Despite strong signals about other priorities from the incoming presidential administration, there is still hope for action on climate change. That was part of the message from U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change Jonathan Pershing during a recent discussion at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. In a wide-ranging discussion with the audience, Pershing explained why he sees potential for progress under Donald Trump, how China might seize leadership on the issue and what the Republican Party has done to advance the U.S. role on combating global warming.

Reflecting on the previous month’s global climate talks in Morocco, Pershing emphasized momentum for progress. At the talks, numerous heads of state and government ministers signed a document recommitting to the goals of the historic Paris Agreement, which officially put into force unprecedented requirements for reducing emissions that fuel climate change. That global focus, combined with steadily dropping costs of renewable energy, could provide a bulwark against reduced funding and support for action in the U.S., Pershing said. “There’s real movement, real optimism, but also real constraints.”

Although roundly criticized by some environmental groups, Trump’s pick for Secretary of State – ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson – could be an advocate for climate change issues, Pershing said. As evidence, Pershing pointed to Tillerson’s stated acceptance of the science about climate change, his support of a carbon tax and his company’s estimation of oil’s social cost – an amount about double the federal estimate.

“You wouldn’t normally think the CEO of Exxon is your strongest voice, but he just might be,” Pershing said.

Another “bright spot” under a Trump administration, according to Pershing: increased emphasis on non-federal actors such as states. Mayors and other local leaders can have significant impacts guiding their communities through climate change adaptation and mitigation, Pershing said. In low-lying coastal cities such as Miami, more frequent flooding caused by climate change could spur meaningful action, for example. “This is a huge window you could drive a truck through.”

Funding for climate change-related research and development was higher under George W. Bush than it was under Barack Obama, Pershing pointed out. Under George H.W. Bush, Secretary of State James Baker chaired a high-level meeting on climate change and championed market mechanisms as tools for overcoming the challenge. Ronald Reagan signed an international agreement to phase out ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons (which also drive warming).

That historical perspective may mean little now, however, Pershing indicated. In filling his Cabinet with climate policy critics, Trump has set himself far apart from past Republican presidents. “We’re now looking at a different model where the President-Elect says (climate change) is a hoax created by China,” Pershing said. “That is a qualitative difference.”

Pershing sounded a particularly disappointed note over revelations that Trump’s transition team for the Department of Energy asked for a list of employees who had attended climate meetings and worked on efforts to reduce U.S. carbon emissions. “I am appalled to think this is the model of engagement with our technical teams.”

So, what if Trump defunds U.S. climate change data initiatives, withdraws from the Paris Agreement or kills Obama’s Clean Power Plan? If the U.S. surrenders its role in global action to slow climate change, the ill effects could include a diminishment in publicly available data on the issue and the undermining of investor confidence in renewable energy and other technologies necessary for mitigating and adapting to climate change, Pershing said. It could also inspire China, which has committed to converting 20 percent of its national energy to renewable sources, to assume a more prominent geopolitical role. For example, China could begin funding climate change-related projects in various countries through the China-led Asian Infrastructure Bank, a kind of alternative to the World Bank. “I think China sees an opening for itself in this new market,” Pershing said.

Meanwhile, climate change science is increasingly clear that perils are real and present, Pershing noted. “Three feet of sea level rise may be a very conservative estimate now.”

Rather than look on passively, concerned citizens in technology, academia and other fields should prioritize climate change and work toward solutions, including training the next generation of leaders, Pershing said. “Four or eight years from now, what are we setting in motion?”