Do We Have the Will to Act on Climate Change?

United States Secretary of State John Kerry walked to the stage at COP22 on Nov. 16 in Marrakech, Morocco, turning to face the stuffy conference room filled with excited smiles, furrowed brows, and determined eyes. The inspiring speech focused on his hopes and fears for the future of action on climate change.

Hand with sand in Morocco
This handful of sand was photographed in Morocco by Carlos ZGZ.

Climate change “isn’t partisan for liberal and conservative business leaders who are investing unprecedented amounts of money into renewables,” Kerry said.

It was a week after Donald Trump, who has expressed interest in withdrawing from international climate agreements, was elected president of the United States.

“In no uncertain terms, the question now is not whether we will transition to a clean energy economy,” Kerry said. “That, we’ve already begun to do. The question now is whether or not we are going to have the will to get this job done. That’s the question now – whether we will make the transition in time to be able to do what we have to do to prevent catastrophic damage.”

Kerry’s speech coincided with the national announcement of an ambitious decarbonization strategy. The election did not change this decision. The strategy provides a plan to reduce domestic emissions by 80 percent by 2050 (compared to 2005 levels) while meeting energy needs.

Visible Climate Damage

This damage is tangible, Kerry said. He recently traveled to both Greenland and Antarctica to witness the effects of climate change firsthand.

His description of his trip to McMurdo Station in Antarctica was impassioned. This was not only because the massive ice sheets, if melted, could raise sea levels by hundreds of feet – but because the scientists working there, on the front lines of the global climate crisis, are themselves so concerned. They point out that many ice-sheet-melting processes function as positive feedback loops, some of which may already have become irreversible.

“These scientists urged me to remind my own government and governments around the world and everyone that what we do right now – today – matters,” Kerry said. “Because if we don’t go far enough and if we don’t go fast enough, the damage we inflict could take centuries to undo – if it can be undone at all.”

The sentiment that we may already have acted too lazily to avoid serious climate impacts invokes a sense of hopelessness. What’s the point of acting now, or at all? In the context of climate science that looks rather dire, the recent election result has tended to spiral climate advocates even further into despair.

Throughout this week of COP22, questions spurred by hopelessness surfaced often. Will the United States pull out of the Paris Agreement, rendering it anemic? Will it strip the Green Climate Fund, to which the United States is a key donor, of the resources it needs to support climate mitigation, adaptation and readiness in low-lying countries like Kiribati?

Renewable Energy Optimism

“Over the past decade, the global renewable energy market has expanded more than six-fold,” Kerry said. “Like many of you, I’ve seen this transformation take hold in my own country. That’s why I’m confident about the future, regardless of what policy might be chosen, because of the marketplace. I’ve met with leaders and innovators in the energy industry all across our nation. And I am excited about the path that they are on.”

Excitement surrounding energy-market trends in the renewables industry, particularly in solar and wind, was a common thread at the conference. Several expert panels conducted alongside delegate negotiations were devoted to the topic.

Kerry said that in 2015, clean energy investment totaled $350 billion. On average, 500,000 solar panels were installed each day. And despite very low oil, gas and coal prices, investment in renewable energy technology was greater than that put into new fossil fuel plants.

We have the technology, Kerry emphasized. And throughout the world – including in the United States – strong market forces are favoring clean energy over fossil fuels.

“Coal Isn’t Coming Back,” read the title of an op-ed published by The New York Times the day before Kerry’s speech.

The author, Michael Webber, deputy director of the Energy Institute at The University of Texas at Austin, opposed a general fear that the new administration would make good on Trump’s promise to revive the national coal industry. “Mr. Trump cannot reverse these trends,” Webber said.

But having access to the right tools – the heart of which is renewable energy – is not enough to solve the global climate crisis, Kerry said. Society at large must decide to make use of the tools we have and get to work quickly.

Dynamic Climate Negotiation

Kerry’s speech was a much-anticipated address for which some conference-goers, typically seen bustling from one session to the next, had arrived over a half hour early.

25,000 participants had traveled from around the world to attend COP22, also known as the ‘COP of Action.’

The slogan denoted its focus on implementation of the Paris Agreement, which was structured a year before at COP21 in France.

The agreement came into force in early November, thirty days after enough parties – at least 55 countries representing at least 55 percent of global emissions – officially signed on. As of COP22, 110 parties had ratified or acceded to it, including the United States and China, which alone account for 40 percent of global emissions.

With the 110 parties on board, the Paris Agreement now covers 76 percent of total global emissions.

But amid international uncertainty spurred by Trump’s election, was there any hope to make progress on climate change over the next four years?

Green Business Commitment

Kerry said he finds hope not in faith, but in resolve. Not in abdicating responsibility to the federal government to make certain policy decisions, but in making climate-friendly, rather than climate-dooming, decisions at every level of society: including governments, businesses and citizens.

Will we prioritize the climate over nationalism or quarterly profit growth? Will consumers continue to push businesses to green their supply chains and develop more sustainable products? Will we sit back and throw our hands in the air – or will we advocate for the climate more intensely than ever before? Do we have the collective willpower to do what we can when we know that we should?

That is our question now.

“If we fall short, it will be the single greatest instance in modern history of a generation in a time of crisis abdicating responsibility for the future. And it won’t just be a policy failure. Because of the nature of this challenge, it will be a moral failure, a betrayal of devastating consequence,” Kerry said.

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