President-elect Donald Trump, probably the most discussed man of 2016, is about to move into the oval office on the 20th of January. From his alleged links with Russia, derogatory statements about women and plans to build a wall on the US-Mexican border, Trump has proven to feel no remorse about spreading wrong information. How will Trump’s Administration deal with climate change? Based on his statement that “climate change is hoax invented by the Chinese”, one might expect the worse. Let’s have a closer look.
What Trump really thinks about climate change
Days before Trump will be inaugurated as 45th president of the United States of America, predicting what policy under his Administration will look like still feels like reading the tea leaves. We get an idea when we put a series of one-liners and statements next to one another, though. In the early stages of his campaign, he repeatedly stated that he doesn’t believe in climate change. Be it the Chinese or politically motivated climate scientists, he considers the whole thing “nonsense fed to the public”.
The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 6, 2012
In an interview in Miami, where the rising sea is already flooding the streets at high tide, Trump told a reporter of the Miami Herald what he thinks about sea level rise: “I would say it goes up, it goes down, and I think it’s very much like this over the years”. Nothing to do with carbon emissions, who would ever consider such a thing? Too bad the numbers tell us that since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, global sea level has risen by nearly twenty centimeters. And this trend matches the rise in global temperatures and CO2 concentrations in Earth’s atmosphere scaringly well.
Dump the Paris Agreement
The morning of November 9th, the day after the presidential elections, the world seemed to wake up with a nasty hangover. The largest chunk of people on this planet deemed the idea that Donald Trump would actually win the elections utterly ridiculous. Climate scientists and environmentalists were probably most terrified when the news came in. The now president-elect had repeatedly stated during his campaign that he would withdraw from the ambitious global climate deal known as the Paris Agreement, struck between 196 nations one year earlier .
The Paris Agreement sets out the ambition to limit global warming by maximum 2 degrees celsius by 2100, to prevent catastrophic climate disruption that would endanger the livelihoods of millions of people around the world. In fact, at the same time Trump held his election party, negotiators from all over the world were gathering at COP22 in Marrakech, Morocco, to work out the implementation of that same historical climate deal. Although shocked by the prospect of having a climate denier leading the 2nd largest emitter in the world (after China), soon a spirit of grim determination took hold of the gathering. One man would not stop the global movement to solve the climate challenge, was the message.
Nobody really knows
But with a man like Trump you never know what is going to happen. Soon after his election, he backed down on his earlier statements. In an interview with Fox News in the beginning of December, he said that “nobody really knows” if climate change is happening or not. “I’m still open-minded. Nobody really knows,” he said. “Look, I’m somebody that gets it, and nobody really knows. It’s not something that’s so hard and fast. I do know this: Other countries are eating our lunch.” What that last part is supposed to mean, I’m not sure. He is probably referring to the Chinese again. What we do know for sure is that climate change is happening, as renown Canadian climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe patiently pointed out on Twitter, for what must have been the hundred time.
A thermometer isn’t liberal or conservative; it doesn’t give you a different number depending on whether you vote left or right. pic.twitter.com/C2DJdS7TeB
— Katharine Hayhoe (@KHayhoe) December 3, 2016
Wind turbines kill birds
Trump’s opinion on the issue of climate change and global warming is one thing, but besides he also fancies a weird aversion against renewable energy. In particular wind energy is not his thing. He blames them for killing “more than one million birds a year” and ruining the landscape. In particular, if it’s the Scottish landscape surrounding his Menie golf resort. In December 2015, Trump challenged an offshore wind farm project near the resort in court –he lost.
Ugly industrial wind turbines are ruining the beauty of parts of the country–and have inefficient unreliable energy to boot.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 11, 2012
Although it is true that birds fly into wind turbines, scientific estimates range from 20000 to 570000 bird deaths a year and not a million or more. On the other hand, Trump doesn’t talk about the 500000 to 1 million birds that are estimated to die in oil field production skim pits and centralized oilfield wastewater disposal facilities. Nor does he mention that domestic cats kill up to 4 billion birds every year. I am wondering how many birds have died after flying into the Trump Tower.
A summary of Trump’s climate and energy policy ideas
Instead of building out renewable energy infrastructure, Trump wants to revive the dying coal industry. Open public land to fracking. Abandon the stop on oil drilling in the Arctic. Undo the Clean Power Plan. Eliminate the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) and DOE (Department of Energy). Step out the Paris Agreement. Hunt down scientists that have been involved in climate science. Approve pipeline projects like Keystone XL which run through holy land of indigenous people. Basically, he wants to reverse all the progress the United States have made under Obama, who made climate change the main policy focus during his second term.
Trump’s corporate attitude could just be what saves us
After the election results came in, I tried to stay positive. First of all, Trump showed little knowledge across nearly the whole board of topics that came up during the presidential debates. For climate change, it was clearly no different. In the vagueness about how he was planning to lead the country after his inauguration, one could distinguish one clear trend: it would be an Administration doubling down on job creation and infrastructure, lead with the mindset of a businessman.
That was somehow comforting. It is now commonly accepted by business leaders that tackling climate change and developing clean technologies simply is the way to go for a healthy economy in the long run. Once Trump would look properly at the numbers, he would realize that solar energy is actually cheaper than using coal in many US states. So even if he doesn’t believe climate change is true and thinks wind turbines are ugly, his business mentality should recognize renewable energy just makes a lot of sense for the US economy and energy independence.
