The shocking election of Donald Trump on Tuesday night is a turning point in the history of climate action, and therefore the history of homo sapiens. That’s because whatever warming, sea level rise, ocean acidification, and Dust-Bowlification we commit to is irreversible on a timescale of a thousand years.
Tragically, America has elected a man who has repeatedly called global warming a “hoax” and who put a climate science denier in charge of his EPA transition team. We’ve elected a man who has vowed to kill the Paris climate deal, end all efforts to help other countries deal with climate change, stop domestic climate action, reinvigorate coal, and zero out all research into climate science and clean energy.
I’ve always tried to face unpleasant facts head on. And while I had become considerably more optimistic about the possibility of averting catastrophe in the last two years, it was always the case that a quarter century of dawdling and ignoring the ever more dire warnings of climate scientists had left the climate on life support with no room for error.
Even with the unanimous agreement of the world in Paris last year to keep total warming “well below 2°C,” the national pledges to cut CO2, called intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs), only bought the world another five to 10 years of staying close to the 2°C path.
That’s why Hillary Clinton had pledged to not just meet the U.S. INDC (a 26 to 28 percent greenhouse gas reduction by 2025 compared to 2005 levels) but to make and meet an even stronger target after that — and to push other countries to do so also, just as the Paris Agreement requires.
Significantly, each new target requires stronger and stronger action by every country, the kind of action that becomes harder and harder without either a rising price for carbon dioxide (CO2) or strong government climate and clean energy policies, neither of which have much of a prospect in a Trump presidency.
Indeed, one independent firm, Lux Research, projected last week that “estimated emissions would be 16 percent higher after two terms of Trump’s policies than they would be after two terms of Clinton’s, amounting to 3.4 billion tons greater emissions over the next eight years.”
Personally, I doubt the yellow dashed line above will happen for a variety of reasons. First, as Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman explained late on election night, “We are very probably looking at a global recession, with no end in sight.” If so, emissions will flatten if not drop. Second, I cannot imagine Trump will be a two-term president — literally, the full implications for the nation and the world are unimaginable to me. Third, the rapid drop in clean energy prices means their penetration will keep growing no matter what Trump does.
That said, the damage and delay that even a one-term President Trump could do will make the already difficult task of keeping total warming well below 2°C essentially impossible.
The Australian journalist Graham Readfearn notes that while you can’t find Trump’s original “100 day action plan” for energy and climate on the campaign website anymore, “it was archived by Wayback Machine”:
More recently, Trump announced a plan to cut $100 billion in climate related federal funding over the next eight years, which can only be done by zeroing out all federal clean energy R&D, efforts to help countries around the globe deal with climate and the entire government’s climate science effort.
Canceling the Paris Agreement is not something Trump can do. But he can stop the U.S. from meeting its 2025 climate target, drop out of a process that requires every major country to keep making deeper cuts, and work behind-the-scenes with countries to undermine climate negotiations much the way George W. Bush did a decade ago. In this new world, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is on the short-list for Secretary of State.
Indeed, a number of Trump’s appointments can and will do considerable damage, starting, of course, with a replacement for Justice Antonin Scalia, someone who can rule against climate action for years to come. Recall that the Supreme Court had halted EPA’s Clean Power Plan to limit CO2 emissions from existing power plants by a vote of 5–4 shortly before Scalia died.
With the help of a pro-pollution administration, the court can kill or stall such action for the foreseeable future. Politico reports, “Myron Ebell, a climate skeptic who is running the EPA working group on Trump’s transition team, is seen as a top candidate to lead the agency.” Yes, a hard-core climate science denier is not merely overseeing EPA’s transition — the fox may be appointed to run the entire hen house.
The clean energy revolution is unstoppable because of underlying global market, policy, and technological trends. President Trump can’t reverse those trends even if he appoints oil executives to run both the Departments of Energy and Interior. He can’t stop the inevitable triumph of solar, wind, efficiency (such as LED lightbulbs), advanced batteries, and electric vehicles.
But, as I’ve written, he could probably slow it enough to destroy the modest chance we had to keep total warming “well below 2°C” as the world committed to in Paris. Avoiding global catastrophe requires an almost World War II-scale increase in clean energy investment and deployment.
But while the world needs the climate change equivalent of Winston Churchill, we just elected Neville Chamberlain. And that may well be exactly how future generations will remember him if he leaves behind a world of ever-worsening climate impacts.