Trump and Global Warning
I went to Austin, Texas to attend a Bat Mitzvah of the daughter of my nephew. It turned out that the trip to Texas was one of the most therapeutic sessions I have ever had.
I had left in despair, despondent at the Trump victory, but primarily on the role his climate changing denial regime would have on the prospect of combating global warning. After all, it was already two minutes after midnight and much of the change wrought by the use of fossil fuels was already underway. Most of the impetus already seemed irreversible. Gore had possibly been cheated out of being elected in 2001 and we had eight years, I believe, in which the policies to combat climate change had been set back. President Obama reversed course and began to implement key policies. But he was stymied and blocked for much of his term on many fronts by a Republican dominated Congress that was populated by a plethora of recalcitrant climate change deniers. Would we now be faced with a presidency combined with a Congress in the leading economic power in the world that would not only block but reverse a great deal of the progress to reverse climate change?
After all, to use a cliché, time was of the essence. We were already behind the eight ball – it is a morning for mixed metaphors and clichés. With four and possibly eight more years of policies dedicated to undermining and even reversing efforts to resist and reverse the forces propelling climate change, climate change would not only be irreversible but would carry us well beyond the benchmark of a two-degree Celsius rise in global temperatures.
Donald Trump had blamed the belief in global warming as a propaganda coup fostered and propelled by the Chinese government to help cripple the American economy and give the Chinese economy a boost. As he saw it, even if there was a degree of climate change, it would just mean that frosty days would become more pleasant. Never mind the prognosticators who predicted that much of Florida would be underwater. They were as useless (and corrupt) (and wrong) as the pollsters dealing with the presidential election. Never mind the scientists who warned of more violent weather patterns and increased devastating storms in some areas and drought in others. Never mind the 97% of environmental scientists who insisted that the ecosystem of the earth, which was delicately balanced, was on course to becoming unbalanced to the degree that life on earth would become precarious. After all, Donald Trump could declare not only that he knew more about ISIS than the generals, he could also proclaim that he knew more about climate than scientists and forecasters.
The fringe fanatics denouncing climate change doctrines as a hoax, the nutcases regarded as such in the vast majority of countries in the world, had now won the keys to the government institutions in the most powerful country in the world. These true believers insist that human activity does not underpin climate change. Climate change has nothing to do with the burning of fossil fuel. Climate change was not a man-made disaster, but a natural shift in climate that has taken place over the life span of the planet. And many of them believe that the cosmos was only created less than 6,000 years ago.
Currently, the Marrakech Climate Change Conference is underway in Morocco under the auspices of the Framework Convention on Climate Change. We already know about Donald Trump’s repeated assertions that he will tear up many of the treaties entered into with respect to many spheres of international policy, including efforts to set back the forces for climate change. This is the 22nd year since the Conference of the Parties (COP) initiated their work on reversing climate change and the twelfth annual session of the parties committed to the Kyoto protocol in 2004. The conference underway started just the day before the American elections. A reported heavy pall hung over the conference after the results of the American election were announced as the conference entered its third day. The conference continues until the 18th of November. Do the participants know more than I did? How have they avoided sinking into despair? Will they fall back and rely on imagined hope?
After all, it looked as if the policies required to resist the forces of climate change had finally been given a boost to the momentum for change. On 5 October 2016, the threshold for entry into force of the Paris Agreement had been achieved and on 4 November 2016, four days before the American election, the Paris Agreement went into force. The parties to the Paris Agreement would move on to meet in Marrakech. Much other work had been scheduled to adopt and advance international policies designed to impede the forces of climate change. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) had been put in place which recognized there was a present enormous danger 22 years ago on 21 March 1994. 197 countries had ratified the Convention. Would The Donald now withdraw the U.S. ratification since he personally denied that the danger existed? The UNFCCC, along with the UN Convention of Biodiversity and the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, had been adopted at the Earth Summit in Rio the year before and was subsequently reinforced by the Convention on Wetlands.
