What we choose to resist

With a climate change denier in the White House, what are the prospects for the Paris Agreement on climate change?

Seble Samuel
10 November 2016


Yesterday we woke up to a dystopian vision: US President-elect Donald Trump. Like a bad hangover we couldn’t shake off; a collective coma; or communal mourning.

November 9 2016 will go down as a dark day in a season of dark days.

But the week before I was standing in a room full of cheer. It was November 4, the day the Paris Agreement on climate action had officially come into force, so we were celebrating.

I was standing in a crowded room filled with plaid and free cider. The student-run events space of Oxford Hub buzzed with a collective though rather timid optimism. Standing on a table with a foaming beer in his hand was Achim Steiner, Director of the Oxford Martin School and former Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme. He was delivering the first of the celebratory speeches.

"In terms of global cooperation, the Paris Agreement was perhaps the most vital moment of sanity," said Steiner. "Paris alone will not save us, but imagine if it had not happened."

In his words, the Agreement has forged an opportunity to deal with two key climate issues: legacy and equity. It has created the space to begin tackling the challenges of per-capita and historical CO2 emissions, and disparities such as the impacts of climate change on small island states and developing regions.

As Steiner continued with his speech, however, he didn’t mince his words. Every syllable carried weight. "I have heard it all before," he said, when referring to resistance to climate action and energy transitions. "We can't do it. We don't have the grid. It will affect our bottom line. It's not possible. But the shareholders..."

"The truth is this," he continued, "the language being used to reject climate justice is the same language that rejected slavery's abolition movement."

Steiner’s words were potent. They hung around the room, slowly sinking in. I let them roll around to try to make sense of them. I felt uncomfortable, uneasy with the dangers of the comparison which felt like an equation. And I feared that to equate the two struggles was to reduce at least one of them, a crude act of belittling. Slavery felt too terrible to compare with climate change, too filled with flesh and blood and stains to be equated to threats of floods and hopes of windmills.

But then I realised, it’s not about the equation of these two struggles, it’s about the language we use to resist. It’s about how attached we feel to the status quo, and what barriers we are willing to put up or tear down to maintain or overturn this status quo.

The dystopian morning following the US election was one of rupture—a seeming victory for hate and fear, where xenophobia and sexism will once again be officially permitted; and where the struggles for women's liberation, queer rights, environmental protection, migrant justice and freedom of movement, which have been decades in the making, will move back to the bargaining table once again.

As world leaders proceed with the United Nations climate negotiations in Marrakech, the global climate change community is understandably concerned about the implications of Trump’s victory for the Paris Agreement. This year's round of climate negotiations is supposed to be about action. The aim is to create the foundations—the nuts and bolts—that will get the climate deal rolling.

President-elect Donald Trump however, is a fierce climate denier, calling global warming a giant hoax and a conspiracy theory. On his campaign trail he vowed to cancel the Paris accord, fire up new coal plants, and expand oil and gas drilling. He has also chosen a well-known climate skeptic to lead the transition team of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Domestic climate policies are also under threat, including the Clean Power Plan that has been developed under President Obama's administration. With the US as the second largest greenhouse gas emitter globally, these prospects are chilling.

While such scenarios encourage a widespread sense of gloom, the French Environment Minister Ségolène Royale has stressed that the Paris Agreement is already international law, so a single country cannot exit the accord before a four year time period has expired.

In an era when renewable energy markets are burgeoning and most countries are uniting in common cause, it seems extraordinary that the most powerful nation in the world might be slipping backwards into archaic climate denial.

Against this background I remember Steiner's words: it’s about what we choose to resist. It’s about whether we feel married to the lazy commitments of climate destruction or are prepared to create something different.

The global climate movement may be worried, but it is nothing short of ready.

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