When Donald Trump becomes president in January, he will not be the first climate-change skeptic to take the reins of a major Western democracy.
In fact, he’ll be following a path trodden in recent years by leaders in two other English-speaking nations, Canada, and Australia.
Both Stephen Harper in Canada and Tony Abbott in Australia have voiced skepticism of climate change as an urgent challenge (sometimes verging, like Mr. Trump, into blunt denial of the issue’s validity). Both were heads of state in recent years, and the commonalities in their stories hint at what Americans could experience in the coming years – what Trump might do on the environment, but also the limits on his power.
Tackling climate change has been rising in importance for a variety of sectors, from governments to business, in recent years. Yet the experiences of Canada and Australia are perhaps the best examples globally of how a single individual – a nation’s chief executive – can have a significant restraining impact on climate science and policy.
Today, there is little beyond Trump’s track record to predict what climate actions he might pursue as president. That track record, however, includes calling climate change “a hoax” and worse, as well as pledging to revive the American coal industry, roll back carbon emission regulations, and pull the country out of the Paris climate agreement that just went into force worldwide.
This week, in a discussion with editors and reporters at The New York Times, Trump seemed to soften his stance, saying he has an open mind on the Paris Agreement and is "looking at it very closely." When asked about the link between human activity and climate change, he said, "I think there is some connectivity. Some, something. It depends on how much." At the same time, a video from Trump this week also pledged that his first 100 days will include canceling "restrictions" on the energy sector to promote jobs in "shale energy and clean coal." [Editor's note: This story was updated Nov. 23 by adding this paragraph.]
If Trump were to pursue a u-turn in climate policy, despite his newly calibrated tone on the issue, such actions would echo some that the Harper and Abbott governments pursued. Those included pulling out of international agreements, paring environmental regulations, and making government climate scientists feel muzzled. But these past examples include a twist that’s cautionary for Trump as well: Not only do democratic leaders face checks on their power, but they and their parties can be voted out of the driver’s seat.
A Canadian case study
In Canada, Stephen Harper didn’t openly deny that climate change was happening during his nine years as Canadian prime minister.
What Mr. Harper did do was consistently frame research and action on global warming as deleterious to the Canadian economy. He pursued an agenda that included making Canada the first country to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol, gutting major environmental regulations, cutting climate science research, and “muzzling” climate scientists.
A politician who rose through the conservative ranks in the oil-rich province of Alberta to become prime minister in 2006, he attacked the Kyoto Protocol on climate that the opposition Liberal Party had boosted.
“He is very smart, very policy smart, and tuned in to what was going on politically,” according to Debora Van Nijnatten, a political scientist at Wilfred Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario. “His move to disassociate Canada with international negotiations on climate change, international efforts to deal with climate change, was purely politically strategic.”
In 2011, Canada became the first country to formally withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol, “an early and populist move,” says Christopher Sands, director of the Center of Canadian Studies at Johns Hopkins University.
The move appeared to pay off. Re-elected in 2011 and gaining Conservatives a parliamentary majority in the process, Harper then brought sweeping overhauls of environmental regulation and a crackdown on climate research in terms of funding and communication.
Nearly one-third of a 400-page budget bill in 2012 was dedicated to rewriting Canada’s environmental laws governing environmental assessments, fisheries, navigable waters, and endangered species. The new legislation canceled nearly 3,000 environmental assessments of industry projects.
In addition, the government inflicted deep cuts across federal scientific agencies. Labs were closed, research projects scaled back. The post of National Science Adviser – created in 2004 to provide the government advice on science and technology issues – was closed in 2008. In 2012, the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada estimated that the government was in the process of cutting $2.6 billion and over 5,000 jobs from 10 science-based departments.
Specific cuts included the Department of Fisheries (DFO) entire marine mammal contaminants program.
Other programs, like the world-renowned Experimental Lake Area – a living laboratory scientists use to research water pollution – was on track to close before a private think-tank provided funding.
The consequences of the cuts will be felt for years, says Steve Campana, a marine ecologist who spent three decades at the DFO and is now at the University of Iceland in Reyjkavik.
“Canada had some of the top climate change scientists in the world working, and they were stopped in their tracks,” as were leading ocean and fisheries researchers, he says. “The world as a whole is going to feel the consequences of that.”
Perhaps the most controversial feature of Harper’s administration was its reported “muzzling” of federal scientists.
For years, departments set strict rules over how and when scientists could discuss their research with the media, the public, and even other scientists. Journalists had to run interview requests through communication officers, often having to submit questions in advance. Environment Canada scientists required specific approval before speaking publicly on issues like climate change and polar bears, while researchers at the Natural Resources Canada needed pre-approval to give interviews on topics like “climate change” and “oil sands.” Scientists couldn’t travel to some conferences, or when they did were sometimes shadowed by media liaisons.
So, three years from retirement, Campana left for a job in Iceland.
“I reached the point where I had had enough,” he says. “The lack of [financial] support for science was one thing, but there was a big issue in terms of the muzzling of scientists.”
“As a country we lost any capacity internally to provide direct good quality scientific information to the leadership of the country,” says Thomas Pedersen, an oceanographer at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. “At the same time of course federal government scientists were being muzzled so there was no knowledge being presented to the public.”
