Op-ed written for The Weekend Express broadsheet newspaper in Sri Lanka, 18 November 2016
What does Donald Trump’s election as the next President of the United States mean for action to contain climate change?
The billionaire non-politician — who lost the popular vote by more than a million votes but won the presidency on the basis of the electoral college — has long questioned the science underlying climate change.
He also sees political and other motives in climate action. For example, he tweeted on 6 November 2012: “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”
His vice president, Indiana governor Mike Pence, also does not believe that climate change is caused by human activity.
Does this spell doom for the world’s governments trying to avoid the worst case scenarios in global warming, now widely accepted by scientists as driven by human activity – especially the burning of petroleum and coal?
It is just too early to tell, but the early signs are not promising.
“Trump should drop his pantomime-villain act on climate change. If he does not, then, come January, he will be the only world leader who fails to acknowledge the threat for what it is: urgent, serious and demanding of mature and reasoned debate and action,” said the scientific journal Nature in an editorial on 16 November 2016.
It added: “The world has made its decision on climate change. Action is too slow and too weak, but momentum is building. Opportunities and fortunes are being made. Trump the businessman must realize that the logical response is not to cry hoax and turn his back. The politician in Trump should do what he promised: reject political orthodoxy and listen to the US people.”
It was only on 4 November 2016 that the Paris climate agreement came into force. This is the first time that nearly 200 governments have agreed on legally binding limits to emissions that cause global warming.
All governments that have ratified the accord — which includes the US, China, India and the EU — carry an obligation to contain global warming to no more than 2 degrees Centigrade above pre-industrial levels. Scientists regard that as the safe limit, beyond which climate change is likely to be both catastrophic and irreversible.
It has been a long and bumpy road to reach this point since the UN framework convention on climate change (UNFCCC) was adopted in 1992. UNFCCC provides the umbrella under which the Paris Agreement works.
High level officials and politicians from 197 countries that have ratified the UNFCCC are meeting in Marrakesh, Morocco, this month to iron out the operational details of the Paris Agreement.
Speaking at the Marrakesh meeting this week, China’s vice foreign minister, Liu Zhenmin, pointed out that it was in fact Trump’s Republican predecessors who launched climate negotiations almost three decades ago.
It was only three months ago that the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitters – China and the US — agreed to ratify the Paris agreement during a meeting between the Chinese and US presidents.
Chandra Bhushan, Deputy Director General of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), an independent advocacy group in Delhi, has just shared his thoughts on the Trump impact on climate action.
“Will a Trump presidency revoke the ratification of the Paris Agreement? Even if he is not able to revoke it because of international pressure…he will dumb down the US action on climate change. Which means that international collaboration being built around the Paris Agreement will suffer,” he said in a video published on YouTube (see: https://goo.gl/r6KGip)
“If the US is not going to take ambitious actions on climate change, I don’t think India or Chine will take ambitious actions either. We are therefore looking at a presidency which is going to push climate action around the world down the barrel,” he added.
During his campaign, Trump advocated “energy independence” for the United States (which meant reducing or eliminating the reliance on Middle Eastern oil). But he has been critical of subsidies for solar and wind power, and threatened to end regulations that sought to end the expansion of petroleum and coal use. In other words, he would likely encourage dig more and more domestically for oil.
“Trump doesn’t believe that renewable energy is an important part of the energy future for the world,” says Chandra Bhushan. “He believes that climate change is a conspiracy against the United States…So we are going to deal with a US presidency which is extremely anti-climate.”
Bhushan says Trump can revoke far more easily domestic laws like the Clean Power Plan that President Obama initiated in 2015. It set a national limit on carbon pollution produced from power plants.
“Therefore, whatever (positive) action that we thought was going to happen in the US are in jeopardy. We just have to watch and ensure that, even when an anti-climate administration takes over, we do not allow things to slide down (at global level action),” Bhushan says.
Some science advocates caution against a rush to judgement about how the Trump administration will approach science in general, and climate action in particular.
Nature’s editorial noted: “There is a huge difference between campaigning and governing…It is impossible to know what direction the United States will take under Trump’s stewardship, not least because his campaign was inconsistent, contradictory and so full of falsehood and evasion.”
We can only hope that Trump’s business pragmatism would prevail over climate action. As the Anglo-French environmental activist Edward Goldsmith said years ago, there can be no trade on a dead planet.