The goal of all these meetings and the subsequent agreements was to prevent and even reverse dangerous human interference with the climate system of which the greatest danger by far was the dependence of our economy not just on energy – that was not a problem in itself – but on fossil fuels for that energy, fossil fuels the burning of which had been found to be responsible for increased temperatures around the world, increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the increasingly rapid melting of the ice caps at the North and South poles. If Donald Trump and his Republican cohorts in Congress refused to recognize there was even a problem, how could the climate agenda be advanced? But a man had been elected president of the United States who disagreed with the consensus among climatologists. When the UNFCCC was agreed upon in 1994, there had been some degree of dissent and uncertainty about climate change. There was virtually none anymore. But a man had been elected president of the United States who disagreed with the consensus among climatologists. Donald Trump still claimed that man-made climate change was a hoax and, even if it wasn’t, all it would mean would be that he could build his golf courses in the Arctic and Antarctic.
The UNFCCC had defined a clear goal: to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations “at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic (human induced) interference with the climate system” and (this is very important) to do so to achieve a level of change “within a time-frame sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change, to ensure that food production is not threatened, and to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner.” We are already well behind that envisioned timeline. Would the Trump administration smash it to pieces effectively dooming the earth’s eco-system?
After all, the Convention required developed countries to lead the way since the onus was on them; the industrialized economies were responsible for producing most of the pollutants over the last 150 years. They would have the greatest responsibility for cutting emissions as well as the responsibility for helping developing countries reduce their emissions. Emissions were to be reduced to 1990 levels, now considered by many already to be an unachievable target. The best part of these agreements from the UNFCCC forward to the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement has been the creation of a monitoring network to track both the threat and the efforts underway to counter the threat with a reporting mechanism in place.
Would Trump eliminate the American tracking and reporting system because he both does not believe in the danger of climate change and wants to cut government programs so he can cut taxes? Would he undermine the incentives and the policies in place to develop alternative clean sources of energy as prescribed in the Kyoto Protocol (11 December 1997 followed by the 2001 rules for implementation in 2001) in order to achieve internationally binding emission reduction targets? We are all very well aware that these have not been achieved. We also suspect that had Al Gore won the presidency, there would have been a far greater chance that they would have been achieved, or, at the very least, we would have been much closer to those targets.
The Marrakech meetings were intended to mark the inflexion point, the point at which the trend lines towards disaster were, if not reversed, the point in time in which policies and programs were introduced to implement concrete climate responsible programs on the ground and begin the process of reversal to reinforce international collaboration in order to shift to a more sustainable economic development model. In Morocco, they hoped to reinforce the momentum and to celebrate successes. Then, on the third day, the delegates learned that Donald Trump had been elected president of the United States. One could presume that virtually no one in the conference hall was not suffering from despair and frustration. The nemesis of all their fears had achieved power.
The despair went far beyond the fears of a nuclear war. The last time I personally felt this degree of fear for the world was at the time of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, over fifty years ago. That same fear, but in spades, engulfed me now. I was worried for my six children. I was worried for my ten grandchildren. I was worried for my colleagues and friends. I was worried for every inhabitant on this planet, including men like Donald Trump who believe their convictions trump scientific evidence.
How did the delegates in Morocco respond? They fell back on hope. After all, Donald Trump had been very inconsistent in the policies he advocated. Now he was backtracking on a number of them. Perhaps those policies had been advanced for political advantage in the election with no depth of belief behind them. But as the reports indicated, as the delegates at the conference tried to put on a brave face to the news, the anxiety level had risen considerably. After all, how could his years of climate denial not be defining? Further, it may be impossible even for him to unwind the Paris Agreement.
Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists told the delegates to the congress that, “If the U.S. pulls out of this, and is seen as becoming a rogue nation on climate change, that will have implications for everything else on President Trump’s agenda when he wants to deal with foreign leaders. And I think he will soon come to understand that.” Tim Roberts, Professor of Sociology at Brown University, expressed the hope that deep down Donald Trump was not necessarily an anti-environmentalist. It was perhaps a pose. In any case, if he planned to invest in infrastructure, what better direction to give to that funding that investments in renewable energy?
