Watching the election results from a hotel in Marrakech, the site of the latest climate negotiations, was a sobering experience. To realize that the future of the planet may now be so influenced by a person who has called climate change a “hoax” promoted by China to undermine our economy. Like many of my friends, my impulse was to feel “it’s the end of the world as we know it.” However, after a few days’ reflection, and based on more than 30 years involvement in the issue, I began to feel that, while this is a bad situation, it is far from hopeless. Here are a few reasons:
- Global carbon emissions appear to have peaked, mainly due to China’s move away from coal and the declining role of manufacturing there, combined with the shift from coal to gas in the United States. While there are concerns about proposals for new coal plants, many indicators are moving in the opposite direction. Last year, growth in renewables exceeded additional new fossil generation for the first time. With wind and solar prices continuing to decline, and the expectation of a similar decline in storage prices with the advent of the battery gigafactory, it is difficult to see how Trump can make coal “great again.”
- A lot of energy policy is increasingly being made by state and even local governments. California is the sixth largest economy in the world and has strong climate change policies; a few days after the election, the state announced a collaboration with the World Bank to work with Chinese cities on climate change and clean energy. A growing number of U.S. cities have pledged to obtain all of their energy needs from renewable sources. A dozen states have “green banks” that provide concessional financing for clean energy. These are not going away and may even receive greater political support.
- The financial sector, representing many trillions of dollars and an essential partner for Trump’s plans to massively increase spending on infrastructure, has become increasingly aware of climate risks, and the significant costs of inaction. The Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures chaired by Michael Bloomberg and comprised of representatives from the global financial community is expected to issue a report by the end of the year. Will they be willing to insure and finance long-lived infrastructure projects without considering climate risks? Doing so may subject them to both regulatory oversight and litigation, additional risks that cannot be eliminated by presidential decree.
- The U.S. is simply not as dominant a force in international fora as it used to be. Other countries are already making clear that they will not passively accept whatever the new president says. In 1980, I attended one of the first international meetings on ozone layer protection. It was convened by the OECD chemicals group and attended by perhaps a dozen countries and the five key companies producing ozone-destroying chemicals. The U.S. unilaterally reduced global production of CFCs by roughly half, and there was no need to engage developing countries until after initial agreements were reached. The world has changed. Financial discussions require the G20 and not merely the G7 now. China is a major economic power and will soon replace the U.S. as the world’s largest economy. A headline in the Financial Times after Trump’s election effectively captured this new reality: “Beijing warns president-elect against defying world by killing climate deal.” China watchers also pointed out that climate policies there are intimately connected with domestic efforts to reduce pollution and accelerate the use of renewable energy and would not change in response to a U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement.
- Reversing regulations cannot be done quickly or by presidential decree. A formal process must be followed, and one can be sure it would be contested by environmental groups at every stage. The elimination of the Clean Power Plan would leave EPA with the obligation to address climate change consistent with a 2007 Supreme Court decision. Congress can amend the law, although that would presumably precipitate a major fight in a closely divided Senate (note: one Senate seat remains to be decided by runoff election in Louisiana; the Republican majority will thus be either 52-48 or 51-49). Unless the Republicans decided to change the filibuster rules – there are reasons to believe they won’t – the Democrats will retain the ability to block votes on the most publicly visible and controversial proposals.
Despite the above, there is no question that President Trump, with Congressional support, could inflict severe damage on climate policies. Coming at a time when efforts to reduce emissions need to accelerate, not decline, the absence of US participation in the Paris Agreement, much less leadership, is terrible. Support for climate finance, essential for adaptation efforts in poor countries, will almost certainly decline. (Although not disastrously; the U.S. contributes on the order of 20 percent to the major climate funds). On the other hand, as the CPI Landscape of Climate Finance reports show, donor finance is a small fraction of climate-related investment except in the poorest countries, and it is most important as a source of “de-risking” for private investment in projects and countries with high financing costs. Finding ways to do this more effectively is already the subject of international focus through initiatives like the Global Innovation Lab for Climate Finance.
The potential that Trump, with Congressional support, will defund climate science is a serious threat. The U.S. remains a leader in the field, and much of the work is expensive and requires continuity. There is a parallel with research on gun safety, which has almost disappeared in the United States due to fears of Congressional retaliation. A reduction in support of climate science may also directly and indirectly harm the IPCC, which has come to play such a crucial role in building the scientific consensus that Trump so brazenly disregards. But even here, there are limits. When a political appointee in the George W. Bush administration attempted to rewrite climate science, it was leaked to the press and he was forced to resign.
A final personal admonition: do not overreact to names and comments coming from the Trump transition team. While much has been made of the appointment of a climate skeptic, Myron Ebell, to head the EPA transition team, the process is time limited and carried out by volunteers who may or may not have any influence in the actual Administration. I should know – I had the same role for President Clinton in 1992 and can attest that I had no influence whatsoever!
In closing, I would argue that climate change activists have more ways to resist anti-climate action by the new Administration than might first appear, and that they will find considerable support from the international community. Despite all the uncertainties, we do know climate change is real and increasingly manifesting in ways detrimental to human life and development. There is no room – or time – for despair, which tends to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.