The highest stakes of the presidential election: what a President Trump means for climate change

By Alexander Pfeiffer and Elizabeth Dirth

When I went to bed yesterday I had the strange feeling that this would happen. The same strange feeling I had the night before the Brexit but back then I dismissed this feeling as irrational. I watched the beginning of the election together with many COP22 participants from around the world in Marrakech’s Royal Mirage Deluxe Hotel. It was a strange atmosphere. Everyone was engaged in small talk but at the same time the tension was palpable. By the time I went to bed at around 1:30 AM Clinton had a small lead in Florida, one of the key swing-states but it felt strangely familiar to when I went to bed the night before Brexit and the ‘Bremainers’ had a 52:48 lead in the polls. Still — I didn’t want to believe that the unthinkable would actually happen until I woke up. But why is it unthinkable?

Why are the stakes so high?

I am currently attending the COP (‘Conference Of the Parties’), the world’s most important climate conference in Marrakech, a conference at which the international community tries to stop climate change before it reaches ‘critical’ levels. Should these be reached our world would turn into a very different place, a place that would make it much harder for all of us to live in peace and prosperity. Societies as we know them would fundamentally change and the damage of such a development to our well-being and development would be immense.

Why is Trump relevant to this?

Throughout his campaign Trump has consistently made clear that not only does he not prioritise the fight against climate change, but he doesn’t even believe it exists. He stated that “the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” Furthermore he mocked the fight against climate change and people who are engaged in it by saying for example: “It’s late in July and it is really cold outside in New York. Where the hell is GLOBAL WARMING??? We need some fast! It’s now CLIMATE CHANGE”.

While many years ago there was indeed a public (and scientific) debate going on whether climate change exists and, if so, to which extent it is anthropogenic, i.e. man-made, there is no doubt about these questions anymore today. With over 97% of scientists agreeing that climate change and global warming exists and that it can already be observed, and that human emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) are the main cause of it, there is now such a broad scientific consensus that it has become a norm of global diplomacy and governance. This is such a norm that not even countries that depend on fossil fuels dispute this scientific consensus anymore. But asked about his views on this debate, Trump said: “There is still much that needs to be investigated in the field of climate change. We must decide on how best to proceed so that we can make lives better, safer and more prosperous.”

To be successful in the fight against climate change, the US is crucial. Accounting for around 17% of global CO2 emissions, action taken by the US alone has a huge impact. But the role of the US in climate change mitigation is not just about their own emissions, it is about the role that they play as a global leader. President Obama, throughout his presidency, pushed for a reduction of GHG emissions, supported renewable energy development, and negotiated important bilateral deals (e.g. with China and India) that were crucial to the success of international efforts to stop climate change. In a world in which multilateral agreements are becoming harder and harder to negotiate bilateral agreements between large and important parties are indispensable. Moreover within the negotiations that led to the Paris Agreement, without participation of the US, an agreement would not have been possible.

Trump has made it perfectly clear where his priorities would (not) be. About Obama’s efforts he tweeted for example: “As ISIS and Ebola spread like wildfire, the Obama administration just submitted a paper on how to stop climate change (aka global warming).” The increase of wind power he criticized by saying “windmills are the greatest threat in the US to both bald and golden eagles. Media claims fictional ‘global warming’ is worse.”


So why can’t we just wait four years and hope for another President?

To get an idea how hard it would be, even without a President Trump, to stay within 1.5 to 2 degree Celsius warming let’s have a look at where we are at the moment. We are rapidly approaching 1 degree Celsius warming with many months of consecutive all-time high-temperature records (global warming). The first six months of 2016 were the planet’s warmest half-year on record, with an average temperature 1.3 degrees Celsius (2.4 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than the late nineteenth century. Even if we stopped emitting GHGs today, global warming would continue for another couple of years, probably reaching at least 1.4 to 1.5 degree Celsius. However, currently annual global emissions of GHGs are not decreasing, but instead still increasing. Even if we could reverse the trend it would take years, if not decades, to stop emissions completely. CO2 emissions stay in the atmosphere for centuries so once emitted there is no turning back.

As of today the emissions from existing infrastructure, such as power stations, planes, ships, cars, and industrial installations, alone would be enough to consume the entire budget we have left for a likely chance to stay below 2 degree Celsius warming (The 2-degree capital stock). But we are even continuing to build this infrastructure. Every day cars are being sold, industrial installations and power plants built, and planes taken into operation, which will continue to emit CO2 for many years to come, making achieving emissions reduction more difficult and more expensive, and hence less likely to happen. We simply do not have another four years to fix these problems.

What can Trump actually do?

