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BONN, Germany — A second Donald Trump presidency would be a killer blow for efforts to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees, said the outgoing U.N. climate chief.
Speaking to POLITICO on the sidelines of U.N. climate talks in Bonn, Patricia Espinosa was asked whether she believed a Trump return to the White House — or another Republican with similar climate policies — would end any hope of hitting the Paris Agreement’s lower climate change target.
Espinosa answered: “Yeah. Well, yes.” Scientists say that beyond the 1.5-degree limit, the impacts of climate change become increasingly severe.
She outlined the cost of the first Trump term, when the former U.S. President walked out of the global climate pact and ended most forms of climate finance: “That leadership was not there anymore,” she said. Without the drive of the world’s second-largest polluter and biggest economy, “We didn’t manage to get the same level of traction in the process.”
“I think it’s something that we cannot allow ourselves anymore. Given the urgency of the situation,” she said.
And yet, there is little indication that Trump, or his Republican party, are ready to give up their backing for fossil fuels.
“There are very important economic interests and probably also some social resistances” that run counter to climate efforts in the U.S., Espinosa said. But she hopes that an “objective and specific analysis” of U.S. interests, rather than one based on “ideology,” would lead to the conclusion that acting on climate change would bring benefits and presented an economic opportunity.
In a few weeks, Espinosa will leave her job as executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) after six tumultuous years.
She took over just after the Paris Agreement was finalized in 2015, and oversaw numerous shocks: Trump’s election and the U.S. withdrawal from the deal, an uprising in Chile that forced the COP25 conference to be rapidly relocated to Madrid, COVID and now the invasion of Ukraine. All the while, climate scientists have given increasingly gloomy predictions about the human and economic consequences of a warming planet, while greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise.
The shocks were not only political, but personal.
Espinosa was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2019, now in remission. The diagnosis was “completely unexpected,” she said and immediately she had a question for herself: “What is your ability to continue being the person you are?”
“I was clear. I don’t want to be defined by this illness. I’m not the person who has cancer,” she said. “I am Patricia Espinosa, and I do this, and I have this responsibility. And also, I have to deal with this illness.”
That drove her to continue working through her treatment, which included chemotherapy, refusing colleagues’ suggestions that she take time off. She was “lucky,” she said. She discovered that compared to the “cancer friends” she made at the treatment center “I could take so much. Much more than many of them.”
Looking for a successor
The future for Espinosa begins on July 15, but there’s less certainty for the next phase of the UNFCCC. Applications to succeed her close on June 24, giving the U.N. little time to vet a successor.
An interregnum looms unless a favored candidate has already been selected as part of a secret search being lead by U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed, which has been underway for months.
Last week, the U.K. minister who ran the COP26 conference, Alok Sharma, appeared to be chasing the job as a story in the Guardian was quickly followed by a cosy tweet to Espinosa (yes, she retweeted it).
Others have mentioned former Costa Rican Energy and Environment Minister Andrea Meza, who told POLITICO she had heard “with pride and interest” she had been suggested, but “on my side and to this date no formal steps have been taken to submit my candidature.”
If he’s planning to run, Sharma will need to overcome two broad assumptions being made about the U.N.’s preferences for new climate chief: that the job needs to go to a woman from the developing world — likely Africa.
Yvo de Boer, who was UNFCCC boss from 2006 until 2010, said the next person must be “someone who recognizes that the bulk of future economic and population growth will come from the South and that the true challenge is to prevent emissions by offering a more sustainable growth path, not just reducing in the North.”
Beyond those characteristics, most observers say the next person to have the job should be quite different to Espinosa. That’s because the fight against climate change is shifting from intricately negotiated global deals to action.
To respond, the U.N. climate body will need to transform itself from a facilitator of negotiations to a kind of supreme climate overseer; tracking what countries and companies are doing — and reminding them where they fall short of their commitments.
“It’s more than a watchdog, it’s supreme court, appeals court, crown prosecution service, ombudsman all in one,” said Rachel Kyte, dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University and a former U.N. official.
Espinosa agrees, although she said the U.N. would “probably not [have] the powers” of those institutions to compel action.
Governments can only make so much difference with regulation and public money. The real action is in moving trillions in the financial sector, greening multilateral development funding and changing corporate policy. “I think my successor should be … making things evolve within the secretariat,” said Espinosa, and working “with other actors and entities, beyond the secretariat, and beyond the parties and the intergovernmental process.”
That means a candidate with experience outside the world of climate diplomacy. “This might be the time to look beyond the ranks of environment ministers and negotiators to bring in the global change agent needed for this job,” said Kyte.
They will also need to be resilient.
“My advice [to my successor] will be that he or she should never get discouraged and should never give up. That this is really a process that is worth every effort,” said Espinosa.
They will also need to be able to spin limited success from perennial failure. The U.N. climate convention has just turned 30. Despite some progress the prospects of it completing its mission to rein in global warming are still as distant as a moonshot.
“We haven’t solved the climate crisis, unfortunately,” Espinosa said. “But I think the process has delivered everything it had to deliver, in spite of very difficult circumstances.”
This article is part of the Climate, Changed series.
This article is part of POLITICO Pro
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