US election hangs over Morocco climate negotiations

Editor’s Note 11/9/16: Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States in the opening days of COP22 has dramatically increased concerns about the future of the Paris Agreement, but attendees here have pledged to continue with the business of implementing it. GroundTruth reporters are exploring the ramifications and will be producing coverage throughout the next two weeks.

MARRAKECH, Morocco — On the eve of a US presidential election that could disrupt the historic Paris climate agreement, a “COP of action” opened on a rainy Monday morning in the walled city of Marrakech.

The agenda for this gathering — or Conference of the Parties (COP) — focuses on implementing the agreement, which entered into force on Friday and endeavors to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius (with a stretch goal of 1.5 degrees).

Barriers to achieving either goal abound, including putting together $100 billion in funding and setting more aggressive carbon emissions limits for the wealthiest countries. But organizers pledged to find tangible actions amid a glaring wealth gap between the worst emitters and the worst affected countries that also hung over last year’s Paris gathering.

“The wealthiest countries live as if there are three planets,” said Segolene Royal, French environment minister and president of COP 21, in opening the gathering here on the African continent. “The poorest countries live as though no planet remains.”

An even 100 governments have now ratified the Paris Agreement, including the United States. But with American voters set to elect a new president on Tuesday, the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency weighs on the minds of delegates.

“The world is watching,” said a Western diplomat to GroundTruth this week. “Brexit was kindergarten stuff compared to this,” he said, referring to Britain’s popular vote to leave the European Union in June.

Trump is an avowed skeptic of climate change who has promised to back out of the agreement if elected. His opponent Hillary Clinton supports the deal, which the US was instrumental in closing.

“I’m proud that we shaped a global climate agreement – now we have to hold every country accountable to their commitments, including ourselves,” Clinton said in July.

None of the presidential debates actually mentioned climate change, and the issue quickly fell off the table following Clinton’s defeat of Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries.

Here in Marrakech, the first question at the first official press conference focused on the US election and what would happen if Trump is elected.

Patricia Espinosa, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, took diplomatic refuge in the fact that the agreement has now taken effect.

“As you know, any setback on a formal treaty that has been ratified and that has entered into force requires a certain procedure,” she said. “So of course we will be ready and willing to work with the president that is elected in the US  —  we would hope that we could engage in a very constructive and positive relationship, it is one of our most important partners, and its participation in this agreement is crucial. But right now what I can say is the agreement has entered into force, and we are all obliged to meet those commitments.”

Royal, the French minister, was more concrete in speaking with the BBC.

“The Paris Agreement prohibits any exit for a period of three years, plus a year-long notice period, so there will be four stable years,” she said.

But experts are not convinced, warning of catastrophe if the US were to withdraw from global climate negotiations, an arduous process marked by years of frustration and failure until the breakthrough in Paris.

“If Mr. Trump is elected president in the United States,” said Robert N. Stavins, director of the Harvard University Environmental Economics Program, to Bloomberg, “then all bets are off.”