Of all the headline-grabbing statements made by US President-elect Donald Trump while out on the campaign trail, it was his environmental comments which may give most cause for concern. He famously tweeted that ‘[t]he concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese’ and repeatedly labelled it a ‘hoax’.
He has claimed he will dismantle President Obama’s plan to cut emissions to 26-28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2025, give renewed support to the country’s oil, gas, and coal industries, and withdraw the United States from the UNFCCC Paris Agreement on climate change.
With the world already scrambling to transition to a green economy fast enough in order to keep up with the commitments made in last year’s Paris Agreement – ‘a long-term goal of keeping the increase in global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels... to aim to limit the increase to 1.5°C’ – adding such climate denial and opposition to the globally-ratified Agreement wastes time we don’t have the luxury of squandering.
‘Trump hasn’t made any positive statements about climate change, to say the least,’ says Corinne Le Quéré, Professor of Climate Change Science and Policy at the University of East Anglia, and Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. However, she believes that Trump’s presidency may be more beneficial to combating climate change than his previous comments have suggested.
“If he puts his mind into it, Donald Trump could actually make things move forward in a way that very few others could do”
‘Because we have the Paris Agreement on climate change, we’ve done all the talking essentially,’ she continues. ‘What we need to do to address climate change [is get] businesses onboard. We need the deployment on a large-scale of the infrastructure for renewable energy, the infrastructure for carbon capture and storage, and this needs a business view to do this. I think that if he puts his mind into it, Donald Trump could help here. If he was able to see the opportunities for the US market – for the US people – to develop new technology, he could actually make things move forward in a way that very few others could.’ She does, however, acknowledges that such a position requires making Trump ‘realise himself that climate change is an issue for the US people, and an issue that is not going to go away’.
The business-driven model is a position which has been echoed by global figureheads in recent days. Ban Ki-moon, the outgoing UN Secretary-General, described Trump as a ‘very successful business person’ who would understand how economic forces are now driving the world towards renewables, such as wind and solar power, irrespective of their crucial role in limiting fossil fuel usage. ‘What was once unthinkable has become unstoppable,’ he added. ‘I am sure he will make a fast and wise decision.’
Le Quéré – while acknowledging that renewable energy production isn’t quite fully able to compete with fossil fuels ‘one-to-one’ on price, often because of the volatility in the energy market – stresses her belief that improvements in clean technologies are on an unstoppable trajectory. ‘Development in electric cars and transport coming out of Silicon Valley is extremely promising, especially the technology for driverless cars,’ she explains. ‘So no matter what, we’re about to see reductions in emissions even without any changes in policies or mentality.’
One of Trump’s most worrying pledges – to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement – has been the focus of much discussion in the past week, given that the Agreement was in part written in such a way to prevent such a possibility from occurring. As a result, any country wishing to leave must wait until three years after it came into force before such a move becomes possible (everyone keep an eye on 4 November 2019), with such a withdrawal taking at least one year before they are actually out (therefore covering almost the entirety of a one-term Trump administration). Even with these precautions, it could however be possible for Trump to instead withdraw the US from the UNFCCC itself – signed by President Bush Snr in 1992 – a process which would take only one year.
‘I don’t know how much damage he could do,’ admits Le Quéré. ‘Donald Trump has talked about moving back on some of the energy and climate policies, but he’s not yet proposed what he wants to do. He has said that he supported clean air and clean water, but he hasn’t put his plan forward.’
“If other world leaders take over international leadership, then the United States could be isolating itself”
‘If you ignore climate change it is not going to go away,’ she continues. ‘There are very important impacts of climate change around the world, and in the United States in particular. Heat is obvious, but also increasing risks of flooding from heavy downpours and from sea level rise in coastal areas, increasing risks of fires in the west coast of the United States from overheating, and some less well known but potentially very damaging pest and disease outbreaks. So if climate change is ignored, the new US government is going to have to deal with a lot of impacts that the US people will need some responses to. What is the overall strategy going forward for the United States?’
If Trump doesn’t see the economic opportunities presented by a green economy, isn’t concerned by the climate threats facing the US and the rest of the world, and therefore does follow through on his threats to dismantle the agreed climate actions, then what could happen? Former French President and 2017 Presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy has indicated how the rest of the world might respond, with threats to impose a one to three per cent carbon tax on all US products entering Europe.
‘If other world leaders come up and take over international leadership,’ adds Le Quéré, ‘then the United States could be isolating itself.’