A climate denier’s dream team
Hoping that our not very educated president would surround himself with people who know what they are talking about, I felt less pessimistic about Trump’s mandate than many people around me. That is… until his cabinet picks came out. That’s right. Trump has cherrypicked America’s best defenders of the oil and gas industry and climate deniers.
Will be working all weekend in choosing the great men and women who will be helping to MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 18, 2016
To start with, the nominee for secretary of state is Rex Tillerson, former CEO of ExxonMobile, the largest oil and gas company in the US. Although ExxonMobil has a history of large-scale funding of climate denial think tanks, Tillerson himself approves that climate change exists but downplays its potential impacts. Besides that, it is very questionable if Tillerson will be able to defend the public interest instead of ExxonMobile’s one. During a senate hearing last week, republican Senator Mark Rubio questioned him extensively on his good relationships with Russia, and Vladimir Putin in particular. It is no secret the two come along well. That shouldn’t come as a big surprise, since Russia mainly lives of its oil and gas exports and has made several contracts with ExxonMobil to explore oil and gas. Tillerson even received the Russian Honor of Friendship medal in 2013.
— The New York Times (@nytimes) January 11, 2017
Who else has Trump selected to join the club? To head the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), he has chosen Scott Pruitt. The man is not only a climate denier, in his function as attorney general in Oklahoma he also sued the department he is about to lead several times over its regulation to protect the environment. He probably would like to eliminate the Agency altogether. From a practical point of view, that is nearly impossible though thanks to specific laws that protect federal agencies. More likely, he will try to withdraw the Clean Power Plan, Obama’s centerpiece to reduce carbon emissions in the energy sector.
Nonetheless, a court ruled in 2009 that greenhouse gasses are harming the American public and that the EPA has to regulate them. One way or another, Pruitt will have to come up with a solution. Knowing that the Clean Power Plan has been reached after years of discussion with industry stakeholders and that the energy sector already started moving in the direction of lower carbon intensity, it is questionable if the trend can be reversed.
A similar story holds for the DOE, Department of Energy, which Trump likes to see run by former Texas governor Rick Perry. As a climate science denier, he named the DOE as one of the federal agencies he wanted to cut out in his run for the republican presidential nomination in 2011. He will follow-up Ernest Moriz, a nuclear physicist from MIT. Rick Perry has a bachelor degree in animal science. Just saying.
Although Texas became a national leader in wind energ during his 14-year long governance, I don’t expect the DOE to give him a hearty welcome. Trump’s transitioning team sent a questionnaire to the department’s management asking for details about its climate change and renewables-related activities. It further requested the names of all the DOE’s employees involved in those projects, raising fears of an impending witch hunt. The department refused.
We could go on for some time, listing Trump’s full selection of his inner circle. The main point is that they are either right-wing climate deniers or people following a very strong corporate mindset. Or both. His inner cabinet is also strikingly white and male. Of the 21 positions, only four will be seated by women and one by a nonwhite. With many of his inner cabinet picks having close to zero experience in politics (including mister Trump himself), now we can only wait and see what this mix of people is going to do with the country.
It might not be all pain and misery
So, is it game over for the climate? Let’s not be pessimistic. As Trump said himself, he “still is open-minded”. The good thing about having Trump as republican president is that he seems to be driven by what the public thinks about him and a business mindset that is relatively open in comparison with many conservative republicans. Other presidential candidates were far more ideological and I believe we would have been worse of with them.
Another bright point is his ‘tech summit’ in December. Trump organized a meeting in New York with the CEO’s of the country’s most important tech companies, to discuss job creation and industry matters. Apple’s Tim Cook, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Alphabet CEO Larry Page and Tesla’s Elon Musk were all there. With those smart –and mainly liberal– guys advising him, I feel reassured the next four years don’t necessarily need to be a disaster. And if Trump indeed plans to listen more to Silicon Valley’s best entrepreneurs, he might one day even consider implementing a carbon tax. Such a measure has been asked for by several business leaders and has bipartisan support.
For those who fear that Trump would retreat from the Paris Agreement: that is easier said than done. In fact, since it entered into force on the 4th of November last year, the process to step out of the agreement takes at least four years. I have a funny feeling that Obama has something to do with that –it means that Trump cannot undo the Agreement within his first presidential term. And as Rex Tillerson pointed out, it is much more interesting for the US to keep a seat at international climate talks then excluding itself. Of course, since the Agreement is based on voluntary pledges, Trump could simply decide to ignore the US pledge that was made by the Obama administration. It would severely hurt his diplomatic position, though.
Anyway, if Trump is planning to make a big point of infrastructure works to boost job creation, he better seriously considers building infrastructure that is more climate change resilient or mitigating. If the push doesn’t come from the federal level, the states will do so. This trend is already happening and will be difficult to reverse. In any case, I see the US losing its dominant role in global politics to China if it retreats from the Paris Agreement and the many free trade agreements, as Trump has warned. If he really wants to make America great again, he should take climate change seriously. He might finally come to the same conclusion as Obama: it is the biggest single issue of our time.
Thank you for everything. My last ask is the same as my first. I’m asking you to believe—not in my ability to create change, but in yours.
— President Obama (@POTUS) January 11, 2017
Editor’s note: since Trump has won the election, fake news is a hot topic. For all my articles, I do hours or even days of research. For this particular article, I draw upon more than thirty or so solid sources. Nonetheless, if you find erroneous information, you are welcome to let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org .