Secretary of State John F. Kerry took the stage at United Nations climate talks in Morocco on Wednesday, seeking to reassure nervous negotiators that a groundbreaking agreement to fight global warming will survive with Donald Trump in the White House.
The Republican president-elect has called climate change a “hoax” and said he would “cancel” the United States’ participation in the accord reached in Paris last year.
But Kerry said, “No one should doubt the overwhelming majority of the citizens of the United States who know climate change is happening and who are determined to keep our commitments that were made in Paris.”
He noted that global investment in renewable energy hit an all-time high last year of nearly $350 billion, outpacing for the first time what went into coal, oil and other fossil fuels.
“Like many of you, I’ve seen this transformation take hold in my own country,” Kerry said. “That’s why I’m confident about the future, regardless of what policy might be chosen, because of the marketplace.”
The election of a U.S. president who questions whether global warming is real has caused alarm among environmental activists, scientists and the nearly 200 governments around the world that have made common cause with one another in the fight against climate change.
The Obama administration played a critical role in brokering last year’s deal in Paris, forging alliances with China, India and other major producers of heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions to help drive decades of contentious negotiations to a successful conclusion.
The accord, which entered into force just days before the U.N. conference began in the Moroccan city of Marrakech last week, aims to keep the increase in world temperatures this century to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and as close to 1.5 degrees Celsius as possible. Those are the thresholds at which scientists believe many of the worst effects of climate change can be averted.
But the agreement contains no legally binding emissions targets, leaving it to individual countries to set their own goals and strategies. Scientists say there is no time to lose: The emissions reductions currently on the table won’t be sufficient to hold temperatures to the levels outlined in the deal.
Kerry used his highly anticipated speech to defend the Obama administration’s environmental policies, making a thinly veiled pitch to his as-yet-unnamed successor to continue the fight against climate change.
“At some point, even the strongest skeptic has to acknowledge that something disturbing is happening,” Kerry said. “We have seen record-breaking droughts everywhere, from India to Brazil to the West Coast of the United States. Storms that used to happen once every 500 years are becoming relatively normal.”
Without mentioning Trump by name, Kerry also appealed to the president-elect’s business sense.
“Clean energy is expected to be a multitrillion-dollar market — the largest market the world has ever known,” he said. “And no nation will do well if it sits on the sidelines, handicapping its new businesses from reaping the benefits of the clean-tech explosion.”
Kerry assured participants that the U.S. is “right now, today, on our way to meeting all of the international targets that we’ve set,” including a pledge to reduce U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses by 26% to 28% below 2005 levels by 2025.
The White House also unveiled a new plan outlining ways to achieve even steeper reductions of 80% below 2005 levels by the middle of the century.
Environmental activists and experts said it provides a solid template for action by future U.S. administrations as well as other countries.
“The plan offered is comprehensive in scope, taking into account opportunities to cut emissions across different sectors of the economy, including the electricity, transportation, industry and buildings sectors,” said Rachel Cleetus, lead economist and climate policy manager at the Union of Concerned Scientists, in a statement.
“It also highlights the need to invest in low-carbon technology development, and safeguard and enhance our natural resources — such as forests, soils and grasslands — that help remove carbon from the atmosphere and store it.”
Activists were pleased to see that the U.S. plan does not rely only on measures taken by the federal government, but also provides options for state and local authorities, the private sector and consumers.
“The new analysis provided by the Obama administration helps explain how the U.S. can go further on emissions reduction, whether or not national policy is regressive in the next administration,” said Kyle Ash of Greenpeace USA.
“It shows much of the actions and policies will happen at a state level in the U.S., and the country can still move forward as a whole to achieve the goals of Paris.”
Although activists said the new plan still does not get U.S. emissions reductions as low as they need to be, they remained optimistic that advances in technology and falling prices for renewable energy can help fill the gap.
“We are really at this unprecedented moment where the world is united on this issue,” said Will Gartshore of the World Wildlife Fund. “At the same time, the pace that has been set out to achieve those goals is not keeping pace with the science and the changes that we’re seeing, and we’re going to have to figure out how to run faster as time goes on.”
Paul Bledsoe, a former Clinton White House climate official who is attending the talks, said Trump’s threats to pull the U.S. out of the Paris deal may actually have increased international resolve to address global warming.
Concern about the outcome of the U.S. election was a major reason that countries moved so quickly to ratify the deal, a process that can take years. Nations such as Canada, Mexico and Germany have announced plans of their own to dramatically reduce emissions by 2050.
“Other nations are unified in their determination to make the Paris process succeed,” Bledsoe said. “At the same time, it's obvious that the 2050 goals released today will be impossible to meet without aggressive new U.S. policies."
French President Francois Hollande said his government would reach out to Trump on behalf of the more than 100 signatories that have ratified the agreement.
“The United States, the most powerful economy in the world, the second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, must respect the commitments that were made,” Hollande said Tuesday. “It's not simply their duty, it's in their interest.”
Liu Zhenmin, deputy leader of China's delegation at the talks, said he expects that cooperation with the U.S. on climate matters will continue under the next administration. “We have to expect they will take a right and smart decision,” he told reporters.
Businesses too have pledged to do their part. Hundreds of American companies, including Fortune 500 firms, issued an open letter Wednesday reaffirming their commitment to the deal and calling on Trump to honor U.S. commitments. “Failure to build a low-carbon economy puts American prosperity at risk,” they wrote.
But among some of the small island nations with the most to lose from rising sea levels and other climate effects, there is still great anxiety about the future of the agreement — concerns that the United States’ midcentury plan has done little to alleviate.
"While we appreciate the long-term vision, what we need immediately are concrete actions,” said Thoriq Ibrahim, the environment minister for the Maldives. “Without them, some of us may be underwater by midcentury.”
Times staff writer Zavis reported from Los Angeles and special correspondent Sampathkumar from Marrakech.