By Sue Landau
Just when the world had taken a huge step forward in the life-or-death fight against global warming, a man who has denied climate change was elected U.S. president.
Donald Trump’s victory cast a pall over the recent United Nations Climate Conference, known as COP22, in Marrakesh, Morocco.
The U.S. election coincided with the conference, and climate diplomats were forced to put a good face on their task — to flesh out the landmark accord reached in Paris a year earlier that set the guide posts for reining in global warming.
It is still unclear what impact Trump’s presidency might have on embryonic efforts to re-orient the world economy away from global warming. But he seems bent on doing everything he can to counter those efforts.
Here is what we know:
- Contrary to President-elect Trump’s now infamous tweet that climate change is a Chinese hoax, we know that more than 90 percent of climate scientists, in studies and measurements ranging over continents and decades, have concluded that human activity is causing a rise in average temperatures across the globe. This will threaten human survival as soon as the next century. Unfortunately, this widely accepted conclusion now needs restating.
- Trump made inaccurate and erratic statements on climate during his election campaign and since being elected. It is difficult to know what he really thinks, but we do know now that climate deniers will play a prominent role in the Trump administration.
- Chief among them is Myron Ebell, a public policy expert not a scientist who is overseeing the transition at the U.S. Environment Protection Agency. Ebell’s think tank, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, has been funded by oil giant Exxon Mobil and interests linked to the Koch brothers, who are U.S. coal tycoons.
- In a policy video released 10 days after the election, Trump said he would “cancel job-killing restrictions on the production of American energy, including shale energy and clean coal.”
- Trump has not repeated his campaign pledge to “cancel” the Paris Agreement, which commits countries to cuts in carbon dioxide emissions by 2050. But a lawyer on his transition team told The Guardian that the United States could exit the UNFCCC, the body behind international climate action, to pull free of the accord.
- Trump has now appointed Scott Pruitt, another climate sceptic, to head the EPA during his presidency, just after a meeting with climate change advocates Al Gore and Leonardo DiCaprio that gave the impression he was softening his line.
It’s clear that U.S. plans to reduce carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050, announced at COP22, will be put on the back burner. As president, Trump could pull the plug on President Barack Obama’s Clean Air Act. So the outlook for cutting U.S. carbon dioxide emissions during Trump’s presidency is grim.
But there are other factors in play. Shale gas is cheaper than coal and also less polluting. Low oil prices militate against costly drilling for less accessible oil. And the United States gets 20 percent of its electricity from nuclear power, a low-carbon source that Trump is unlikely to undermine. (See U.S. electricity generation by source)
Trump could also set back the climate combat at the financial level. Rich nations have committed to funding The Green Climate Fund, which aims to raise $100 billion a year by 2020 to help developing countries pay for adaptation and sustainable development. Trump could refuse to contribute.
Climate finance is already a major source of friction between industrial countries — mostly in the West — that historically caused most carbon pollution, and poorer countries and island nations that are already damaged by climate change. Very little new money was pledged at COP22.
Any such move from Trump could deepen this divide. Yet in an absolute sense, finance should not be a problem. Billions of dollars are needed, but there are trillions to be harnessed in private investment funds.
Trump versus China
If Trump pulls the United States out of the Paris Agreement, China and other developing nations would step into the breach. Chinese diplomats at COP22 talked of assuming moral leadership of the international process. Theoretically this would be at odds with Trump’s desire to check a rising China.
China is already poised to take center stage on climate in 2017 with its launch of a carbon cap-and-trade market. The market aims to motivate industries to curb pollution and is expected to become the world’s largest emissions trading scheme.
If China de-carbonizes while the United States drills and burns, could America become the world’s biggest carbon dioxide emitter? As climate change spreads droughts, floods, disasters and food shortages, that could be geopolitical dynamite.
It is hard to evaluate all of this. But Trump’s early reactions seem to suggest an aggressive approach towards China, notably in his breach of protocol in speaking to Taiwan’s leader, plus a volley of tweets. Is climate but a political football for the incoming U.S. president?
Market economics versus corporate interests
Trump’s plans to boost coal jobs are unlikely to bear much fruit because they are not good economics, according to The Economist. Environmental rules did not pull the rug out from under America’s coal industry, competition did – from cheaper fuels like shale gas and oil, and also from renewables, which are becoming competitive without subsidies. What is more, energy investments run over decades, not a four-year presidency.
As demand for renewable energy technologies rises elsewhere, particularly in the developing world, U.S. companies can hardly afford to miss out on such a market. Case in point: in Marrakesh, a coalition of 47 developing countries vowed to lead the transition to clean energy and become 100 percent powered by renewables.
Still, Trump may be guided by the corporate interests of his backers and his team, who have links to industry-funded “think tanks, bloggers and fake citizens’ groups,” George Montbiot wrote in The Guardian newspaper. “I could fill this newspaper with the names of Trump staffers who have emerged from such groups.”
In a post-election interview with the New York Times, Trump framed the climate issue as a cost drain on firms. “It also depends on how much it’s going to cost our companies,” he said, seemingly turning a blind eye to the costs that unrestrained climate change would impose on business.
But the movement to halt climate change is unstoppable, according to climate diplomats, representatives of cities and local governments. “This momentum is irreversible — it is being driven not only by governments, but by science, business and global action of all types at all levels,” the COP22 closing statement said.
Despite Trump’s election, states and cities will continue to implement green plans because of the threats they face. “Responsibility for effectively reining in carbon emissions also rests with business, and with the nation’s cities and states. Those are the battlegrounds,” Jeff Biggers, founder of the Climate Narrative Project at the University of Iowa, wrote in the New York Times.
Sue Landau is a freelance writer and translator based in Paris. She worked in financial and business journalism for 25 years at the International Herald Tribune, Reuters and the Investor’s Chronicle, chiefly in London and Paris. She reported on energy, new technologies, media and advertising, corporate and industry issues, wealth management and investment, and regional development.