It may be too late for Trump to stall climate change action
Even if Trump backpedals at the federal level, mitigation and adaptation efforts may already have enough momentum to continue without him.
The way many scientists and activists see it, Donald Trump is no friend of the environment. On the campaign trail, Mr. Trump questioned the scientific community’s consensus on climate change. He promised to restore a withering coal industry, lift federal restrictions on fracking and offshore drilling, and pull out of the Paris climate agreement. When he won, he tapped a staunch climate change denier to be the head of his EPA transition team.
But even if Trump backpedals at the federal level, climate change action may already have enough momentum to continue without him. Coastal communities, irrespective of party loyalty, are already preparing for rising sea-levels. China, the only country that emits more carbon dioxide than the United States, is gearing up to lead the world in mitigation – a move that could boost the country’s global influence. Meanwhile, solar and other renewable energies are cheaper than ever. Even market forces seem to be saying that this isn’t up for debate anymore.
As it turns out, Trump’s promises of American exceptionalism and prosperity may actually necessitate climate change action.
Generally speaking, Trump has three ways out of the Paris accord. He could withdraw from the deal officially, but that would take until 2020 to finalize. Alternatively, he could pull out of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change altogether, which would take only about one year. Finally, he could simply ignore the commitment made by President Obama last year – there are no clear legal repercussions for doing so, although it would put Trump’s administration on shaky footing with the United Nations.
In other words, the only thing Trump can do in his first year is ignore the emissions targets.
Most climate scientists warn that a global boost of just 2 degrees C. would be catastrophic. And since the United States alone contributes nearly a quarter of the world’s CO2 emissions, withdrawal would be a devastating blow. But there are geopolitical reasons, perhaps more persuasive than UN shaming, why Trump might not want to do that.
Over the course of his campaign, Trump rallied against China for what he deemed to be unfair trade practices, and promised to revive America’s competitive edge over the country. But climate change has become a mainstream topic in the diplomatic world, and China may now have an opportunity to widen the gap.
“Proactively taking action against climate change will improve China’s international image and allow it to occupy the moral high ground,” Zou Ji, a senior Chinese climate talks negotiator, told Reuters. “China’s influence and voice are likely to increase in global climate governance, which will then spill over into other areas of global governance and increase China’s global standing, power and leadership.”
Other nations, many of which once opposed emissions reductions, have also fallen in line with the UN. So if the US wants to stay competitive on the world stage, Trump may need to make some concessions.
Meanwhile, the clean energy industry is growing critically. Solar prices have dropped significantly in recent years, and US tax incentives for wind and solar are set to continue through the decade. As a businessman, Trump likely understands this. He may choose to direct federal funding toward fossil fuels, but renewables aren’t going away.
The Christian Science Monitor’s Zack Colman reported:
State and regional policies, along with businesses, are also likely to continue chipping away at emissions, says Catherine Abreu, executive director of Climate Action Network Canada. She says that’s what happened under former conservative Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who slow-walked his country’s action to curb emissions to help the country’s oil sands industry.
For many coastal communities, the issue isn’t quite so political. A long-term national policy for mitigation is simply “irrelevant” to them, some experts say, because they’ve already experienced prolonged drought and rising sea levels.
“Coastal communities in New England are already trying to figure out how to engage with people in their towns about addressing climate risks,” Lawrence Susskind, a professor of urban planning at MIT, tells the Monitor in a phone interview. “It’s no longer just about mitigation, it’s about adaptation. And when there’s a risk, you have to take adaptation measures.”
Mr. Susskind previously authored a book titled “Managing Climate Risks in Coastal Communities.” In light of climate risks, communities all over the world are adopting new policies with regards to evacuation, first responder deployment, and emergency response plans. They’re stocking up on food and water, identifying at-risk citizens, and rethinking the way their houses are built.
“It doesn’t matter what the federal government does,” Susskind says. “You have coastal communities all over the world wondering, ‘What are we going to do?’ There’s almost no discussion of adaptation at the international level.”
But it’s not all doomsday preparation – many of these communities have also begun educating citizens about climate risks. These efforts, which are perhaps among the most important and underrepresented, will likely continue with or without Trump’s support.
“You have communities looking at major invest in infrastructure,” Susskind says. “All of these are questions now, not 50 or 100 years in advance.”