The Marrakesh Action Proclamation and the unstoppable march of green businesses suggests the Age of Enlightenment is not done just yet
Optimism is a renewable resource, as Al Gore is wont to say - and let's be honest, he should know.
There is no route to averting full climate breakdown that is not guided by an optimistic belief that it can be done, sometimes in the face of daunting odds. In fact, optimism is even more important than that. As the Guardian's Zoe Williams argued in an essential column this week, the rise of hard right authoritarianism can be attributed in part to the despondent response of the left (and centrists of all shades) to climate change. "Pessimism infected our political language, left it pale and limp," she wrote, even as progress continued and clean tech "discoveries were made and solutions found".
Without optimism (tempered by realism at the scale of the challenge) climate crisis becomes inevitable and the illiberal Trumpist tendency that feeds on pessimism becomes ever more powerful.
But where do we find the spark of optimism in a darkening political landscape?
I see no optimism in Trumpism. Donald Trump has to be taken at face value, and that face is angry, racist, authoritarian, misogynistic, scientifically illiterate, and orange, to name but a few of its more obvious flaws. Until Trump performs a full 180 degree turn with both his policies and character he must be judged on the terrifying policy prescriptions, poor impulse control, and authoritarian tendencies he has amply demonstrated in recent years. As such there is scant evidence to suggest Trump's stance on climate change will be moderated.
So where does the spark of optimism come from?
Well, that scant evidence at least makes a starting point. The Trump team could have torpedoed the Marrakesh Summit at any time. A well timed statement or poorly spelt Tweet could have confirmed US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, humiliated John Kerry ahead of his speech, and sent shockwaves around the world. Perhaps the failure to exploit this opportunity was the result of the chaotic disorganisation that appears to characterise the Trump transition team, or perhaps a re-think is underway.
Intriguingly, Fox News' Bill O'Reilly, who adheres to the Fox party line on climate scepticism, yesterday called for Trump to stick with the Paris Agreement in order to buy some much-needed goodwill on the international stage. The President-elect could easily walk back his threat to cancel the deal, arguing that he still reckons climate change may be a hoax, but on closer inspection the treaty does no damage to the US economy and in the absence of a fleet of spaceships and a second planet it is sensible to err on the side of caution when it comes to climate change.
Needless to say, this is an extremely unlikely scenario. The Breitbartification of Trump's top team leaves no room for pragmatism on climate change. Expect Trump to be the most environmentally, economically, fiscally, socially, and emotionally irresponsible president in history.
Where else does the spark of optimism come from?
Well, it was present in Marrakesh. The reaction to Trump's victory and the threat to the Paris Agreement was united and sincere. The Marrakesh Action Proclamation, agreed with far less negotiating tension than has ever been the case at previous UN climate summits, is an unequivocal affirmation of the hard won commitments delivered in Paris.
Critics will say it is just a political document. But the Proclamation along with the rapid adoption of the Paris Agreement sends a further signal to investors and businesses that the world's governments aren't messing when they say they are planning full decarbonisation of the global economy. Trump's ascendancy could have easily prompted an immediate splintering of the consensus on climate action, but every single country represented in Marrakesh held the line. Trump's hostility to climate action can expect to be met with a serious pushback from the world's most powerful economies, not to mention the most influential states in his own country.
Will this unity last? It may, but equally if Trump plays his cards right (a big if) the dominoes could fall. The temptation for other authoritarian states to follow his lead and dilute their climate efforts will be obvious. If the hard right's disturbing run of success continues it is easy to envisage how the world will have more immediate challenges to address than decarbonisation.
So where does the spark of optimism come from then? How can the light provided by climate action be nurtured in what Jonathan Freedland describes as the new age of endarkenment?
Well, there is significant optimism to be found in the reasons why the Marrakesh Proclamation was agreed so swiftly. For all the key players support for the Paris Agreement is about one thing alone: self-interest. From low lying islands, to China and India's choking cities, to Europe's increasingly deindustrialised heartlands, political leaders rushed to defend the Paris Agreement because they recognised sustainable development offers the only viable path forward for their economies. The combination of financial, health and security gains on offer from a stable, prosperous, and low carbon economy are too compelling to resist.
The Chinese delegation at Marrakesh summed up this new reality best. "Proactively taking action against climate change will improve China's international image and allow it to occupy the moral high ground," Zou Ji, deputy director of the National Centre for Climate Change Strategy, told Reuters. "China's influence and voice are likely to increase in global climate governance, which will then spill over into other areas of global governance and increase China's global standing, power and leadership." It is a line that should send shockwaves through Trump Tower - should but won't. 'The Donald' is about to discover geopolitics is a lot harder than real estate and reality TV.
Some countries may bend to Trumpism's environmental dereliction, but many others will stay the course and in so doing they will ignite the biggest sparks of optimism of them all, the sparks that have been quietly building for the past decade or more across the green business community.
The Marrakesh Proclamation provides yet another boost to the fast expanding community of investors, business leaders and innovators who are now fully committed to deep decarbonisation. Trump can't stop them. They take their investment signals from multiple sources. Yes, the White House is one of those sources, but so is Beijing, so is Brussels, so is the Paris Agreement, so are the R&D labs pushing down clean tech costs, so are the climate risks already impacting their supply chains, so are the millennial consumers who might not vote in enough numbers but who demand environmental sustainability from the products and services they use.
The fundamentals for green businesses - fundamentals that have already helped stall global emissions growth and are fast reshaping the global energy industry - are still firmly in place.
Anyone doubting that needs to look at the green business news that we've seen since Trump was elected. In the past week and a half alone we have seen: the UK and France confirm plans to phase out coal power; DONG Energy confirm it is to sell its oil and gas business; Vattenfall win a contract for a sub €50/MWh offshore wind farm; S&P predict huge growth in the green bonds market; Australia and the UK ratify the Paris Agreement; Germany unveil plans to cut emissions by 95 per cent; BMW, Toyota and Jaguar all announce new electric vehicle ambitions; Microsoft sign its largest wind power deal yet; Scotland welcome its first commercial scale tidal turbine; confirmation US sustainable investment rose by a third to $8.7tr last year; Total announcing plans to install solar arrays at its petrol stations; over 360 companies calling on Trump to stick with the Paris Agreement; over 200 companies confirm science-based emissions targets; and Tesla secure shareholder approval for its SolarCity takeover.
The fear for green businesses remains that Trump could snuff out their optimism, and you could see how it could happen. Temperamental authoritarians do not do innovation, they do not encourage optimism, especially when such optimism centres on values they do not share. But green businesses and the international coalition that delivered first the Paris Agreement and now the Marrakesh proclamation will not be easily discouraged.
There is no denying Trump has lengthened the odds of climate breakdown being averted. But the green economy has got pretty good at battling long odds, after all it's had plenty of practice. Trumpism and the authoritarianism it represents threatens a dark turn for us all, but the hope emanating from Marrakesh proves the President-elect can't just cancel the dominant economic trend of the century, especially when it is fuelled by an optimism he will never understand.
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