Move over Trump: People are at the heart of the climate fight

by Megan Rowling | @meganrowling | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 21 November 2016 15:04 GMT

A job seeker (R) works with a recruiter at GRID Alternatives solar job fair in San Francisco, California July 15, 2015. The job fair featured 20 solar industry companies offering up to 200 open positions. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith

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If Trump refuses to face climate change "the leadership will come from other nations, and the private sector – including all the American companies who know the future is not with coal"

For Rachel Kyte, who heads up global energy access partnership Sustainable Energy for All (SEforALL), it's people who matter – both the ones who would lose out if U.S. President-elect Donald Trump follows through on his campaign pledge to abandon efforts to curb global warming; and the ones are who leading climate action in American communities.

Washington-based Kyte says the synagogue she attends has shifted completely to using renewable energy, is cutting down food waste and has turned all its property into gardens to help feed local people. "That isn't going to change," she adds.

"The most dynamic organising on climate change in the United States is community health groups, faith communities and social movements in towns and cities," she said in an interview on the sidelines of the U.N. climate talks in Marrakesh, which finished at the weekend.

But while many U.S. citizens are taking measures to make their environment greener and healthier, others are struggling to deal with the climate stresses increasingly thrown their way - from floods to drought and rising seas.

If Trump, a Republican, decides to shift the U.S. energy mix back towards coal and other fossil fuels, as he has promised, and withdraw from the new Paris Agreement on climate change, it is his own electorate that will miss out, warned Kyte.

"There is a real opportunity by embracing the clean economy to improve community health, create good jobs (and) make the power system more reliable. There are plenty of people in the United States who don't have access to reliable, affordable, clean power," said Kyte, who is British and was previously the World Bank's special envoy on climate change.

Alden Meyer, director of strategy for the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), agrees that Trump - as U.S. president - will have a duty to keep his people safe from the growing effects of climate change, while boosting employment opportunities.

"He has a responsibility, as the President-elect now... to protect the American people from the economic, health and security threats of climate change," the veteran climate expert said in Morocco.

"One way for (Trump) to deliver on the millions of jobs he promised Americans is by embracing the renewable energy revolution and competing on a global scale."

This was a common refrain at the U.N. climate conference, which sent a strong signal to billionaire businessman Trump that the world will press ahead with the fight to curb climate change regardless of what he does as leader of a country that is the world's second-biggest emitter of planet-warming gases.

‘HISTORICAL MUSEUM’

Erik Solheim, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that China, the European Union and even developing countries could step up and fill the gap if the U.S. abdicates the climate leadership it has shown under President Barack Obama.   

"The leadership will come from other nations, and the private sector – including all the American companies who know the future is not with coal, the future is with renewables," he said in Marrakesh.

Last week, more than 365 businesses and investors – from more than a dozen Fortune 500 firms to small, family-owned businesses across more than 35 U.S. states – reaffirmed their support for the Paris accord and the need to accelerate the transition to a low-carbon economy.

“Implementing the Paris Climate Agreement will enable and encourage businesses and investors to turn the billions of dollars in existing low-carbon investments into the trillions of dollars the world needs to bring clean energy prosperity to all,” they said in a statement issued in Morocco. “Failure to build a low-carbon economy puts American prosperity at risk.”

Solheim and others pointed out that even in strongly Republican U.S. states such as Texas, wind and solar power are forging ahead.

Moreover, these days there are few investors willing to put money into coal, which is becoming redundant, the UNEP head added.

"If you want to retain a nation as a historical museum, I wish you good luck - you will be the loser," he emphasised.

CALIFORNIA DEFIANT

Meanwhile, other parts of the country - not least California and Vermont - are leading the low-carbon charge, and say they will not back down, whatever policies the White House will pursue from January.

California – which would have the world's fifth largest economy if it were a country – is on track to reduce its emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, said its environment secretary Matt Rodriguez.

He and California Senate president Kevin de León told journalists in Marrakesh that the state's economy has grown faster than the rest of the country, largely thanks to its clean technology sector.

"California will not go backwards," said de León. "California will move forward with our (environmental) policies, together with like-minded states."

Fighting talk like this - and the reality of the low-carbon transition already underway in the United States - means turning the dial back towards fossil fuels could prove tough for Trump's administration, experts say.

States accounting for nearly 30 percent of the country's GDP have some form of carbon emissions trading scheme in place, half of states have standards for energy efficiency, and 35 have requirements on renewable energy, said David Rosenheim of The Climate Registry, which runs emissions reporting programmes.

AID DROUGHT?

UCS's Meyer also noted bi-partisan support for investments in clean energy technology, including a five-year extension of the production tax credit for wind and solar, as well as for putting money into building climate resilience in poorer countries.

It will be even more important now for civil society groups, such as his, to keep lobbying Congress to deliver on promises of cash to help vulnerable people around the world face up to climate change, he added.

In particular, there are fears that Trump's government will renege on a $3 billion funding promise to the fledgling Green Climate Fund, set up by U.N. climate negotiations. Only a sixth of the pledge has been met so far.

Meyer said there was a clear moral, security and business case for continuing to provide assistance to those on the frontlines of climate change.

Trump needs to understand that "this is not a handout, this is not charity”, he added. “This is an investment in our children's future; this is an investment in the security and wellbeing of the planet."

If that message doesn't get through, SEforALL's Kyte said others – including emerging climate powerhouse China - will have to fill the gap.

"If the U.S. pledges into different funds don't materialise... then that is a massive leadership opportunity for other countries," she said. "Nature abhors a vacuum."

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