Donald Trump’s entry into the White House must not lead to the triumph of climate change denial. That’s the prayer on everyone’s lips as the 45th President of the United States takes the Oath of Office just ten weeks after stunning the world by winning the US election. As the US has already started witnessing climate refugees and a broad scientific consensus seems to emerge on how human activity is the primary cause of global warming, the Donald Trump’s presidential administration has lot to learn and unlearn.
From freakishly warm Arctic winter to coral bleaching in Great Barrier Reef and Japan, the signs of global warming are getting more and more evident.
The President, who wants to ‘Make America Great Again’, cannot ignore the fact that the US has suffered climate-related losses worth $27 billion in 2016. As the global temperature is expected to rise by 2.9°C to 3.4°C by this century, the climate change believers must turn up the heat on Trump so that he doesn’t water down Obama's environmental agenda.
According to Sunita Narain, director general at the Centre for Science and Environment, Trump is bad news for climate change. “He is certain that the US needs to dig more coal, build more power plants and do everything to ramp up production, which will increase greenhouse gas emissions,” she said in one of her columns recently.
CLEAN ENERGY Possibility of Trump rolling back clean energy initiatives
The Americans are staring at coal-heavy and fossil-driven years since the man at the helm of affairs doesn’t ‘buy’ the fact that global climate change is being caused by carbon emissions. He doesn't accept the overwhelming scientific evidence that climate change is real and wants to dismantle the Paris Agreement, something that nearly 200 countries agreed to last December.
In the “New Deal for Black America” plan, which Trump released, he promised to cut all federal spending on the climate change issue to save $100 billion during terms in office. He pledges to “cancel all wasteful climate change spending.” To save that amount, the government has to reduce funding for climate science research and helping the US communities deal with climate-related changes. More importantly, it has to cut all the money the Department of Energy spends on technology development. According to Trump, the US shouldn't waste money on climate change and “instead use it to provide for infrastructure, including clean water, clean air and safety.”
If not the climate scientists, Trump should pay heed to the words of senior US military and national security experts who have warned that the effects of climate change present “a strategically-significant risk” to the US national security. The US has already seen climate refugees in their own country. Coastal populations are threatened by sea level rise; residents of south Florida are already experiencing seawater flooding in streets; hurricanes and storm surge have become more intense and frequent. In Alaska, lakes are getting smaller due to increased evaporation caused by warmer temperatures and shrubs are expanding. On the other hand, drought conditions are worsening in the southeastern part of the country.
Despite these signs of climate change, Donald Trump administration can derail the modest progress that the US has made. “Donald Trump has promised to halt the Obama administration's programmes on climate change. He would have considerable ability to do that. It would be very time-consuming to repeal existing regulations, but Trump could order a halt to enforcement of them. There would certainly be many lawsuits challenging this action, but they could take years to resolve,” said Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University.
“Should Trump become president, international arrangements for trade, collective security and nuclear proliferation will all be threatened. The Paris Agreement will continue to be supported by other countries, but the willingness of these countries to take action to limit emissions will be weakened. It will be a riskier, more fragmented and less secure world,” said Scott Barrett, Professor of Natural Resource Economics at the Columbia University.
It is only a matter of decade or two before the world's 1.5°C carbon budget is blown. Hence, the impact of decisions made over the next four years will last much longer. Trump can do a lot to alter the course of the country and set it on a course of destruction by not working towards a transition to a zero-carbon economy.
His campaign motto has been ‘Make America Great Again’. But does a great country choose economic growth over the well-being of its people?
CLIMATE … Donald Trump: the climate change denier
Donald Trump’s presidency will be largely defined by his commitment to roll back clean energy initiatives launched over the past eight years. The Republican President may scrap the Clean Power Plan. He may also nix several CO2 regulations that Obama has put in place. “I will eliminate all needless and job-killing regulations now on the books—and there are plenty of them,” Trump had said hinting at clean energy policies.
Trump considers the decisions to develop alternative forms of energy “a big mistake”. According to him, solar energy is an “unproven technology” with low return on investment. While a climate change believer sees a huge opportunity in massive amount of unused wind energy along the coasts, Trump calls it a “very poor source of energy” that is “destroying shorelines all over the world”.
