Donald Trump’s surprising victory in the U.S. presidential election will ignite a dramatic change to U.S. environmental policy. Trump has signaled that his administration will reject President Barack Obama’s policies aimed at combating climate change, a move that likely would throw international efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions into chaos.
The stakes for the United States, and the world, are enormous: If humankind does not reduce its greenhouse gas emissions immediately, climate scientists say, Earth could face as much as 11 degrees Fahrenheit of warming by 2100 relative to preindustrial temperatures, leading to increases in droughts and wildfires, rising seas, and major disruptions to global agriculture.
In fact, the effects of climate change already are being felt, including rising anomalies in global temperature, sea level rise, ocean acidification, an uptick in the frequency and severity of heatwaves, losses of land ice in Antarctica and Greenland, and changes in the ranges of many plant and animal species.
But Trump has long questioned whether climate change is real, and he has dismissed claims that it poses a major threat. In public statements and in his campaign platform, the New York real estate developer and reality TV star has extolled a resurgent U.S. fossil fuel industry, at the expense of existing policies combating climate change. He has also said that he will cut U.S. payments to United Nations climate change programs.
What’s more, Trump has hinted that he might cut the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, as well as roll back the Obama administration’s Climate Action Plan and associated policies, including participation in the Paris Agreement.
In a phone interview, the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Myron Ebell—the head of Trump’s U.S. Environmental Protection Agency transition team—says that he cannot comment on the Trump transition, much less the incoming Trump administration’s climate policy. However, he called attention to the campaign’s consistency on calling for increased fossil fuel development and decrying the Obama administration’s climate policies.
“[Trump] has made several promises, several times over, about energy and climate, and I think they’re pretty clear,” said Ebell. “It’s pretty black and white.”
In his work with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank funded by ExxonMobil and free-market groups including the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, Ebell has argued that Earth is warming only modestly, perhaps because of human influence. (He says, however, it’s impossible to assess humans’ contribution—flouting NASA and the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which both find that climate change is very likely caused by human activity such as the burning of fossil fuels.)
In his telling, climate change does not stand to be a problem until 100 to 200 years from now—and that in the meantime, the goal should be to expand global access to energy of all types. He also says that the Competitive Enterprise Institute opposes federal subsidies for all types of energy, fossil fuels and renewables alike.
“We love wind and solar,” Ebell says, adding that he is simply against tax credits aimed at boosting the wind and solar power industries—credits that often are crucial to any significant plan to develop wind and solar power programs. Regardless, the renewable energy sector is growing fast and likely will continue to do so, even without the federal government’s support—contributing to a global boom in the technologies needed to fight climate change.
Environmental groups and scientists vehemently disagree with Trump and Ebell’s framing of climate change.
“Reversing our current energy policies and regulations just to appease a few special interests would be an environmental disaster, it would kill many more people because of pollution, and it would be the greatest gift to China—who would leave the U.S. in the dust for decades to come,” writes Enric Sala, a National Geographic Society Explorer-in-Residence and founder of the Pristine Seas project, in an emailed statement. “Who would suffer the most? The American worker.”
Bob Inglis, head of the conservative environmental group republicEn, agrees with Sala: “[Ebell] is going to have his fifteen minutes, and then he’s going to be laughed off the stage as foolish. I have confidence in that.”
“Experience and data are very effective, but they’re harsh teachers,” says Inglis, who maintains that climate change is real, human-caused, and an urgent threat. “And we’re going to be taught.”
The Paris Disagreement
In keeping with his unfounded claims that climate change is a “hoax” that was “created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive,” Trump has proposed rescinding the Obama administration’s Climate Action Plan and scuttling the Clean Power Plan.
The Clean Power Plan is a controversial Obama administration EPA rule designed to cut U.S. power plants’ carbon emissions one-third below 2005 levels by 2030. The rule is key to meeting the U.S.’s commitments under the UN’s Paris Agreement, the international climate pact that was negotiated in late 2015 and came into force on November 4.
The agreement, a landmark 195-nation initiative seeking to scale back greenhouse gases, aims to curb warming above pre-industrial averages to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100. As it stands, carbon emissions already in the atmosphere have “locked in” about 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit of warming by the end of the century. (Find out more about the Paris Agreement.)
Trump has said that he wants to “cancel” the Paris Agreement, a blustering claim that likely amounts to Trump abandoning or ignoring the U.S.’s stated national emissions reductions targets. And the Paris Agreement is happening, with or without the United States’s leadership: Even if the United States were to withdraw or ignore its goals, at least 55 percent of signatory nations representing at least 55 percent of global emissions are projected to ratify the agreement by the end of 2016, ensuring that it would enter into force.
The independent research firm Lux Research estimates that by 2024, Trump’s proposed policies would increase U.S. carbon emissions by 16 percent relative to the proposed policies of Hillary Clinton, who aimed to keep the Obama administration’s goal of reducing emissions about 30 percent relative to 2005 levels by 2025. That upswing amounts to 3.4 billion tons of carbon emissions from 2016 to 2024, roughly equal to Ukraine’s predicted emissions over the same time.
Beyond the United States’s own uptick in projected emissions, the damage to the country’s international standing on matters of climate change stands to be far greater. The Obama administration ardently supported the Paris Agreement, and the United States’s participation proved crucial in its rapid ratification. The U.S. backing off of its commitments could embolden other countries to ignore their own pledges.
In an ironic twist, Trump’s ascendancy comes during COP22, the twenty-second meeting of the parties involved in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, a climate treaty ratified by the United States in 1992. Last year’s meeting, COP21, was where the Paris Agreement was negotiated.
“Now that the Paris Agreement has entered into force, all countries, along with subnational governments and non-state actors, have the shared responsibility to continue the great progress achieved to date,” says COP22 president Salaheddine Mezouar, in a statement.
“The climate change question transcends politics and concerns the preservation of our livelihood, dignity and the only planet on which we all live.”
Looking Toward the Future
Inglis, a Republican, remains hopeful that a Trump administration and Republican Congress can muster the political courage to take action on climate change—an opening he says might come with marginalized Trump supporters’ sudden feeling of empowerment.
“I think we need to go to the people who had their backs on the wall, being pressed by their fears of ‘big government,’ and say to them, ‘Okay, you’ve won. And now, in our humility, we’re coming to you to save our common home,’” he says.
“You’ll still have Myron Ebell still yelling that [climate change] is not a problem, but he’s going to have to really yell loud. He’s going to have to try and herd them with fear.
“And I don’t know where he’s going to find that fear.”
Rachael Bale contributed reporting.