Dark days ahead for our climate

As the second largest emitter of carbon dioxide and historically the largest contributor to observed climate change, the United States has a unique responsibility to lead the effort to avoid increased damage caused by rising global temperatures. The political climate in the US, however, has proven hostile to significant movement towards a comprehensive solution. In the previous Congress, known climate skeptics and deniers (all of whom are Republican) made up 38% of the House of Representatives and 33% of the Senate. Partisan polarization among voters is also extreme: in 2016, 85% of Democrats agreed that the rise in Earth’s temperature in the last century was mainly due to human activities, while only 38% of Republicans shared this view.

Confronted with these political barriers, the Obama Administration decided from early on to treat climate change as a legacy issue. Despite initial setbacks such as the blocking of cap-and-trade legislation in 2010 (including opposition from some maximalist Democrats), President Obama redoubled efforts to alter the country’s course on both domestic and international mitigation policy. American leadership, for instance, was crucial for the successful signing of the Paris Agreement last December and its entering into force earlier this year. On the domestic front, Obama has leveraged his executive powers to circumvent Congress in order to take action. Among other initiatives, the President put in place the Clean Power Plan (CPP) which is understood as the cornerstone of current Federal emissions reduction policy. The plan seeks to limit greenhouse gas emissions from coal and natural gas power plants, with an overall target of 32% emissions reductions in the American electricity sector by 2030.

The Presidential and Congressional elections this year were decisive for the future of our global climate. Although the Paris Agreement was an historic moment for international cooperation on climate change, climate scientists have strongly questioned the notion that current national emissions reduction pledges will see average global temperature rise, relative to pre-industrial levels, below the dreaded 2C threshold by 2100. At the moment, what is in place is not enough to protect our climate; much more effort is needed to ensure a stable future. American leadership is seen as a necessary condition for increased ambition by other major emitters, notably China and India. Similarly, domestic mitigation efforts have also proven to be on shaky ground. The CPP, for instance, is currently being challenged in Federal court by 28 states and a slew of energy interests on the grounds that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has overstepped its legal authority. While many analysts believe that the court will uphold the CPP, it may not matter at this point.

A Republican-led Congress along with an outspoken climate denier President is the nightmare scenario for our climate. It is beyond question that we will experience severe backsliding on climate change policy both internationally and domestically once this unified Republican government comes to power.

President-elect Trump has already sent credible signals on how he intends to honor his promises to radically upend existing environmental policies. The first shock was the announcement that Myron Ebell, a veteran climate denier, will lead the EPA transition team and may even be tapped as its Administrator. It is also clear that Trump plans to rescind the CPP and all other environmental executive orders that are against the interests of the fossil fuel industry. Further, the new administration is more than likely to re-open oil, gas and coal production efforts – all in the name of increased income and energy independence.

At the international level, the threat seems to be even more severe. Discussions emerging from the Trump camp are not focused on whether the United States should withdraw from the Paris Agreement, but how quickly this can be done. Observers were horrified to learn that one of the tactics that might be used is to withdraw from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) which is the foundation agreement on global climate cooperation and also the parent treaty to the Paris Agreement. Such a move would be beyond devastating for global cooperation on climate and would also severely diminish American reputation and standing in the world.

Unfortunately, there is not much room for optimism moving forward. Out of all the campaign pledges Donald Trump put forth, attacking the environment ranks as one of the least politically costly promises that he can deliver. Internationally, withdrawal from existing climate agreements or even simple non-compliance bear no real consequence to his political survival. Also, we should not forget the overwhelming support that he received from fossil fuel producing districts. And while major conservative funders such as the Koch family were surprisingly hostile to Trump in this election, a dismemberment of Obama’s climate change policies might help open the money taps as reelection time approaches.