Herd of elephants in the room at COP22 in Marrakech

Herd of elephants in the room at COP22 in Marrakech

Elephant at Kruger National Park, South Africa
ShutterstockStacy Funderburke
An elephant at Kruger National Park, South Africa.

A flood of analysis, mostly morbid, has flooded the sustainability cyberspace following the elections in the United States. No doubt that challenging times may be ahead.

But is Donald Trump’s presidency really what’s holding the global community back from addressing our climate challenges? I suspect there are other elephants in the room that we’re ignoring. These elephants have been here well before the current populist wave in global politics and may be at the core of people’s concerns around immigration, wage gaps, health and security, no matter who they choose to vote for.

First, we should put things in perspective: Revolutions in the energy, land transportation and Internet of Things are out of the gate — they will not be stopped. Some policies may slow them in certain markets, but they will not be stopped. If a Trump administration attempts to bring back coal with disincentives for renewable energy, other markets globally will pick up the excess capacity and gain a competitive edge over the United States.

Other clean technologies also are growing rapidly: electric and autonomous vehicles, green building, LED lighting and many "smart" IoT applications. This — for a simple reason: It’s not in the hands of governments anymore. There are sufficient public support and private funding (PDF) to fuel these transitions wherever these technologies are cost effective, requiring little or no government intervention. 

Nevertheless, other elephants remained present (and largely unnoticed by government delegations) at the 22nd Session of the Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC (that is, COP22) last week in Marrakech, Morocco. Although the historic Paris Climate Change Agreement formally entered into force before the meetings, many portions of the global carbon emissions pie remain unaddressed or lacking sufficient reduction plans, even after Marrakech.

For example, we are unlikely to see serious reductions in sectors such as aviation, where emissions are expected to grow 100 to 200 percent between 2000 and 2050, or shipping where emissions are expected to grow 50 to 250 percent between 2012 and 2050. Agricultural emissions, and those from animal farming in particular, are also trending higher (see for example a recently released study from Xinjiang, China). We also have no real measures in place to curb a surge in carbon emissions that may result from material consumption, if and when significant growth returns to the global economy.

However, the leader of the pack, the biggest elephant of all at COP22, was what’s led to this latest populist surge: our vulnerability to a vicious relation between climate change and poor government. Together, they lead to enormous pain and suffering in the form of mass migrations from multiple points of failure throughout the Middle East, North and East Africa and Central America.

These are being caused by failure of crops and fisheries, food insecurity and severe land use change, bringing with them violence and terror, job loss and bigotry as people are uprooted and forced to seek better futures.  

Can we create a more resilient global community? Can governments come together to secure failed states? Or will we be seeing a chain effect with the likes of Venezuela, Jordan or Tunisia following the weaker links that already have failed completely: Syria, Haiti and Somalia? Can we create a "sustainability rapid response team" with sufficient international support to stabilize states with failing crops, politics and monetary systems?

We have the technology, science and logistical capabilities for this team to succeed. Now that we’ve seen how a chain reaction beginning with crop failures in Syria can affect economies and demographics in Turkey, Jordan and Europe, we also have the incentive to act.

But will we choose to collectively meet our challenges at the source or will each nation fend for itself? That’s the question posed to us by the biggest elephant in the room at COP22. That is also our only alternative to the separatist vision offered by populist politicians.