s what she’s counting on happening again now.
Trump, meanwhile, has given us every reason to fear for the worst. It’s not just what he’s said on the campaign trail; it’s that the rhetoric has been added verbatim to his new website. It’s that his transition includes not just energy lobbyists but also a notorious climate change denier.
Perhaps the best thing going for climate activists is how often Trump changes his mind, and the void left by his lack of political experience. As Steve Sawyer of the Global Wind Energy Council put it to me Tuesday, “I have no idea what they’ll do, and I don’t think they do either.”
Many find that terrifying, but Obama and his team seem to be grasping at the idea that it means Trump could be persuadable. The outgoing president thinks that persuasion might actually be the best and greatest tool. “I also think that he is coming to this office with fewer set hard-and-fast policy prescriptions than a lot of other presidents might be arriving with,” Obama said earlier this week. “I don’t think he is ideological. I think ultimately he’s pragmatic in that way.”
Climate may not actually be a bad case in point. In a 2009 petition published in the New York Times, Trump signed onto an open letter calling for Obama and Congress to take action on a global climate treaty along with legislation. “If we fail to act now, it is scientifically irrefutable that there will be catastrophic and irreversible consequences for humanity and our planet,” it read.
Now if Obama could only convince him to swap sides of the table once more.
Beyond the bravery and chronic euphemism, U.S. leaders are also busy planting the seeds of a hundred new ideas and partnerships that will be tricky, if only mildly, for America to extricate itself from. And the administration prefers to talk about those next, new ideas. When I trail Deese down the tent-covered walkway of COP to ask expressly what could be done to protect the administration’s progress on climate, for instance, he wants to talk about smarter land use.Moniz’s top-billed event is on how countries can band together to accelerate the pace of clean energy progress.
He’s still out there marveling at just how far we’ve come. “What we are struck by is how much progress has already been made since we made the Paris deal,” he said at a Tuesday event hailing the launch of the so-called NDC partnership, a 42-country coalition aimed at helping international players achieve the most ambitious climate goals.
It’s a nice sentiment, but the pep talks feel increasingly thin. As France’s Laurence Tubiana told him weakly, as she ushered him off stage, “It’s good to feel that the U.S. team is on board still.”