Communication gap

  • If two US administrations cannot agree on such a crucial issue, can we expect meaningful dialogue among many governments to cut carbon emissions?
- Navin Singh Khadka

Nov 25, 2016-

It was bound to be a “slow” climate meeting anyway. Having secured the Paris Climate Agreement a year ago, there was no rush as such in Marrakech of Morocco. After all, the deal was meant to be implemented beginning 2020 only. It was speedy ratification by countries—more than 110 already—that brought the agreement into force nearly four years earlier than the scheduled deadline. And that had injected some importance to the Marrakech meet. Many climate campaigners were hoping that the meeting would maintain momentum and the deal would see some meaningful mechanism for its implementation prior to the scheduled date.

Amid high hopes, there was a sense of anticlimax in the world of climate negotiations. The US presidential election results eclipsed almost all of the meet’s two weeks. But more than hijacking the “Paris Agreement implementation rule-book making” agenda, the election results laid bare an even more serious issue. It showed that there was no communication between Trump’s incoming administration and Obama’s outgoing one. If it was not so, US Secretary of State John Kerry would perhaps not have said, “I can’t speculate what (climate) policy our president-elect will pursue.” He said so after spending almost an hour explaining the threats from climate change to quarters ranging from the military to fishermen.

Looming uncertainties

Kerry’s speech at the Marrakech climate meet drew all attention also because there was a rumour that Trump might come out with a statement just before that. Nothing like that happened, but Kerry’s remarks firmed up concerns. The uncertainty caused by Trump’s comments during his election campaign deepened on the sands of the Moroccan desert because even the foreign secretary had no idea what was coming.

This was just when criticisms had begun coming in from different green groups. Former Irish President and UN Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson even warned that the US could become “a kind of rogue country” if it withdrew from the Paris Climate Agreement, as Trump threatened during the election campaign.

So, here was the globe in a microcosm waiting and watching the US, the UN climate meet was indeed a global gathering as almost all countries had sent in their representatives, mostly at the ministerial level, but also a few heads of state. Could the Obama and the Trump camps in the US have been oblivious of that—particularly when the American delegation had such strong presence in Marrakech?

A few days before Kerry made the speech, Obama’s administration made a major announcement on US’s multi-million dollars assistance to the developing world for the development of renewable energy. The press statement had detailed information on how the money would be used, and clearly the efforts were to show the US as a pro-clean energy nation. That is something Obama has been trying to do within his own country through the Clean Energy Act, although the move faces legal challenges. 

Despite all this, there was a maintained silence from the Trump’s camp. The all-outgoing approaches of the outgoing administration and the “quiet diplomacy” of the incoming one might have been normal things at normal times. But this wasn’t an ordinary situation. The fate of the meeting that is supposed to shape the planet’s future was hanging in the balance because of an uncertainty over what course the most powerful country and the third largest carbon emitter of the world would take.

Should that not have been enough of a reason for the two camps to agree on a 

basic common US policy? That is how democracy works, you may argue. But 

here is a take away: if two political camps in the same country can behave like 

that, imagine what governments with conflicting interests can do?

It is true that multiple governments had reached the Paris Climate Agreement in the French capital last year. One can say that was an example of how successfully they could work together. But mind you, that was just a broad agreement with an aim to keep the global temperature rise below two degrees compared to pre-industrial period. The detail of how that goal can be attained remains to be worked out and this is where the details that could bedevil the entire negotiations lie. 

Definite actions needed

With the Marrakech meet over, the Trump camp has now begun to send some signals. In a video message last Tuesday, the president-elect pledged to reduce “job killing restrictions” on coal production. In an interview with the New York Times, he said that there was some connection between human activity and climate change. And then the Guardian reported that he was “poised to eliminate all climate change research conducted by NASA.”

Some people believe that the world has gone quite far to roll back climate plans even if the US does. China’s top climate negotiator Xie Zhenhua made it clear in Marrakech that his country would continue with its present policy to gradually switch over to clean energy. India too announced that its solar alliance initiative had secured nearly 30 country’s support.

All these are fine, but to attain the definitive goal of the Paris Climate Agreement, we will need definite actions by countries. How do you measure those actions? How do you verify them? And, how do you review them? 

Communication will be key, mainly because the Paris Agreement by and large is not legally binding.  And the US’s internal politics has shown how difficult that can be, particularly if there is a change of guard in the government.

 

- Khadka is a BBC journalist based in London    

Published: 25-11-2016 08:24

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