As Friday night became Saturday morning, the 22nd United Nations Climate Change Conference (also known as COP22) wrapped up in Marrakech, Morocco. This conference was a big deal because A) It was the first such conference since the signing of the Paris Agreement—a historic, if imperfect, international agreement aimed at curbing climate change, and B) It was the first such conference since the election of Donald Trump, a climate change denier, as US president.
If you ignored the inconvenient truth of that US election, there was plenty of good news coming out of COP22. On Thursday, representatives from signatory countries adopted the "Marrakech Action Proclamation for Climate, Sustainable Development," a document that mostly declared that now is the time for action, and settled some leftover business from the Kyoto Protocols. More than 100 countries have now signed onto the Paris Agreement, which officially took effect this month.
But looming over all of this was a threat that starts with a T and is coming to a White House near you in early 2017. Donald Trump has signaled that he'll back out of the Paris Agreement altogether, pull the plug on anything in the federal budget relating to climate change, and may appoint an oil executive to be his secretary of interior.
This put the US representatives to COP22 in an odd position, to say the least.
In an interview earlier this month, Tom Steyer a prominent environmentalist and political donor told me that the conference was bound to be awkward for the Americans in attendance, because he had "no idea how you proceed when the most powerful nation in the [world] has decided they don't believe in science."
The answer is: They got through it by acting like everything was going to be OK. Their shared premise was that, basically, capitalism will save us even if the government decides to ignore the most pressing problem facing humanity.
Secretary of State John Kerry spoke Wednesday, and, having most likely scrapped any "We saved the world!" speech he had prepared in the event that Hillary Clinton won the presidency, did his best to soothe the frayed nerves of the rest of the world's environmentalists. "Good things are happening. The energy curve is bending towards sustainability. The market is clearly headed towards clean energy, and that trend will only become more pronounced," Kerry said, adding that "it is a cause for optimism notwithstanding what you see in different countries with respect to politics and change."
Without using any proper nouns that rhyme with "Grump," Kerry asked people in power all over the world to look at the evidence and take climate change seriously. "I ask you to see for yourselves," he urged.
Lower-ranking US officials towed a similar line as they mingled with other attendees at a day of panel discussions sponsored by the US State Department.
Brian Deese, a senior advisor to President Barack Obama, spoke at an event called "North American Mid-Century Strategies for Low-Emission Development," hoping to tout an optimistic White House report projecting markers of climate change progress in the middle of this century.
Deese has been a frequent White House mouthpiece on climate issues. In September, when the US and China jointly ratified the Paris Agreement, Deese told the press that the ratification "should give confidence to the global communities."
His own confidence is now clearly shaken.
Asked at the conference whether the White House's report factored in four or eight years of Donald Trump, Deese punted. "I won't speculate on what the policies of the future administration may look like," he said. He claimed that recent progress in the US isn't "driven by particular policy measures," but by private business benefitting from "renewable tax credits that were enacted by Congress on a bipartisan basis last year."
Robert Bonnie, undersecretary for natural resources and environment at the Department of Agriculture, spoke at an event called "Addressing Climate Change—Agriculture." He told the crowd that progress in regulating the agriculture sector had been effective enough to ensure that sustainability will be on the agenda, even in Trump's America. "There's a lot of forward momentum here, and as I say, we're not always selling this as climate change, because the co-benefits are so high. Agriculture recognizes that there are real opportunities for them," Bonnie said.
Meanwhile, representatives of the private sector spoke at a panel event called "Charting a Low-Carbon Course for the US Economy" and made similar noises when asked how public-private sustainability partnerships would save the world from President Trump's anti-environmentalist plans.
According to Kevin Rabinovitch, sustainability director for the chocolate company Mars, environmentalism is just a sound business move. It "helps people want to come work for us," he told conference attendees. He acknowledged that it's a challenge to get businesses to take an interest in the environment, but he said, "Once you get over that hump, you find that there's gold there."
Cathy Woollums, a lawyer and VP of environmental services at Berkshire Hathaway who was also on the panel, said that the move toward sustainable grids in the energy sector has been cost-effective, and therefore, "It's a win-win-win for everyone. It's a win for the environment. It's a win for our customers. It's a win for us."
"Once we set a direction, and we see value in markets, we continue down that path. So innovation in markets will continue," Nanette Lockwood, climate director at the industrial machinery manufacturer Ingersoll Rand told the crowd.
"Just because of the events of last week, I would not venture to say you would see a huge change in direction from the business community," Lockwood predicted.
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