Update: After filing the following report this morning from this year’s session of the U.N.’s annual climate meeting, the author went to attend the day’s “conference of the parties” as he had been doing all week, only to be arrested by armed U.N. police and detained for trying to gain entry with a blocked pass. His phone was confiscated and examined, and he was asked whom he had been calling.
Make no mistake. Donald Trump’s election is the worst setback to the climate-change negotiations since they began a quarter-century ago with the first meeting of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee, which produced the 1992 U.N. framework convention on climate change.
On Tuesday, at this year’s climate conference in Marrakech, French president François Hollande threw down the gauntlet to the president-elect, declaring last year’s Paris Agreement “irreversible from a legal point of view.” The U.S. must respect the climate commitments it had made, Hollande demanded, whose popularity earlier this year dropped to a record low of 17 percent.
Yesterday, it was the turn of John Kerry. In his last speech as secretary of state to a climate conference, Kerry gave an impassioned performance, making up in authenticity what it lacked in coherence. “No one should doubt that the majority of Americans are determined to keep the commitments we have made,” Kerry declaimed to loud applause. Then why didn’t the Obama administration seek congressional approval for the Clean Power Plan and send the Paris Agreement to the Senate for its advice and consent? “The United States is right now on our way to meeting all of the international targets that we’ve set, and because of the market decisions that are being made, I do not believe that that can or will be reversed.” If so, it shouldn’t matter whether the Trump administration annulled the Clean Power Plan.
“No one can stop the new climate economy because the benefits are so enormous,” Kerry continued. Tell that to out-of-work coal miners in Appalachia or to voters in rust-belt states who handed the presidency to Donald Trump. Moments later, the same Kerry was saying that government leadership was “absolutely essential.” Time was running out. Do we have the collective will to save the planet from catastrophe? Kerry asked. “It won’t happen without leadership.”
At an emotional level, it was what the participants at the Marrakech conference craved. But the contradiction between the inevitability of wind and solar power sweeping all before them and the veiled accusation that president-elect Donald Trump would be guilty of a moral betrayal if he backed off the commitments made by his predecessor showed that politics trumps arguments about inevitability. Even so, the unreality of the unstoppable clean-tech revolution was evident in Kerry’s remarks. Developing countries wanted access to affordable energy, the secretary of state acknowledged.
More often than not, that means coal. Most of the huge growth in electricity demand in southeast Asia is going to be met by coal, Kerry warned, negating the benefits of the new investment in renewables. Financing new coal-fired power stations was a form of suicide, Kerry declared. What was he or any other American politician going to do about it? Asian countries are going to do what they’re going to do, and there’s very little America can do to stop them. Without realizing it, Kerry’s argument demonstrates the sense of putting America first when it comes to energy policy.
Kerry’s state of climate confusion was one indicator of the crisis that Donald Trump’s election has swept through the U.N. climate-change talks. That jitteriness was evident a couple of hours after Kerry had finished talking. To dramatize Trump’s campaign pledge to drop the Paris Agreement, Marc Morano of the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow arranged a ritual shredding of the Paris Agreement in front of a life-size cut-out of Trump. Hardly had the first page of the agreement disappeared into the shredder than U.N. security police intervened to save the rest of the document. Morano and his colleague Craig Rucker were then escorted away and banned from attending the rest of the conference, for “their own safety and the safety of all participants,” the U.N. said. It was a stupid response. Destroying the pages of one sacred text of the climate-change movement is an offense in the eyes of the U.N. secular religion. With the removal of the offending image of America’s next president from its main thoroughfare, the conference campus was restored as a safe space for climate-cult snowflakes of all ages.
There have already been two big reversals in the tortuous progress of the climate talks before last Tuesday’s election. The November 2000 climate conference in The Hague was held before the hanging chads in Florida were counted and the results of the election were known. George W Bush’s position was less well defined than Donald Trump’s. Once in the White House, Bush mishandled his decision not to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, which the Senate was never going to approve anyway. Despite his initial hostility to emissions cuts, pressure from the State Department and from America’s allies saw Bush being sucked back into the process and, in the end, preparing the ground for his successor’s climate policy. That culminated in the second reversal seven years ago, when the Chinese and the Indians vetoed the Copenhagen climate treaty.
After the flameout at Copenhagen, President Obama’s climate envoy, Todd Stern, crafted a new and, in many ways, ingenious strategy. The Senate had passed a resolution against Kyoto mainly because the agreement excluded China and other major emerging economies. The Obama administration would get the Chinese on board by not requiring them to bear emissions-cut obligations similar to those borne by the developed world. Stern’s strategy was to bypass the Senate, an indication of the one-sided nature of the commitments being made by the U.S. and other Western nations — commitments that the Senate would surely reject – to avoid repeating the fate of the Kyoto Protocol.
The strategy had one major flaw. It wholly depended on what didn’t happen last Tuesday. As was pointed out here when the agreement was concluded, the only way of reversing the Paris Agreement would be in this year’s presidential election. However, the agreement had been booby-trapped to make it difficult for the US to back out. Speaking in February after the Supreme Court slapped a stay on the Clean Power Plan and put a huge legal question mark over America’s ability to comply with the Paris Agreement, Stern explained that a Republican president was unlikely to scrap the Paris deal, as that would have negative diplomatic implications.
Stern’s view fails to take account of the domestic repercussions of President Obama’s climate policies, especially when compared with those of his Democratic predecessor. Bill Clinton wasn’t going to be foolish and take on the coal states. After winning the 1992 election on a platform that included Al Gore’s BTU tax, Clinton cut a deal with Senate majority leader Robert Byrd: a cut in taxes on coal in exchange for higher taxes on oil. By contrast, President Obama launched an outright war on coal, with the outcome we all saw last week. Four of the top five coal-producing states voted Republican, including Pennsylvania, which swung from blue to red, and Robert Byrd’s West Virginia, which gave Donald Trump his second-highest vote share. Of the ten states most reliant on coal for their electricity, seven voted Republican last week, including Indiana and Ohio, a swing state. Last Tuesday, President Obama’s War on Coal claimed its most prominent political casualty: Hillary Rodham Clinton.