The only problem with these fall backs onto hope is that they do not accord with Donald Trump’s history. He has promised investments in roads and bridges, in inner cities and in the devastated regions of the rust belt. He had set aside the traditional patterns of dealing with other world leaders and especially the bureaucracies of the UN which he cannot sufficiently disparage. Most important, as offered, Trump’s policies on energies would lead to a roasted planet. He promotes “clean” coal and the revival of the coal industry in West Virginia. He has promised to increase initiatives in fracking that have made the U.S. independent in its need for oil and gas over the last ten years. Is the best one can hope for is that he will opt for “dirty” and cheaper gas over coal that would still pour loads of CO2 into the atmosphere? After all, gas killed goal, not Washington. But most of all, the loss of U.S. leadership in the world will be felt and will have a profound negative effect on the momentum already in place.
So where do these committed individuals now rest their hopes? On Trump’s inconsistencies? On his unpredictability? How will that deal with the U.S. brief tenure as a climate change leader in the world? Could Britain take up the mantle of leadership, a Britain that is bogged down in dealing with the threat of Brexit? Could the Europeans almost totally pre-occupied with the “invasion” of refugees and illegal migrants? Could Canada with its huge investments in the tar sands in Alberta and the oil wells off Newfoundland?
Mariana Panuncio-Feldman of the World Wildlife Fund is betting that the U.S. will want to retain its international leadership role. “If the U.S. wants to remain a relevant global player in the economic arena, it is going to have to recognize that it needs to face the climate crisis and address it. And we expect the new administration to do that. Other countries are not waiting.” In this case, false expectations reinforce hope and blind us to likely outcomes. Trump did not surprise the world with his election because deep down he really was not a climate change denier. He surprised us because, in spite of the wayward and independent course he took to win the presidency, he achieved victory. If he was victorious in spite of the advice of his “handlers”, why would he now surprise anyone when he accedes to the presidential office and suddenly become a supporter of policies promoting efforts at setting back the momentum for climate change?
Could Russia be an alternative nexus for leadership on climate change? Given its significant dependence of oil and gas both for its own domestic economy and for earnings from the export of oil and gas, Russia is least likely to take up that leadership role. What about the vaunted leadership provided by the agreement between Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping? Both leaders were determined to leave behind an enduring legacy of action on climate change and a record of a partnership between China and the United States in resisting the forces of climate change. This was to be accomplished through the use of public resources to finance and encourage the transition toward low carbon technologies as a priority as well as putting in place multilateral standards for coal-fired power plants? The G-20 Summit in Hangzhou this year advanced the program through fostering innovation and implementation to advance renewable and clean energy outcomes.
The Americans and Chinese had put in place bilateral agreements to advance the Paris Agreement. They would undergird the resistance to climate change with financial support to carry forward their historic and very ambitious climate change agreements. Would the hard-headed Chinese leadership now fall back on hope in the face of an election of an American president who seemed deliberately to mispronounce the name of their country and to threaten China with economic sanctions for alleged currency manipulation? Not very likely. And the evidence is already in that China will simply use the opportunity of Donald Trump’s election to succeed the U.S. as the leader of the world, though no longer of the free world.
Look at the evidence. Even before the election, facing a possible Trump victory and sensitive to the Chinese public reactions to the insults thrown in China’s direction, China ordered its news media not to provide any extensive or prominent news coverage of the election. Websites, news outlets and TV and radio networks were instructed NOT to provide live coverage as the election results poured in. What did they cover instead? The meeting between Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Vladimir Putin. China never phoned and congratulated Trump on his victory, but simply issued the bland statement that, “China is closely following the U.S. presidential election, and expects to maintain healthy Sino-U.S. relations with the new government.”
China had already focused in its reporting on the “dark side” of the election and characterized the election as a “meaningless farce,” a choice between Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee. The conclusion: the status of Western democracy had been seriously weakened and America would lose its leadership role sooner rather than later. China would be in a position to replace America. Using the climate change agenda among a plethora of additional options, China would become more powerful as it took advantage of this heaven-delivered opportunity.
The democrats in China had been undermined by the Trump victory. As Fangsi de qingchun opined, “I think Trump is the tragedy of the American people. How did he win? It must be a scam. Now I think cats and dogs can be president!” And depression swept through the Far East as its stock markets fell dramatically, as memories of Trump’s promises to abandon the nuclear umbrella and his demands that Japan and Korea pay their “fair share” were recalled. Praying that President-elect might change seemed a chimera.
Is there an alternative to this black cloud over the most important issue of our time?
With the help of Alex Zisman