An Accidental Ambassador

11/21/2016 05:00 pm ET
Gillian Bowser

I came to Morocco ten days ago for the U.N. climate meetings, to play a role in linking scientific researchers to each other and to policymakers, and to obtain updates on issues related to mitigation of and adaptation to climate change. Besides making sure that my absentee ballot was sent in on time since I would be away on Election Day, I had not put much thought into the impact that the timing of the election would have on the climate change negotiations or my being in a predominantly Muslim country.

This COP is focused on implementation – for Parties to hammer out details of putting the Paris Agreement into action, to work on areas where agreement had not yet been reached last year at COP21, and to try to get countries to be more ambitious in their pledges (and preferably verifiable action) to lower greenhouse gas emissions. Everyone coming to Marrakech knew that finance issues still required difficult negotiation work, be it for financing technology for a low carbon future, for helping developing nations to adapt to the current and future impacts of a changing climate, or for perhaps the most contentious issue of all, compensation under the provisions of the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage associated with Climate Change Impacts.

The conference started off normally. Then, a different sort of 9/11 occurred. The world awoke on the 9th of November, day 3 of COP22, to the shocking news that Donald Trump had been elected president of the United States. The very candidate who has tweeted about climate change being a hoax, who has vowed to pull the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement and to defund U.N. initiatives, and yes, the one who has made all sorts of negative rhetoric about Muslims.

It is still uncertain whether all of this was simply hollow campaign speech making to gain support from certain constituencies. But when I see high school classmates, people I have known all my life, posting statements like “No more Muslims or Mexicans in the country, time to celebrate,” I know we have much to worry about.

I would love to be a fly on the wall in the meetings of the U.S. delegation to get a better sense of their fears (beyond their job security in the State Department or at NOAA or NASA). Are their hands now tied as far as negotiations? As a civil society observer, I do not have the ability to influence policy at that level, but instead am limited to discuss with like-minded friends back home ways that we can organize, rally, and try to create climate friendly policy and practices at the local level. I have been surprised at how many emails and Facebook messages I have received from former students and community members -- all expressing their fears for the future and looking to me for a glimmer of hope. I am not sure how to provide what they are looking for, but I have come to realize that there is some intangible importance to my being in this place at this moment.

By being here, I have somehow fallen into a role of diplomacy making, an odd thing for a scientist, who grew up being rather a-political, and certainly knowing little about Arabic culture. The people of Morocco are incredibly welcoming, but it seems as if everywhere I go, the locals – waiters, shopkeepers, ticket sellers at the train station – have a need to mention the election and ask about our new president. After they ask if I voted for him (I did not), they relax a bit and begin to talk more. As typical, at dinner one night last week, the waiter asked where we are from, and then made some comment about the election results. But then he asked why American's don't like Muslims. My heart dropped. I told him that wasn't the case for all of the people in my country.

None of us know what the future holds, so we speculate and try to find some hopeful signs between the sound bites that pass for news these days. As we share some mint tea and kind words of empathy, we come to realize how much we have in common besides our fear – our mutual desire for three main things: peace, a good future for our children, and a planet that remains habitable. This then, becomes my mission – to find what binds us together, rather than differentiates and divides us. For it is these common goals that will give us the strength and guidance to solve much more than the global climate challenge.

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