On Tuesday, President Donald Trump issued a sweeping executive order that effectively guts national efforts to address climate change. If he isn’t stopped, the endpoint of this approach is the ruination of our livable climate and the needless suffering of billions of people for decades to come.
The order starts the process of undoing President Obama’s Clean Power Plan standards for power plants. It also spurs fossil fuel consumption and blocks federal efforts to even prepare for the multiple, simultaneous catastrophes that unrestricted carbon pollution the world faces — severe drought, ocean acidification, ever-worsening heat waves, rising seas that threaten to destroy coastal cites.
This is not politics as usual. The irreversible consequences of Trump’s actions would rank as one of the most tragic blunders of all time.
“History does not forgive us our national mistakes because they are explicable in terms of our domestic politics,” the great diplomat and ambassador to the Soviet Union George Kennan wrote in his 1951 book on American diplomacy. “A nation which excuses its own failures by the sacred untouchableness of its own habits can excuse itself into complete disaster.”
Incidentally, Trump’s economic rationale for his policies is entirely bogus. This order, along with his budget, would undermine America’s ability to compete economically for perhaps the biggest high-wage job-creating sector of the foreseeable future: clean energy.
But far more importantly, this order makes America a rogue nation in the global fight to save the climate, comparable to Vladimir Putin’s Russia. And it renders moot the question of whether Trump formally stays in the Paris climate deal, which 200 nations unanimously agreed to in December 2015 — a last-ditch effort to preserve the stable climate that made large-scale agriculture and modern civilization possible.
In Paris, the world’s nations made pledges to cut their projected carbon pollution over the next 10 to 15 years. Significantly, those initial pledges—including America’s—would not have stopped catastrophic warming of well over 3°C (5.4°F).
Indeed, every nation agreed with the goal of keeping global warming “well below 2°C” (3.6°F) and ideally to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, since the science has become increasingly clear that there are very serious and irreversible climate impacts as warming reaches 2°C.
That’s why each nation committed to ongoing negotiations in which they would keep ratcheting down their carbon pollution targets every few years. The goal of beating 2°C can’t happen unless total world greenhouse gas emissions hit zero sometime in the second half of the century.
There’s really very little room for error at this point. After a quarter-century of ignoring the warnings of climate scientists, the fate of our children — and the next 50 generations — is on a knife’s edge.
We are headed toward a world of mega-droughts and failed states, like Syria and Yemen. Imagine the world’s current refugee problem multiplied by a hundred, as people flee the inundated coasts and interior Dust Bowls. It’s a world of endless civil unrest that encompasses hundreds of millions of people south of the U.S. border.
Certainly Trump’s actions in just two months in office — particularly Tuesday’s executive order and another aimed at weakening Obama’s tough fuel-economy standards — means we are quite unlikely to meet even our very modest 2025 Paris targets. But far more significant is that Trump’s policies to boost U.S. carbon pollution are fatal to the ongoing negotiations to keep ratcheting down emissions.
America is not just the second-biggest annual carbon polluter, but we are the biggest cumulative source of CO2 over the past century and the richest country in the world. Our actions to cut emissions are critical to the effort to take the world down to zero emissions — and our leadership matters.
Though Trump had campaigned on formally withdrawing from the Paris agreement, some on his team have reportedly argued against that move. But even if his Machiavellian advisers decide the optics of withdrawing are too terrible, the end result is the same: The world is not going to keep total warming below catastrophic levels, which was going to be a challenge even with a more rational U.S. climate policy.
It also bears pointing out that Russia, the world’s fifth-largest carbon polluter (fourth if you don’t count the European Union together) made the weakest possible CO2 pledge — and has thus far refused to ratify Paris and says it probably won’t for years.
While China has certainly stepped up to become a global leader on climate action, there are plenty of countries that would love to have U.S. recalcitrance on climate action to hide behind. As the Washington Post explained, “the Trump executive order could encourage other countries to backslide on their commitments — such as Brazil, another major global emitter, mainly because of deforestation.”
Those who want to preserve a livable climate must fight Trump’s moves as if humanity’s very future depended on it — because it does.