By Mark Urban, Biologist, Associate Professor in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

“Maybe it won’t be so bad,” a taxi driver said as he weaved through the tangle of motorbikes,pedestrians, donkey carts, and buses clogging the streets of Marrakech, Morocco. I flinched when he slammed on the brakes or accelerated through precarious gaps in the traffic. He was talking about U.S. President-elect Trump. He was trying to make me feel better even though the world was a very different place than it was just one year ago.

Last December, the world met in Paris for the 21st meeting of climate delegates to the United Nations, or COP21 for short. The world agreed to try to limit global warming to 1.5 °C above preindustrial temperatures. The Paris Climate Agreement exceeded expectations. The world and the UConn delegation celebrated in the streets of Paris. Some of our faculty and staff cried tears of joy when they heard the news.

Last year’s COP21 was one of shining optimism. This year’s COP22 in Marrakech was one of gritty determination. If the Paris COP was a flute of French champagne, the Marrakech COP was a can of warm Casablanca beer.

Already the promises of just a year ago are fading. The world hasn’t figured out how to implement the lofty goals of the Paris accords. Whereas President Obama helped lead the fight against climate change, his successor threatens to withdraw.

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Jemaa el-Fnaa outdoor market

Against this backdrop, our second UConn delegation of undergraduates, faculty, and staff flew to the highlands of central Morocco. Marrakech, an ancient center for African trade, religion, and culture, provides the nexus for protecting all those things from a changing climate. Just beyond the ancient Jemaa el-Fnaa outdoor bazaar and outside the high pink walls of the Kasbah, the massive white tents of COP22 rose from a flat field. Out front, flagpoles of the world skewered the big African sky.

Like in Paris, we watched panel discussions about everything from the economy of climate adaptation to the sustainable development of Africa. We visited the government and corporate solutions tent, where new electric cars and photovoltaic cells shimmered under LED lights. We visited the stands of non-profit groups, cities, countries, and regions from around the world to hear about their climate solutions. The Nordic countries’ booth was expansive, white and clean. The African section was bright and welcoming. The Dutch offered a full bar, proudly extolling the ‘Dutch Approach.’ But I never found the US booth.

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John Kerry on the small screen

The US did take the center stage at the conference when US Secretary of State John Kerry delivered an impassioned argument for continuing to address climate change. Not managing to talk our way into the tight security of the UN blue zone, a group of us watched Kerry’s address to the assembled diplomats on an Iphone propped against a water bottle in an expat hotel. He was not speaking to the world, but to his country. Quoting Winston Churchill, Kerry said “It is not enough that we do our best; sometimes we must do what is required.”

The white, blubbering specter of a Trump presidency sapped strength from world efforts. Yet, I returned more optimistic than when I arrived. The world ratified the Paris Agreement more quickly than ever thought. Cities around the world are advancing toward carbon neutrality. Businesses are developing clean technologies because they recognize that efficiency is good business. The world reconfirmed its commitment to addressing climate change. A large banner on the last day proclaimed “We Will Move Ahead!”

Maybe the taxi driver was correct. Maybe it won’t be so bad. The world is united against the climate threat, even if our government is not. The world will lead, even if the US will not.