Unstoppable ambition: Trump and climate change

Liz Gallagher

Under the last administration, the US was finally facing up to its responsibilities on climate change. While the new president and his team might want to sabotage their climate commitments, they are likely to find that the global momentum for change on the issue is irreversible.

Every winter, the international climate community congregate to negotiate the global climate rules and frameworks that guide our response both to curbing dangerous greenhouse gases and to adapting to the impacts of climate change. On 7 November 2016 in Marrakech, almost a year after the historic Paris climate agreement when all governments agreed to decouple our societies from fossil fuels, we came back to the negotiating table to flesh out the details. But what should have been a jubilant moment, was overshadowed by ‘events’.

Progressive environmental politics have not been welcomed by some powerful incumbents within the US, but under Obama the US was finally owning its global responsibility.

So, when President Trump was elected, alongside a deeply Republican Congress, those congregated in Marrakech felt the blow. President Trump has called climate change a ‘hoax’ invented by the Chinese and spoken of his intention to take the US out of the Paris agreement.  But, overall, the results of the election do not represent a fatal blow to global climate action.

The resilience and sense of optimism from the climate community to withstand these events is encouraging. The Paris agreement is explicitly designed to rise above political cycles. What’s more, the agreement was unprecedented in its approach to empowering action from players beyond national governments, including companies, cities and regions.

On 9 November, three days into the global climate meeting in Marrakech, the troops rallied. More than 30 countries decided to ratify the Paris agreement as a show of commitment. Major economies like China, Germany, France, EU, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, India and Japan asserted their intent to deliver the Paris agreement.  Vulnerable countries, representing more than one billion people agreed to plan how they would exit from fossil fuels and prosper at the same time. Critically it was the commitment from the non-federal actors within the US that really buffered the blow. Since the election, nearly 900 companies and investors have come together to demonstrate that the US national interest lies in being more efficient and low carbon, and 66 US mayors have called for President Trump to embrace the Paris agreement. So the trends in the real economy are going in the right direction, despite federal politics.

Whilst the prospects of the US pulling out from the Paris agreement may be weakening, withdrawal is still a possibility, and vigilance is crucial.  But what is more likely is that the US will remain in the Paris agreement but dismantle its commitments and even attempt to sabotage from within. Neither of these scenarios is acceptable. The potential for four years of federal malaise or even worse, active sabotage of domestic climate policy will make life harder for those companies, investors and cities on course to decarbonise.

The individuals appointed by President Trump to his administration do not bode well for those who hold dear the premise that honest, robust, coherent evidence should inform policy. In particular, former ExxonMobil CEO, now Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson who has questioned whether the combustion of fossil fuels was the most significant contributor to rising greenhouse gases. Some commentators have likened his understanding of climate change to a new form of climate denial, known as ‘lukewarmism’ – the belief that man-made climate change is real, but not dangerous and that the combustion of fossil fuels is not the main contributor to climate change.

We can no longer rely upon the US to expend its political capital in engaging the likes of China, India and Brazil to do more. Instead, a more distributed climate leadership will be required. Many countries will overachieve their current emissions reduction targets given the astonishing developments in the renewables sector. As such it will be incumbent upon Europe, and in particular the UK, France and Germany, to proactively seek out new partnerships with the likes of China, Canada, Brazil, Mexico, India and South Africa to raise the bar on how we approach 2020.

The G7 and G20 meetings this year will both be a test for how countries respond to President Trump on climate change. Emphasising the sound, robust nature of the evidence will send a strong signal to Congress that human-induced climate change and its subsequent threats are established as consensus amongst European and global leaders. Our best line of defence is to make climate change more personal.  We need to demonstrate to those who don’t believe in the severity of the problem the daily impacts climate change has on their lives now, and the benefits of the transition to a brighter future.

Whilst President Trump, his administration and some members of Congress will likely do all they can to sabotage the US climate commitments, taking action on climate change is inescapable both in reality and politically. Non-federal action by business, cities and states will continue, albeit slower if President Trump fights back hard, but the direction of travel is clear. The consensus on the threat posed by climate change is now considered a top-tier foreign policy priority. The reality of climate change is undeniable and the evidence demonstrates that early action saves lives, money and prevents conflicts. And finally, climate action reaps rewards, offers value for money and is heading down an irreversible path. One country, albeit one of the biggest emitters and most powerful in international affairs, now no longer commands and controls the global level of climate ambition.

Written in March 2017.  Image: Dani El H

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