Kerry, Climate Change and the Long Road Ahead


John Kerry came to Marrakech and addressed the UN Climate Change Conference yesterday. Up until his address, the delegations from 190 countries gathered on the edge of the African continent had been feeling a little shaky, as if the prospects for a global climate change deal were hanging by a fraying thread.  By the time he had finished speaking the assembled throng rose as one and applauded the US Secretary of State to the rafters (or the top of the tent, this being Morocco after all). Everyone felt a whole lot better.

Mr Kerry, and the administration to which he belongs, will remain in office for a further 63 days.

Kerry’s upbeat presentation was remarkably Trump-lite, and that was just what the delegates wanted. Declaring that climate change was ‘bigger than one person, one president,’ he sought to convince the gathering that the Paris Accord will roll on inexorably, unaffected by the little local difficulties taking place on the American continent. Of course climate change is bigger than one president, but there is little doubt that one person can make a world of difference. Is there anyone who believes that the Paris Accord would have been brokered, signed and ratified without the labours and leadership of President Obama? One President can make all the difference.

Another Kerry comment worth pondering has received far less notice: ‘Decisions taken [by governments] about the energy sector have very long lasting implications, and not just for this sector, but across the whole economy, and they have environmental and social impacts.’  Indeed. There can now be little doubt that Obama’s ‘War on Coal,’ had a major impact on the election of the 2016 election. Of the rust belt states - Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania - all bar Indiana had voted for President Obama in 2012. In 2016 only Obama’s home state of Illinois voted democrat. Kerry’s invocation that ‘the overwhelming majority of the citizens of the United States who know climate change is happening […] are determined to keep our commitments that were made in Paris,’ rang a little hollow.

Kerry offered some final words of wisdom: ‘I have learned that some issues look a bit different when you are in office, compared to when you’re on the campaign trail. The truth is that climate change should not be a partisan issue in the first place.’ (I have been making the same point about taking climate change out of Brexit). Time will tell.

Such was the euphoria that greeted John Kerry’s remarks, few delegates seemed inclined to dwell upon the draft Marrakech declaration which had hit their inboxes late Tuesday night.  Perhaps it’s not surprising.  Such declarations traditionally appear in the first week of the COP (we are now almost at the end of week two) and they are usually the subject of wrangling, haggling, drafting and re-drafting and re-re-drafting. This time, however, the Marrakech declaration arrived very late indeed, appeared without prior discussion, and has left negotiators only two days to knock it into shape.

The Marrakech declaration is supposed to set out how the Paris Agreement will be fulfilled. However, as the EU’s chief negotiator Miguel Arias Cañete noted, the emerging draft goes far beyond a simple ‘delivery document’.  Without prior warning, the Moroccans have decided to re-open key parts of the Paris Agreement itself, including a section calling for a ‘new collective quantified goal on finance.’ Given the difficulties the French had last year - and remember the French are diplomats par excellence - in securing agreement on the final text of the Paris Accord, it remains to be seen whether the Moroccan approach is wise. As Señor Cañete declared last night, a position he claimed was echoed by John Kerry, the Moroccans have gone ‘too far’.

Reaching the $100bn per year finance goal called for in the Paris Agreement will be challenge enough.  To date countries have pledged (but not delivered) $10.3bn to ‘leverage’ the fund. The US is set to be the largest single contributor, pledging some $3bn. However, some $2.5bn has still to be handed over. It remains to be seen whether President Trump will honour the commitment.  As an aside, just the other night The Donald gave an impromptu speech to diners in a New York restaurant, ending with the clear statement: ‘We’ll get your taxes down, don’t worry about that.’

Today delegates will get their teeth into the draft but no-one is hopeful of a speedy resolution.  Describing the Marrakech text as an ‘a la carte’ draft with ‘no chance of flying’, Commissioner Canete and his fellow negotiators have their work cut out for them and the clock is most certainly ticking. In Paris, the sense of momentum permeated every room and delegation. Here in Morocco, despite Secretary Kerry’s warm words, there is fear that it might all turn out to be hot air.