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Trump’s Proposals: Dangerous to our Climate’s Future

By: Jeff Masters and Bob Henson 4:18 PM GMT on November 15, 2016

The greatest environmental challenge of our lifetimes will play out in a strikingly new and uncertain context with the election of Donald Trump as the 45th U.S. president. Trump has made it abundantly clear he disagrees that humans are changing Earth’s climate, and he has questioned whether our climate is changing at all. This places him at odds with the leaders of virtually every other nation on Earth, according to a Sierra Club compilation of statements from world leaders released in July. Among Trump’s campaign pledges, as summarized in Vox, are:

--scrap the Clean Power Plan, put forth by President Barack Obama to regulate greenhouse emissions from power plants
--dismantle most or all of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
--abolish federal spending related to climate change, which could end or disrupt the work of thousands of scientists and engineers
--“cancel” the hard-fought global Paris Agreement on climate change mitigation, which was years in the making and finalized only last year.

The roster of potential members of the Trump administration includes several fossil-fuel executives, and a post-election organization chart confirmed that economist Myron Ebell (Competitive Enterprise Institute) will be heading up Trump’s transition team at EPA. Ebell has long been one of the nation’s most prominent voices fostering doubt about climate change and its risks. In 2007, Ebell told Vanity Fair: “…whether it's caused by human beings or not, it's nothing to worry about."

Figure 1. American students take part in a protest outside the COP22 international climate conference in Marrakesh, Morocco, on Wednesday, November 9, 2016, following the U.S. presidential election. Image credit: Fadel Senna/AFP/Getty Images.

Trump has railed against established climate science for years, most famously with his tweeted claim of November 6, 2012: “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” At the three 2016 presidential debates, the topic of climate change was never raised by moderators, even though one unasked question--”What are the steps you will take to address climate change?”--placed #4 among 30 potential questions for the second debate as ranked by participants in an online poll. Likewise, climate change was not addressed in the wide-ranging “60 Minutes” interview with Trump and family members on Sunday, November 13.

Trump’s election to the presidency of the most powerful nation on Earth is a serious blow to our hopes of preserving a livable climate for our children. In order to keep global warming below the dangerous threshold of 2°C above pre-industrial levels, we needed strong American leadership and a near-WWII-level effort to move the U.S. and global economy away from fossil fuels. Instead, Trump has promised to strongly oppose that transition. While Trump’s actions cannot stop the ongoing shift of our energy economy away from fossil fuels, they could still do a tremendous amount of damage, because there remains far more fossil fuel on Earth than we can safely burn while still avoiding dangerous risks to our climate. As climate science writer and former energy researcher Joe Romm wrote on Wednesday at thinkprogress.org: “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 light bulbs), 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.”

Indeed, any U.S. action to halt or slow down climate change mitigation and adaption will run up against powerful worldwide momentum, including the global recognition of climate change threats and the enormous growth of wind and solar energy. What appears almost certain now is that U.S. emission cuts will fail to meet the national pledge submitted as part of the Paris Agreement (a 26 - 28% reduction in U.S. greenhouse emissions by 2025 compared to 2005). This agreement was intended to grow stronger in subsequent years, with each country raising its voluntary goals, but in this case the U.S. would be moving backward. Even if other nations remain on board, the extra greenhouse emissions from the United States will raise the odds of truly serious consequences for many years to come. This year to date is the warmest in global records, and carbon dioxide concentrations have risen above 400 ppm for good, ensuring even more warming to come. The atmosphere is not waiting for U.S. leaders to decide whether human-produced climate change is real or not.

Figure 2. A man walks on dunes on October 26, 2016 near Morocco's southeastern oasis town of Erfoud, north of Er-Rissani in the Sahara Desert. The oasis of Tafilalet near Er-Rissane is at risk of disappearing as the area is plagued by long-term drought and desertification. Image credit: Fadel Senna/AFP/Getty Images.

Based on every signal we have now, a Trump presidency would abandon any U.S. leadership role in global climate policy. It remains to be seen how Trump’s proposals will translate into firmer plans and actions, and how other nations might be influenced. For the sake of this discussion, let’s assume that the Trump administration’s plans and their repercussions worldwide could end up producing an additional 0.5°C increase in Earth's temperature before it eventually stabilizes. This difference may not seem like much, but it would make a huge difference in some regions. For example, research published last month in Science stated that the impact on ecosystems of a 1.5°C warming is not unknown for Mediterranean societies, but it warned that a 2°C warming would make the warm forests of southern Spain and North Africa likely to be taken over by desert by the end of the century, making living there difficult. Even before Trump’s election, holding global warming to 2°C above pre-industrial levels was looking unlikely. Now, a 3°C warming is looking more probable, raising the specter that the children of today voting during the U.S. election of 2056 will be grappling with whether or not we should attempt desperate geo-engineering efforts to intentionally modify the climate in order to avoid massive disruption and damage to our ecosystems and societies.

Trump’s proposals thus far on climate change would put short-term profits ahead of the long-term well-being of ourselves and the children of future generations, and they need to be strongly resisted and protested. If we want to preserve our best chances for a livable climate, we must protect environmental regulations, push for divestment from fossil fuel stocks, invest in renewable energy, join action groups, organize ballot initiatives, and work with state and local governments. Hunter Cutting of climatesignals.org has a more in-depth analysis on how the climate action movement can move forward. In his address to the nation after the election, Trump said he wanted to be a president for all Americans. Let’s hold him to that promise.

Jeff Masters and Bob Henson
Note: Our views are our own and not necessarily representative of The Weather Company or IBM.

Additional reading

China may leave the U.S. behind on climate change due to Trump
Andrew Freedman, Mashable

What Trump can--and can’t--do all by himself on climate
Paul Voosen, Science

Climate Trumps Everything, No Matter Who Is President
Michael E. Mann and Susan Joy Hassol, Scientific American

Climate Change Politics

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.