By Carol Clark
“No U.S. president has been as vocal about climate change, or as focused on mitigating it, as Barack Obama,” says Eri Saikawa, an assistant professor in Emory’s Department of Environmental Sciences and an expert in public policy and the science of emissions linked to global warming.
President-elect Donald Trump, however, has repeatedly called climate change a hoax.
“The concern about how Trump will deal with climate change is worldwide,” Saikawa says. “We all share the same atmosphere and the United States is a leading emitter of greenhouse gases. The impacts of global warming will affect the entire planet.”
Among Obama’s initiatives is the U.S. Clean Power Plan – which established the first national carbon pollution standards for power plants. U.S. leadership was also instrumental in the historic Paris Agreement to combat climate change. The 2015 agreement, organized by the United Nations’ Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), brought more than 190 countries together to commit to a framework to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
“The Paris Agreement is an amazing achievement, and there was so much momentum and excitement surrounding it,” Saikawa says.
On November 7, delegates from around the world gathered in Marrakech, Morocco, to hammer out details resulting from the Paris Agreement. Saikawa headed a 10-member Emory delegation to Marrakech for the two-week event, known as the U.N. 22nd Conference of the Parties (COP 22). (Emory, one of the few universities approved as an official U.N. observer by the COP, also sent a delegation to the Paris talks last year.)
Emory’s Marrakech delegation included six students and three staff members. They split into two teams, with half participating at COP 22 during the first week and the other half during the second.
Emory delegates on the ground in Marrakech, including senior Emily Li (front left), and, from upper left: Kate Lee (clinical fellow and staff attorney for the Turner Environmental Law Clinic), sophomore Maya Bornstein, senior Jennie Sun and Tyler Stern (an Emory grad who is now a Residence Life Fellow).
Emily Li, a senior majoring in environmental sciences and English, was there when the U.S. presidential election results were announced.
“Everyone was in shock,” Li says, of the surprise victory by Trump. “You could tell which delegates were from the U.S. because they just looked so tired that morning. The U.S. press office was total chaos.”
Li also struggled to take in the turn of events. “It was discouraging at first,” she says. “I’m really passionate about mitigating climate change and to have a national leader who doesn’t recognize it as an important issue is really disheartening.”
During the election campaign, Trump threatened to ax the Clean Power Plan and to pull the United States out of the Paris Agreement. After winning, Trump seemed to soften his stance somewhat, saying he would keep an “open mind” about the agreement. But he tapped Myron Ebell, a well-known climate-science denier, to lead his administration’s revamping of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Li summed up the post-election mood at COP 22 in a blog post called “Talking about the Elephant in the Room.” You can read it, along with posts by other members of the Emory delegation, on the Emory Climate Organization (ECO) web site, founded by students focused on understanding climate change.
The mood at COP 22 soon shifted from shock to a sense of renewed urgency. “A lot of the younger delegates, in particular, were saying how the Trump administration could help bring people together and motivate more engagement and action,” Li says. “We need to think about how to move forward because focusing on the negatives is ultimately not going to be useful.”
Local initiatives are more important than ever, she noted. For her senior thesis in environmental sciences, Li is zeroing in on ways that climate change may affect public health in Atlanta. “I’m doing a lot of research, looking at different studies to learn the scientific consensus. I’m also interviewing policy makers and people affected by events like the drought and the recent wildfires,” she says.
She plans to translate the science into engaging stories that she will post to a public web site, along with possible solutions. “I want to help communicate the direct effects of climate change on public health in Atlanta, so people living here can better understand the potential impact on themselves and their children,” Li explains. “I think that the more local an issue is, the more people tend to care about it.”
Geoff Martin, who is working on a master degree in environmental sciences, participated in the second week of COP 22. “In the month leading up to Morocco, I was really excited,” he recalls. “The Paris Agreement had finally gotten things moving in the right direction and I was going to this great event, COP 22, the first step towards implementation.”
The election results took the wind out of his sails, but only momentarily. “Being at the conference helped me regain my perspective,” Martin says. “People from all different levels and areas – government officials, those from the private sector and from non-governmental agencies – found reasons to still be hopeful.”
One of the major take-home messages for him is that the international community is going to continue to move forward in combating climate change, with or without the United States.
Another theme he heard repeatedly was that governing is a lot different from campaigning. “Trump will likely find that many of the things he said he was going to do during his campaign, like dismantle the EPA and cancel the Paris Agreement, may be easier said than done,” Martin says.
He also draws hope from the fact that the energy market is shifting. “The price of renewable energy keeps going down, making it increasingly competitive with fossil fuels in many places,” he says. “Regardless of government policy, the market could continue to drive a transition towards renewable energy.”
Martin is at work on a thesis, focused on analyzing the effectiveness of state-level climate and energy policies. He agrees with Li that the election of Trump could serve as a wake-up call for those concerned about climate change to take action at the local level, and not wait for the federal government to take the lead.
“Lots of talks at COP 22 were focused on sub-national efforts to mitigate climate change, not just in the United States, but throughout the world,” Martin says. He cites the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a successful cap-and-trade program for the power sector comprising nine U.S. states in the northeast.
The recent victory by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe to block the $3.7 billion Dakota Access pipeline is another hopeful sign, Martin says. “Their victory was entirely a result of grassroots activism,” he says. “It shows how, if people really care about an issue and come out to protest and pressure government officials, they can make a difference.”
Peachtree to Paris: Emory delegation headed to U.N. climate talks