His unflinching support for traditional energy sources is equally worrisome, especially his repeated commitments to “save the coal industry”. He has stated his support for more domestic excavation of oil and gas, specifically in the Outer Continental Shelf. Hence, it is not hard to imagine emissions rising under his presidency.
There’s a fear that the Trump government would ask Trans Canada to renew its permit application for the Keystone Pipeline project, whose fourth phase was rejected by the Obama government. Moreover, it would also try to accelerate the process of developing a five-year proposal (2017-2022) to guide extraction.
Trump’s entry into the White House couldn’t have happened at the least opportune time for the US when the coal market has been witnessing a sustained decline due to shale gas revolution and tighter environmental standards for coal power plants.
Trump’s intervention doesn’t augur well with the renewable energy sector that witnessed a surge in the United States in the first half of 2016. Production of wind, solar and geothermal energy is on the rise. According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), renewable energy will account for about one-third of new power generation added to the US grid over the next three years.
Wind energy is leading the way with 19,500 MW of installed capacity at mid-year. In Texas alone, more than 4,200 MW of wind capacity has been installed in 2016 or is currently under construction. Geothermal energy is also expanding, albeit at a slower rate. Nearly 3,000 MW is currently installed and about 4,000 MW more is under development.
Trump has his eyes fixed on the coal industry. He wants to prop it up by bringing in more “clean coal” to the market. “We need much more than wind and solar. There is a thing called clean coal. Coal will last for a thousand years in this country,” Trump had said in one of his campaigns. Clean coal is the outcome of chemically washing coal to remove pollutants while improving efficiency. But neither washing nor gasifier technology does anything about CO2, the greenhouse gas (GHG) produced in large quantities by coal-burning power plants. It doesn't look promising, especially when cheaper and renewable alternatives are available.
RADICAL … Can state action cushion Trump’s anti-environment policies?
By Umang Jalan
How will Donald Trump's presidency affect the world? Will he implement radical policies or continue USA's bland status quo on climate change? According to a report published by the Centre for Science and Environment, USA’s recent decline in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions can be attributed largely to the prevailing economic circumstances and not to any significant concern for the environment. The Trump presidency however, in addition to being unambitious, is also likely to be regressive on climate change.
The deregulation and softening of environmental standards promised by Donald Trump will significantly increase GHG emissions from fossil fuel consumption. It is however of note that USA’s governance system gives more autonomy to its states, unlike India. This includes independent action on the environment. State’s autonomy has traditionally strengthened during republican (Trump is one) administrations. However, the strong federal (or Central) stance may overshadow this autonomy and negatively affect states that perform better environment governance.
For example, New York state placed a moratorium on fracking (hydraulic fracturing), due to federal laws regulating shale gas production. Such policies may have to change, as federal permits for fossil fuel production and exploration are slated to increase. This may hold supremacy over state regulations on oil and gas production, leading to legal ambiguity.
The state of California stands out in climate change action. In the past, it has fared better than federal regulations on fuel efficiency, energy efficiency, carbon trading (and taxation), renewable energy expansion, among others. Implementing such progressive climate and environmental policy will be more difficult in Trump’s presidency because of federal dis-incentives for such interventions.
About 87 per cent of all the new solar power projects added in the US were concentrated in 10 (of the total 50) states, with California leading the pack. Some states like Arizona with high renewable energy potential are not investing in it. The concentrated nature of solar energy signals the importance of state action to develop increasing renewable energy capacity. The scale of renewable energy development however will suffer because of the lack of political will federal incentives.
USA’s laggard stance may motivate Norway and other developed Scandinavian countries, who have an increasingly significant role in providing international funding for climate change, to increase their climate commitments. There will, however, still be a big deficit left in climate finance if the US backs out of its technology and finance commitments. USA is also likely to use its diplomatic clout to weaken enforcement of the Paris Agreement.
PROBLEM OF … Inequity at the core of the climate change challenge
By Sunita Narain
What does the ascension of Donald Trump to US presidency mean for climate change? Also, what does Trump mean for our inter-connected and by now highly globalised world?
