This week was epic in its consequences for climate-change policy. The election of Donald Trump represents a u-turn for a top carbon-emitting nation that in the past few years has been a leader in nudging the world toward collective action.
Other climate-related news shouldn’t be lost in the shuffle. This week also saw a new federal rule on leasing public lands that's getting mixed reveiws, for example. But it’s that seismic shift that everyone’s talking about. And in some cases marching about.
Mr. Trump’s presidential victory has spawned "not our president" protests across America by Millennials and others who differ sharply with the incoming administration's proposed policies.
In fact, by making the issue a small one – not worth a dollar of spending in his policy agenda – Mr. Trump appears likely to make it a bigger one than ever in the public square.
Environmental groups are already pledging pitched battle against the president-elect’s plan to boost fossil fuels as a driver of the economy.
“Make no mistake – the election of Donald Trump could be devastating for our climate and our future,” Michael Brune, Executive Director of the Sierra Club, said in remarks published Wednesday on the group’s website. “Trump must choose whether he will be a President remembered for putting America and the world BACK on a path to climate disaster, or for listening to the American public, investing in the fastest-growing sector in the US economy – clean energy – and keeping us on a path to climate progress. Trump better choose wisely, otherwise – we can guarantee him the hardest fight of his life every step of the way.”
The election wasn't fundamentally about climate change. The issue played a small role in campaign debates, and most voters had other top priorities as they cast ballots.
Yet, while 47.3 percent of Americans voted for Trump, about two-thirds of Americans say they're concerned about climate change. A number of those people, even if they're not in the streets protesting, may think harder about what they can do to address the risks of climate change. Individual actions can drive social norms and ultimately influence local and federal policy.
So, yes, Trump may try to follow through on pledges of major support for the fossil fuels, pulling America out of the Paris agreement to reduce carbon emissions, and trying to stop spending federal money on climate change. But it's possible his positions will evolve or be constrained because of public opinion, a divided Senate, diplomatic pressure, or market conditions such as falling costs of renewable power and visible costs of climate change.
Climate-related policies came to the fore in other ways this week.
Washington State voters had the chance to pass the first state-level carbon tax, but they rejected the measure known as Initiative 732. The concept behind the proposal is that, by making it more expensive to release heat-trapping gases including carbon dioxide, individuals and businesses will curb their emissions.
The revenue-neutral tax proposal was designed with the goal of attracting bipartisan support. But even as it won backing from a group of climate scientists, a key challenge was that it drew criticism not only from some businesses but also from environmentalists. Some green groups wanted the tax revenue steered toward green investments and support for minority communities that are often most at risk from climate change.
Florida's battle over solar
In Florida, another ballot measure tested voters on issue of transitioning toward clean energy. The proposal known as Amendment 1 got heavy financial backing from electric utilities, but failed to get the 60 percent majority needed to pass. While it contained some pro-solar language and was marketed as a vote "for the sun," the solar industry and green groups said it would open the door to rate shifts that reduce what customers with solar panels earn when they sell electricity onto the grid.
The decision by Floridians is part of wider nationwide tussling over what's fair in payments by utilities for solar power. The companies say it's unfair if costs of maintaining the grid shift increasingly to non-solar ratepayers. Solar advocates say the value of adding renewable power to the grid needs to be recognized.
A new federal-lands rule
Something else happened this week on the renewables front. The Bureau of Land Management issued a long-anticipated rule that it says will streamline the permitting process and shift toward the kind of competitive bidding that has long been used by oil and gas companies for leasing federal lands.
Is it a win for renewables? We'll find out. In making the rule, the BLM won praise from environmentalists for striking a balance between energy and habitat protection. But the wind industry, for one, voiced concerns that it will mean a tougher time developing projects.
“This final rule makes federal lands even less attractive to wind energy developers. This will add time, uncertainty, complexity, and expense to a process that was already more difficult than developing on private lands,” the American Wind Energy Association said in a statement released Friday.
What remains to be seen is what other climate-related moves President Obama may try to make before he leaves office – and how much Trump will reverse them or steer in new directions.
Some experts on environmental policy say campaign pledges don’t always become reality, in particular when neither party has a filibuster-proof majority in the US Senate.
Although climate change is a politically divisive issue, scientists widely say the evidence points clearly to human-caused warming of the planet. This week, a UN report said the years 2011 through 2015 have been Earth's hottest five-year period on record.