John Kerry has signalled that the outgoing Obama administration is preparing a fight to ensure that Donald Trump does not withdraw the US from the landmark Paris agreement, to prevent catastrophic climate change.
“This is bigger than one person, one president,” the US secretary of state said in Marrakech, before his last address to the UN climate summit being held there. “We have to figure out how we’re going to stop this.”
President Obama is walking a fine line before leaving office, between an imperative to staunch the threat that climate change poses to US and global interests, and the need to respect the results of last week’s US election.
In a speech that pulled few punches, Kerry made a detailed and often emotional plea to the incoming US president to listen to faith leaders, military chiefs, businessmen, activists and – above all – climate scientists, before abandoning future generations to the ravages of climate change.
“I ask you on behalf of billions of people around the world,” he said. “Do your own due diligence before making irrevocable choices.
“No-one has the right to make decisions that affect billions of people based solely on ideology or without proper input.”
Minutes before he spoke, the US released the first long-term climate strategy under the Paris agreement, offering a blueprint for reducing national emissions by 80% by 2050, measured against 2005 levels.
That presentation, like Kerry’s words, was given added urgency by the UN forecasting that 2016 will very likely be the hottest year on record, setting a new high for the third year running.
Kerry said: “This year will contribute to the hottest decade in human history, which was preceded by the second hottest decade, which was preceded by the third hottest decade. At some point even the strongest climate sceptic has to acknowledge that something is happening.”
In a meeting across from the room that Kerry spoke in, business leaders added their weight to the calls for the Paris agreement to be protected.
Kevin Rabinovitch, the global sustainability director for Mars Inc, said: “We are a food business. We have supply chains all over the world and at the base of every business is a farm, which is exposed to the climate. Since climate change affects the raw materials we buy, we are affected by it and if we don’t prevent the consequences that have been predicted, they will have a real impact for our business.”
Kerry held out some hope of continued progress to slow climate change, outlining the unparalleled growth of the US renewable energy industry since Obama’s 2008 poll victory, citing a tripling of wind power since 2008, and a 30-fold increase in solar capacity.
But he stressed that with new coal plants coming online in Asia and other parts of the world, the impressive gains made by renewables – starting from a low baseline – would not be enough to prevent a climatic disaster.
“The question now is not whether we will transition to a clean energy economy. That, we are already beginning to do,” Kerry told the packed hall. “But whether we will have the will to get this job done – whether we will make the transition in time… to prevent catastrophic damage.”
“I’m not a Cassandra, but I am a realist,” he added. “Time is not on our side.”
Coal is still responsible for 30% of the world’s energy production, and 50% of its emissions, while renewables still only provide just over a tenth of the world’s power, Kerry noted.
His address was peppered with implicit and explicit references to the climate sceptic Trump. He said that government leadership was “absolutely essential” to the clean power transformation, and hinted that Trump’s promise to withdraw from the Paris climate pact might be tempered with the realities of office.
“I have learned that some issues look a bit different when you are in office, compared to when you’re on the campaign trail,” he said. “The truth is that climate change should not be a partisan issue in the first place.”
With a flourish, Kerry finished his address with a reference to his decision to carry his two-year-old granddaughter on to the stage to sign the Paris agreement. “Let us make clear to the world we will always remember the stakes. Let us stay clear to the goals made in Paris and redouble our efforts to meet them,” he said.
Delegates jumped to their feet for a spontaneous two minute standing ovation, in a collective release of emotion by delegates who remain uncertain and fearful at the prospect of a Trump presidency.
In London, the world’s leading energy watchdog warned that promises by Trump to revive the fortunes of the US coal industry may be doomed to failure.
The International Energy Agency, in its annual World Energy Outlook, found that coal was “at an inflexion point” with a marked decline in consumption in the biggest market, China.
Fatih Birol, executive director of the IEA, told the Guardian in an interview: “Coal is losing ground because it is losing competitiveness. In the US gas is cheaper than coal.”
It would take major policy shifts to change these economics, he said. “Gas will be a very economic option [for decades] unless there are new government policies and new fiscal measures to change the balance.”
Birol issued a veiled warning to Trump that policy should be based on the realities of the energy sector: “We give the same advice to all leaders across the world: making decisions about the energy sector needs good information and an overview of developments, including technological improvements. Any decision making, in my view, needs to look at the latest data across the sector very carefully.”
He added: “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.”