What a Trump presidency means for climate change

First order of office: get out of the Paris Agreement

Trump has famously said that he will try to get out of the Paris Agreement, agreed last year, and which came into force last month. The agreement sets out commitments to limit warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. Currently, this is a very unappealing thought for all other signatories to the deal – no other countries want the US, a major player and a huge emitter, to withdraw.

The UN Peace envoy said at the COP22 underway in Marrakech at the moment that the US would be a “rogue state” if it reneged on the deal. French president Nicholas Sarkozy has suggested that the EU could take action against the US if it pulls out, perhaps even imposing a carbon tax on US imports. Similarly, China might impose similar sanctions if the US starts a trade war, by limiting iPhone sales. Before the election, the Chinese told Trump that the “world wants” the Paris deal. But of course, climate change is a Chinese hoax, so they would say that, right??

It is unclear whether the US will be able to legally extricate itself from the Paris Agreement, but there is pressure from many other countries, including big players such as Brazil, China and India, who are reasserting their commitment to the agreement at COP22.

What if the US left the agreement?

As the largest per capita emitter of greenhouse gases (and second only to China in absolute terms), this would be a very significant setback in terms of international climate change negotiation. Geopolitics aside, this would reduce the efficacy of international climate targets and minimise the impact of action taken by the other signatories.

Some prominent climate scientists clearly share this perspective. “A Trump presidency might be game over for the climate,” said Michael Mann, of ‘hockey stick chart’ fame. “It might make it impossible to stabilize planetary warming below dangerous levels.” Kevin Trenberth, senior scientist at the US National Center for Atmospheric Research, has made similarly dramatic comments, calling the idea of President Trump “an unmitigated disaster for the planet.”

US policy

Trump has appointed a climate denier with ties to the fossil fuel industry to work out his environmental policy. Myron Ebell, who believes that climate change is “nothing to worry about” and is currently the head of a conservative think tank, will oversee the transition for the Environmental Protection Agency, earmarked for dissolution. Not only this, but oil tycoon Harold Hamm is tipped as the leading contender for the energy ministry top job, and Sarah Palin will reappear on the global stage as interior minister in charge of public lands.

NASA climate budgets are likely to be cut, because Trump prefers to spend their entire budget on space exploration, rather than funding science closer to home. It is expected that he will also slash funding for renewables, and plough more money into fossil fuels, having stated his aim to reinvigorate the ailing coal industry in mining country.

But….

While the outcome is undoubtedly going to promote inaction on climate change, it may be difficult to disentangle the Trump effect from others, given the complexity of international policy-making on the matter. The direct effects of Trump’s policies may be significant in the US, but relatively insignificant on the world stage, as long as other nations are taking action to reduce their emissions.

However, there could be less tangible, subtler effects. His regressive policies could encourage other nations to stall on their targets and change their attitude to environmental regulation. If nothing else, it demonstrates that the US is not playing ball, and might tempt other nations to do the same. In the worst-case scenario, it could destabilise international climate policy-making.

A recent Real Climate article crunches the numbers to put the US election result in perspective, suggesting that the implications of a Clinton victory would have been comparable. In order to avoid warming of about 1.5°C, dramatic emissions cuts will need to take place within six years. That fact would not have changed with the outcome of the US election.

Yes, a Trump presidency will likely mean a reversal of many environmental policies, heavy investment in fossil fuels, and an ultimate increase in emissions. That will of course mean the US is going in the opposite direction to the one we need to go in if we are to avoid “dangerous” climate change. However, the kind of emissions reductions we would have seen under a Clinton administration would probably not have been drastically different.

Bad news, but not the end of the world

Even considering the significant losses of funding for climate research and renewables that are likely to result, and the huge investment in dirty, intensive industries like oil and gas, the US is still only one country. A recent report shows that the EU is set to realise its climate targets for 2020, and the commitment of large and rapidly growing economies like China, India and Brazil to the Paris Agreement suggests that all may not be lost. Although we may be in for a lot of facepalm moments over the next four years, thankfully (in this case), political lifetimes are short, and fingers crossed the nightmare will be over by 2020…

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