Let’s discuss climate change first. As my colleague Chandra Bhushan argues so forcefully in this issue (see ‘Why the US should quit the Paris Agreement’), firstly, Trump is not the only climate denier in the US. All Republican nominees and even Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton avoided using the “C” word during the election campaign. But there is no doubt that President-elect Trump is of another shade of this grey. He denies climate change is happening, though recently he said to CNN that “humans have some connectivity” on climate change. He is certain that the US needs to dig more coal, build more power plants and do everything to ramp up production, which will increase greenhouse gas emissions. So, he is bad news for climate change.
But this is not new. As Chandra Bhushan says, the US has invariably made the multilateral world change rules; reconfigure agreements, mostly to reduce it to the lowest common denominator, all to get its participation. Then when the world has a weak, worthless and meaningless deal, it will walk out of it. All this while, its powerful civil society and media will hammer in the point that the world needs to be accommodating and pragmatic. “Our Congress will not accept” is the refrain, essentially arguing that theirs is the only democracy in the world or certainly the only one that matters.
This happened in 1992, when in Rio, after much “accommodation” the agreement to combat climate change was whittled down, targets were removed and there was no agreed action. All this was done to bring the US on board. But it walked out. Then came the Kyoto Protocol, the first and only framework for action to reduce emissions. Here again, in December 1997, when climate change proponents Bill Clinton and Al Gore were in office, the agreement was reduced to nothingness—the compliance clause was removed, cheap emission reduction and loopholes were included. All to bring the US on board. Once again, they rejected it.
Then came Barack Obama and his welcome commitment to climate change actions. But what did the US do? It has made the world completely rewrite the climate agreement so that the targets, instead of being based on science and contribution of each country, are now based on voluntary action. Each country is allowed to set targets, based on what they can do and by when.
It has led to weak action, which will not keep the Planet’s temperature rise below 2oC, forget the guardrail of 1.5oC. This was done to please the Americans who said they would never sign a global agreement that binds them to actions or targets. Paris fatally and fundamentally erased historical responsibility of countries and reduced equity to insignificance. This was done because the US said this was the redline—nothing on equitable rights to the common atmospheric space could be acceptable.
Also, the Centre of Science and Environment’s analysis of US climate change action plan in the report, Capitan America, showed that even under Obama the proposals were business as usual.
This is when the world tiptoed around equitable rights, was bent out of shape and scraped the bottom of the barrel. Now the US will even walk out of this. Chandra Bhushan, then, rightly asks: is it time we thought of a world agreement without the US?
Let’s now turn to what the Trump era means for globalisation. It was in the 1990s that the world stitched the global trade agreement and made rules for free, unfettered movement of goods. It wanted an interconnected world, where cheap labour could be used to enhance corporate profits. It got this. The two decades that followed saw the amazing rise of China as a provider of these goods; it also saw consumption increasing manifold. It was also in the 1990s that this same world agreed that there was a need to moderate economic globalisation so that climate change could be mitigated. This was ecological globalisation, its counter to economic globalisation. But it failed.
Trade won over climate; consumption won over emission control. The success of economic globalisation showed up in the balance sheet of emissions: the carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions of the rich who gobbled up these goods did not decrease and the CO2 emissions of the countries who manufactured these increased. The Planet was fried.
This is where we are today. We have Trump, who openly denies climate change and has won elections. A large majority stands with him. Calls for protectionism are growing in this already rich world. The UK’s Brexit vote is also a testimony to this anger. It is the revenge of the rich, who did not get richer. It is the revenge of the educated; the well-off who believe they are entitled to more and that this is being taken away from them by “others”. This is also a time when the already developed world, which has long exhausted its quota of the global atmospheric space, wants to burn more fossil fuel for its growth. It believes it is growth-deprived.
The key reason for all this is the fact that globalisation increased inequity. This is at the core of the problem today. This is also the core of climate change—ultimately, if emissions are linked to economic growth, then the question is how this growth will be shared between people and between nations. Economic and ecological globalisation are about making rules that benefit people and the Planet, not in ways that some get richer or that we blow up the Planet. This is what we need to work on in the present world. But this demands a change in the narrative. For too long, the two discussions on growth and climate change have been separated. For too long, we have been told that we cannot discuss the issues of equitable growth and equitable allocation of the carbon budget. This is what needs to change.
But for this, for once, let’s move beyond shadow-boxing. The election of Trump should teach us that the divisions are deep; the crisis is real. It is time to wake up. Otherwise, we will be in denial. And the climate deniers will have the last laugh.