A Trump presidency is not the only result of yesterday’s election. Republicans also won the Senate and the House, now controlling the Congress and holding far-reaching powers to pass and sign bills, and change laws. From an environmental point of view the plans Trump communicated during his election campaign are a disaster and look like they could reverse the important progress that has been made in the past 8 years.

Trump has suggested that he wants to get rid of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) saying that “what they do is a disgrace”. While I am writing these lines news comes through that he is likely to pick Myron Ebell, a top climate sceptic, to lead the EPA transition.

With Congress on his side he could scrap regulations on mercury pollution, smog, coal ash, and more, as well as repeal all federal spending on clean energy (including R&D for wind, solar, and and electric vehicles). He also has announced that he would remove all major regulation that President Obama put in place to reduce CO2 emissions in the US (e.g. the Clean Power Plan). Finally and most importantly, particularly for the participants of the international climate negotiations in Marrakech, he has repeatedly said that he wants to pull the US out of the Paris Agreement. Technically, the US cannot officially withdraw from the agreement for 4 years after it has been ratified (which happened last Friday), but for all practical purposes, the Trump administration could very well just ignore it for the next 4 years. This could also affect the willingness of other countries (Brazil, China, India, Russia etc.) to ratify and comply as they see the world’s second biggest emitter disengage and jeopardize the whole agreement. A strong compliance mechanism developed in Marrakech could help this, but this was unlikely to happen even before today’s news.

A spark of hope?

While Trump’s election seems catastrophic for everyone fighting against climate change there are some recent developments that make the progress achieved over the last few years a bit more resilient to this shock.

Some states in the US, like e.g. California and New York, are following their own ambitious climate plans. Other states could pursue successful mitigation policies on state level, even without federal support. It doesn’t matter on what level the emissions reductions are happening as long as they do. Many states, including some large emitters like California, already suffer from the effects of a changing climate. Should the US stop its efforts to mitigate further climate change it might trigger an intensification of efforts in these specific regions.

There is also a general momentum towards increasing the priorities of sustainability and climate change. Recent price declines in renewables, the integration of these issues into education, and the slow realization of individual Republicans of the urgency of the issue may mean that its historically partisan nature may be slowly diminishing. Over the last decades we have seen many critics convinced by the the reality that is climate change as the effects of a warming climate can already be observed today, particularly the indirect effects on global conflict, migration patterns, and local unrest. A recent Gallup survey from March 2016 shows that 64% of Americans are worried ‘a great deal’ about global warming. This is the highest value since 2008 when Obama took office.

Related to this is the reality that businesses have not only become conscious of climate change, but it has also become a mainstream priority for the private sector. In a country where the prosperity of businesses is a high priority and where they can exercise substantial influence over politics, it may be that ‘businessman’ Trump is actually significantly swayed by this private sector momentum. There are more incentives for economies to decarbonize than only climate change, and this is understood by both the business community and the international community. Local pollution in places like India and China from burning fossil fuels is strangling economic development and the prospects of cheap and unlimited energy without being dependent on fossil fuel imports from politically unstable regions still constitutes a major incentive to invest in renewable technologies.

Finally, in Marrakech, Paris, at COP23, or elsewhere — climate change is not just about climate change: it is also about global diplomacy and multilateralism. There is such global momentum towards action on climate change that a U-turn from the US is widely seen as a risk for their foreign policy. Trump was heavily criticized for his inability to work with other world leaders, and revoking ratification of the Paris Agreement would likely be perceived as the US isolating themselves from the international community, a move which all but the most extreme elements of the Republican Party would strongly disagree with.

So what does this all mean?

Many things could happen after this election but it is clear that climate change will continue to be a defining issue for generations, long after a Trump presidency. While there are beacons of hope for the international climate change community, the outcome of yesterday’s election also means that the landscape of climate change has undeniably shifted.

The dialogue the climate change community needs to have with the public — the business community, local governments, senators, and governors in the US, national governments across the world, climate activists, and academics — and the dialogue we need to have with the voter is no longer the same. Our narrative, methods, techniques, and allies need to evolve in a post-factual world in which elections are being decided by the despair of the voter and not by actual evidence. The quest is no longer about just about climate change as a scientific phenomenon with economic consequences: we must understand it in the context of the fear, hopelessness, isolation, and disillusionment that led to the Trump success to begin with.

Climate action fundamentally is not about fighting against coal, the automotive industry, expensive infrastructure projects, or the oil and gas industry, it is about the present and future well-being of the 7+ billion and the generations to come. It is now up to all of us to drive this narrative.

Alex is the head of Young European Leadership’s delegation to the COP and a doctorate student at the Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET) at the Oxford Martin School

Elizabeth is a delegate in Young European Leadership’s delegation to the COP and the current chair of the 2050 Climate Group

Follow the YEL delegation at COP22 with their daily video blog. Catch all the team’s highlights and analysis here.

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