By Oscar Reyes - Foreign Policy in Focus, November 21, 2016
One of the sad ironies of Donald Trump’s victory is that climate change has risen up the political agenda only after the campaign, when both candidates and debate moderators largely ignored it. Trump’s denialism in the face of an urgent, planetary threat provides some potent imagery for how the devastation caused by his presidency might look.
Climate scientists have been quick to condemn Trump’s election as a “disaster,” and it’s not hard to see why.
The last three years have broken temperature records, with 2016 set to become the hottest yet. The UN Environment Program just warned that we need to do far more and far faster, while a new study of pledges from G20 countries found that even under Obama, the U.S. remained a long way off meeting its share of the global effort to tackle climate change. Yet we’ve just elected a man who promises to drill more oil, burn more coal, and scrap our national climate plan.
The Trump disaster could hit communities on the front line of climate justice struggles the hardest. Scenes like the militarized response to the struggle against the Dakota Access Pipeline could be the new normal under Trump if the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure is matched with increasingly repressive policing.
It’s little wonder, then, that Trump’s election has left climate advocates reeling. But as mourning turns to anger and resistance, it’s worth recalling that there are significant limits on what Trump can do to hold back action on climate change.
The transition to cleaner energy will carry on regardless, as coal will remain uncompetitive. States and cities could ramp up their own climate efforts irrespective of the federal government. And international climate action has a momentum that’s not solely dependent on who occupies the White House.
Some of the loudest noises coming from the Trump camp suggest that his administration will withdraw from the Paris climate deal.
Since this process takes four years, it’s rumored that Trump is considering the shortcut of leaving the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which George Bush Sr. signed in 1992 and the Senate ratified. That would set the U.S. apart from every other nation on earth (except the Vatican, which is strongly in favour of climate action all the same). There would be no clearer way to signal that Trump is making the U.S. a rogue state.
Unilateralism on this scale could throw up legal, political, and diplomatic hurdles that Trump’s team might not easily overcome. The Senate might demand a say on leaving the UNFCCC — and it’s not a given that a majority would favor the path of global isolation.
Alternatively, the Trump administration might choose to ignore Washington’s commitments without formally abandoning the international climate process. One of the first victims could be the global Green Climate Fund, which was set up to help developing countries with their climate transitions — and is now unlikely to see at least $2 billion of the $3 billion originally promised to it by the United States.
But the Trump wrecking ball won’t be able to destroy everything in its path. There are strong signs that U.S. isolation won’t wreck the Paris Agreement. Many other countries (including Saudi Arabia) have suggested that they will stick to their international climate commitments with or without the United States. There’s precedent here, too: When George W. Bush withdrew from the last global climate treaty, the Kyoto Protocol, the rest of the world continued with it anyway.
Faced with failed harvests, floods, droughts, and ever more extreme weather, most countries now realize that taking on climate change is in their own self-interest. Ultimately, the countries that lead the way in renewable energy, efficient buildings, and improved public transport (among other climate measures) will be best placed to cope with changes in the global economy.