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Trump Loves to Be Loved. In Marrakech, Climate Leaders Hope That Could Be the Opportunity They Need

Most Americans want the U.S. to take action on climate, and, at COP22, ministers say the best hope for continued American action on climate is to appeal to Trump’s desire for popularity.

By Lucia Graves


Donald Trump visits a model of the Oval Office at the Gerald Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan. (Photo: Jewel Samad)/AFP/Getty Images)

In many ways, Ségolène Royal’s prediction that United States President-elect Donald Trump could prove “absolutely catastrophic” to the global effort to stop climate change is exactly the sort of rhetoric you’d expect from the president of last year’s climate talks in Paris.

As a candidate, Trump has called global warming a hoax, said he wants to dismantle the Paris Agreement, and vowed to halt all funds to United Nations world climate programs. He’s also called for increased extraction of oil, coal, and natural gas reserves at a time when climate leaders are seeking to limit emissions by transitioning to renewable forms of energy.

But at the global climate talks in Marrakech, Morocco, climate leaders are espousing something more optimistic than the headlines suggest. And even Royal, the chief architect of last year’s Paris agreement, is offering Trump more carrot than stick.

One of the joys and the terrors — but mostly terrors — of having a president-elect who has reinvented himself as a real estate tycoon, playboy, and reality-television star, is there’s no definitively knowing what he’ll do.

Of course nobody expects Trump to emerge as a climate leader when he takes over the White House on January 20th; at the COP, his unexpected election last week has cast an undeniable pall over what had been a relatively cheerful post-Paris landscape.

But Trump does like to be popular.

That desire has caused skeptics to call him a chameleon, a charlatan, and a huckster. But diplomats see it as an opportunity: Given decidedly high public support among Americans for U.S. involvement in a global climate pact, Trump too might read the tea leaves. And, publicly, that’s what the world’s representatives in Marrakech are betting on.

It’s what Al Gore was alluding to when he recently expressed the hope that Trump will work with the “overwhelming majority of us who believe that the climate crisis is the greatest threat we face as a nation.” And it’s what Royal meant when said she would “dare to believe” that Trump’s promises on the campaign trail were, at least in part, a kind of theater. Even China seems to be on board with this particular line of criticism: “I believe a wise political leader should take policy stances that conform with global trends,” Xie Zhenhua, the country’s climate chief, told Reuters at the beginning of the month.

But perhaps it’s Morocco’s Minister of the Environment Hakima El Haité who put it best. “We have for many months listened to the candidate Trump. Today we have to deal with the President Trump,” she told me on Sunday, as she was leaving an event just north of the city in the Palmeraie, a stretch of palm-studded desert. “Those are two personalities.”

She’s right. One of the joys and the terrors — but mostly terrors — of having a president-elect who has reinvented himself as a real estate tycoon, playboy, and reality-television star, is there’s no definitively knowing what he’ll do. By a slim margin, Republican voters remain opposed to U.S. cooperation in the global effort to limit greenhouse gas emissions, but, again, that isn’t the case for the general electorate. And Trump didn’t even win the popular vote to begin with.

Another mildly encouraging fact for reformers: He’s flipped his opinion over the years on practically every area of policy, and climate change is certainly among them. On the latter, he’s gone from insisting global warming is a hoax to complaining that it threatens one of his golf courses. Most recently, he’s conceded climate change is a scientific reality. He just won’t allow that humans are to blame for it.

Perhaps the biggest problem with climate leaders’ stubborn optimism is that the reasons to doubt Trump’s good intentions on climate go well beyond toxic campaign promises. Already he has named Myron Ebell, a noted climate contrarian who has called the Clean Power Plan illegal, to take on the Environmental Protection Agency. Some reports even say that Trump’s transition team has already come up with ways to bypass the supposed four-year process for withdrawing from the Paris climate accord.

But negotiators so far are turning a deaf ear to all that. They won’t be felled by anonymous arrows; there’s simply too much at stake. They’re waiting to hear directly from Trump.

The day I spoke with her, El Haité had come to offer some words of inspiration at the Global Finance Action Summit, a gathering of climate finance experts and activists from different sectors. Financial support for poor and developing countries is one of the elements in the Paris Agreement most imperiled by a Trump win. But at the event — part of a two-day summit featuring collaborative breakout sessions and, on Sunday, a luxurious poolside lunch — those in attendance were determined not to let it get them down.

“After we got over our initial shock, we all went up to the mountains, turned off the TV, turned off our phones, and regrouped,” Lauren Carter, director of climate finance initiatives at Beya Capital, would later tell me of watching Trump’s victory from Africa. “There are a lot of women in this space,” she added of Beya Capital, the group hosting the event, “and we all kind of realized we needed to put on our pantsuits and keep being the lady bosses that we are and driving forward the initiatives that we love.”

So far that attitude of hope extends to the highest rungs of leadership. And while El Haité may have been the first climate figure to make this outlook explicit, beyond the bustle of the medina, in the strange white maze of tents that make up COP22, it seems to be catching on.

The clearest exception to the aura of strained optimism comes with regard to global funding mechanisms that underlie the deal. “The part where I’m worried is where it comes to finance, because the U.S. has made it clear they will not be willing to put money under the U.N.,” says Tosi Mpanu-Mpanu, a senior negotiator for the Democratic Republic of Congo. Unfortunately, that fear is entirely warranted. Of the $3 billion the U.S. has pledged to contribute, only $500 million has actually come through. With Trump in the Oval Office, partnering countries would be fools to hold their breath.

Still , U.N. climate chief Patricia Espinosa and Moroccan Foreign Minister Salaheddine Mezouar aren’t dwelling on it. At a press conference with reporters on Saturday, both breezily blew off a question from Pacific Standard about the threats posed by Trump’s impending presidency.

It’s wasn’t that Trump won’t hurt the agreement, though Mezouar does seem intent on peddling that rosy fiction. It’s more that, as El Haité put it later, while clutching my wrist, as if to put her words in bold italics, it’s no use jumping to conclusions: “We need more dialogue,” she said. “We need to know more.”

Security stepped in, and she ducked into the backseat of an awaiting black car. After promising to review one last policy paper thrust upon her by a man in the crowd, a chauffeur drove her away.