Donald Trump will be President. What Does this Mean for Global Action on Climate Change?

Following Donald Trump’s upset election victory, the public, pundits and policymakers all over the world are parsing his campaign promises to understand what he will do on a range of issues.  On climate change, the question is especially salient. Just before the election, the Paris Agreement entered into force. However, Trump campaign communications have said that the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan, an important part of the U.S. strategy for achieving commitments under the Paris Agreement, would be scrapped. 

Recently, Trump’s campaign manager said that the President-elect’s position is that climate change in “naturally occurring” – that is, real but not man-made. And Myron Ebell, head of the transition for the Environmental Protection Agency, has voiced skepticism of climate change and opposed current U.S. policy. So, observers ask, will Trump lead the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement, following in the footsteps of President George W. Bush almost 16 years ago when he announced the U.S. would abandon the Kyoto Protocol? 

Documenting More of Climate Change’s Impact

For now, there is no way to know until the Trump administration takes office. It is more interesting to examine how the global context for climate change policymaking has shifted since 2001, the last time a Republican administration succeeded a Democratic one. Much has changed:

  • The effects of climate change around the world, and in the U.S., are accelerating and increasingly noticeable in terms of record global temperatures, sea-level rise, shifts in the ranges of vegetation and animal species, the advance of tropical diseases into regions previous free of these, and a multitude of other physical evidence. In the Arctic, the retreat of polar ice is accelerating, opening an ice-free channel for ships to traverse the Northwest Passage.
 
  • Public agreement on the scientific basis for assessments that human activity is the driver of climate change is clear around the world. Even in the U.S., where the level of agreement is low compared to other countries, this level is about two-thirds of respondents. A Pew Center poll in 2013 reported that 67 percent of respondents in the U.S. said that there is solid evidence of global warming, compared to 57 percent in 2009, while 54 percent agreed that scientific consensus was that human activity is the cause, up from 45 percent in 2012. 
 
  • National policies on climate change have advanced considerably, helping drive dramatic decreases in the cost of clean energy technologies, fostering the expansion of the clean energy industry around the world, transforming the patterns of energy production in many countries. Notably, the commitment of many developing countries to these policies is based on the assessment that they are not only good for the environment, but good for national economies and social development.
 

Investing and Implementing Clean Energy 

  • The strategies of many countries to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions through resource diversification and efficiency are resulting in progress without damage to economic performance. This is true in the U.S., where total GHG emissions increased by less than 0.1 percent between 2011 and 2014, even as the economy expanded by six percent in real terms, adding 9.5 million jobs. One reason for the decline is the dramatic increase in consumption of domestic natural gas production, which is available at very low prices – also a major driver for the decline in coal prices, skidding stock valuations and even bankruptcy.
 
  • Meanwhile, private capital is flooding into investments in clean energy, and of course, the scale of government spending and development assistance is dwarfed by the pools of private and institutional capital that could be mobilized in future. Equally important, clean energy technology, especially solar photovoltaic power, like computers and cell phones, is becoming increasingly ubiquitous. Home solar systems are threatening the business model of large, integrated utilities.
 
  • In the United States, there is a considerable amount being done at the state and local level; policies supportive of renewable energy and other action on climate change have flourished under Democratic and Republican administrations alike. Indeed, many state-level initiatives emerged during the years of limited engagement on climate at the federal level.
 

International Agreements Move Forward

  • The momentum of international action has increased. Two international agreements on related issues preceded the entry-into-force of the Paris Agreement in October. The Kigali Agreement to phase out HFCs (refrigerants with very high heat-trapping potential) amends and expands the 1987 Montreal Protocol, which successfully rolled back ozone depleting chemicals. And the International Civil Aviation Organization concluded an offsetting and reduction scheme from international flights to cap GHG emissions at 2020 levels.
 
  • Finally, the architecture of the Paris Agreement is more flexible than that of Kyoto, and crucially, it has already entered into force. (Even the Kyoto Protocol entered into force in 2005, notably, as a result of Russia’s ratification.) Under the terms of the agreement, which is not a treaty requiring U.S. Senate approval, withdrawal is only effective four years after written notification is given. Of course, this does not prevent a nation from disregarding its commitments, and there is no sanction for doing so.

The federal government’s stance on climate change still matters when it comes to actions to reduce GHG emissions, but far less than before. Indeed, the role of market forces in shaping the future will grow relative to government policy. U.S. government spending will continue to be important when it comes to meeting the challenge of what is already occurring, such as sea level rise. Here, investment in climate-resilient infrastructure will be increasingly important and likely politically popular. As a result, there is an opportunity to make climate resilience a feature of the infrastructure development that Trump has stated will be part of his program.
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