Australia pulls plug on carbon tax
In Australia, Mr. Abbott had a similar impact on efforts to tackle climate change.
As leader of Australia’s Liberal Party while it was the official opposition, he fought the creation of a carbon tax, a signature initiative of the opposition Labor government. As with Harper, the tax became a wedge political issue.
When he became prime minister several years later, he successfully repealed the tax, claiming it would save homeowners $550 a year, and adopted a similar position to Harper in pitting climate action against his country’s economic health. His administration also banned public investment in wind and solar power, calling it unnecessary.
"The approach the government took to climate change really manifested itself in an ideological attack on renewable energy, but also on the main carbon pricing mechanism that we had in Australia. That was reducing emissions, and now emissions are going up again," says Erwin Jackson of the Climate Institute, an Australian nonprofit that promotes climate action.
Abbott shut down the Australian Climate Commission, which had been created to provide public information on the effects and potential solutions to climate change.
And while Abbott has softened his climate skepticism over the years, he seems to recognize a kindred spirit in Donald Trump, saying in an interview last week that Trump’s election should put the issue of climate change “in better perspective.”
The virtue or threat of these policies like those pursued by Abbott and Harper is, politically, in the eye of the beholder. Many Americans are simply more concerned about jobs and growth than about climate change, and see economic promise in a hoped-for fossil fuel boom under Trump.
“There is a way to create jobs quickly, increase exports, cut household costs for families and bring in additional revenue for our communities, schools and country, but it will take a change of attitude about carbon-based fuels such as oil and natural gas,” business analyst Don Brunell in Washington State wrote last week.
But among climate scientists, the broad consensus is that global warming is a real and human-caused challenge. In turn, science groups have urged policies to reduce greenhouse emissions, and a majority of Americans support action on the issue.
For many climate scientists in Australia and Canada, the skeptical positions of Abbott and Harper – arguing climate change is just not as important as other issues – is almost as bad as outright denying that it’s happening.
“It emboldens other climate skeptics to be more outrageous in their claims, and it stops any effective mitigation action or even adaptation actions in response to the changing climate,” says John Church, a world-renowned oceanographer who has held government research jobs in Australia.
This has Dr. Church and many other climate scientists around the world concerned about Trump’s election. Not only is the US an integral part of the global scientific infrastructure monitoring climate change, but the president could undermine climate science far beyond American borders.
Today’s data is tomorrow’s understanding
“One of the strongest constraints on mitigation is our will to want to mitigate,” the oceanographer says, “and that requires continued climate science to inform the community and decision-makers about the continuing need for it.”
Despite budget cuts, and a layoff from government work for Church himself, some of his former colleagues are still working to track sea-level rise, temperature, and acidity changes in the Southern Ocean. But like researchers in Canada, he fears for the long-term consequences of disrupting science.
“The world is dependent on a global observation system of the atmosphere, the oceans, the cryosphere, and the terrestrial environment,” he says. “We can always do analysis tomorrow, or [build] climate models tomorrow,” he adds, “but we can’t make today’s observations tomorrow.”
Although Trump’s specific climate policies won’t be clear for many months, early signs suggest the Trump administration will be skeptical.
One of his first appointments after the election was to put Myron Ebell – a well-known climate contrarian in charge of his transition team for the US Environmental Protection Agency.
Stephen Bannon, another of Trump’s early appointments as senior adviser, has accused Pope Francis of “hysteria” on climate change, while the website he ran, Breitbart News, called NASA and NOAA scientists “talentless low-lives.”
Climate landscape has shifted
There are several forces that could keep up some pressure for climate action under Trump, however.
The global landscape of climate policy and politics has shifted since Harper and Abbott were in power, experts point out. These shifts include the 195-nation Paris Agreement to reduce carbon emissions ratified a few months ago, the declining costs of renewable energy technology, increasing interest in climate adaptation from the business world, and the increasing physical evidence of climate change around the world.
From heat waves and wildfires in Australia to heavy floods and fierce wildfires in Canada, “there’s been a growing awareness of the impacts of climate change” around the world, including in America, says Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Local and regional governments have also been taking their own action on climate, he adds, from Canadian provinces adopting carbon taxes and cap-and-trade systems, to American states leading the renewable energy transition.
Canada also is a reminder that voters can effect a change in national policy. The 2015 election brought Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party to power, after a campaign that revolved around many issues, climate change was among them.
“The population has galvanized around the idea that we need climate solutions perhaps in part because of last eight years,” says Katharine Hayhoe, a Canadian and director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University. “Canada is in a different place on climate and clean energy technology than it would have been without the Harper regime.”
Beyond internal politics, the US will face pressure from other nations, too, including some that were once seen as climate laggards. China is urging America to stand by the Paris Agreement, adding that it plans to continue to combat climate change “whatever the circumstances.”
“I nearly fell off my chair when I saw that quote,” says Van Nijnaten, the Wilfrid Laurier political scientist.
“Ironically,” she adds, “the Trump administration comes in at a time when there has never been more openness in all sectors, the private sector, the public, and governments around the world, that this is something we have to do something about.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Katharine Hayhoe’s first name.