Our Uncertain Climate Future

What the U.S. Election Now Means for Global Climate Action

By: TANJA SREBOTNJAK, Director of the Hixon Center & LOUIS SPANIAS, Sustainability Program Manager

A few weeks ago, we commented on the apparent climate blackout in the presidential debates and mainstream media coverage. We also provided coverage of the candidate’s opinions in our “Where Does Your Candidate Stand on the Environment?” series and concluded that the Clinton-Kaine ticket would be most determined to forward environmental policy and tackle climate change.

However, following the election on Tuesday, November 8th, we are faced with very different circumstances.

Setting aside all other political and social issues that came up during the election, the future of climate change action has been cast into doubt. President-Elect Donald Trump repeatedly stated throughout his campaign that he will support coal and other fossil fuels, eliminate environmental and public health regulations for coal-fired power plants and oil and gas wells, and also pull the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement and other U.N. climate change commitments

Since the Hixon Center is committed to environmental education and campus sustainability, we will continue documenting environmental and climate change policy developments domestically and internationally, and highlight opportunities for civic action. We will, therefore, evaluate what a Trump presidency might mean for the environment, looking specifically at U.S. involvement in global climate action, specifically as it pertains to the Paris Agreement and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

THE PARIS AGREEMENT and U.N. CLIMATE CHANGE COMMITMENTS

November was shaping up to be a successful month for fighting climate change: The Paris Climate Agreement entered into force on November 4th, 30 days after crossing the two necessary thresholds of ratification by at least 55 parties who, collectively, account for at least 55% of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.

The UNFCCC’s 22nd Conference of the Parties in Marrakech, Morocco intended to further flesh out national actions and strengthen climate change financing agreements for developing nations, but the U.S. election on November 8 threw a wrench into the spokes of these international efforts. World leaders expressed deep concern to the American delegation in Marrakech, hoping that the U.S. would not abdicate its leadership role on climate change mitigation and adaptation.

That concern is not unfounded: President-Elect Trump has asserted that global warming is a hoax perpetrated by China to reduce American competitiveness and, throughout his campaign, clearly prioritized the continued extraction and burning of coal and natural gas. President-Elect Trump has also said he will withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Agreement, as well as permanently withhold the $2.5 billion that the U.S. still owes the UN Green Climate Fund.

Should he stay true to his campaign promises, a few things are likely to happen: first and foremost, it would harm the reputation and leadership position of the United States. As the world’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gases, American commitments to tackle climate change are of paramount importance, and the U.S. plays a significant role in technology and knowledge transfer to help poorer countries prepare for and cope with the losses and damages they will sustain from climate change. To withdraw from the Paris Agreement would seriously damage already-strained U.S. relations with China. The two countries, jointly accounting for 38% of global greenhouse gas emissions, were able to forge a new partnership on climate change when President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping announced a historic agreement to cooperate and collaborate on reducing greenhouse gas emissions in November 2014. The two countries also ratified the Paris Agreement together in September 2016. Should Trump follow through, this recent diplomacy amidst a historically turbulent relationship with China will be at risk, and the Chinese know as much having recently called on Trump to uphold America’s end of the agreement.

The loss of American financial and legislative commitments to tackling climate change will wreck any chance of staying under the 2-degree warming threshold agreed to in Paris. Climate scientists are already concerned that the Paris Agreement’s pledges will not be enough to limit warming to 2 degrees in this century. Should Trump pull the U.S. out of the agreement, an already very ambitious goal will become largely irrelevant, and will certainly entail a strong rise in sea levels and an increase in the frequency of harmful extreme weather events amongst other consequences, putting human and animal populations around the world at serious risk in the decades to come.

WHAT CAN TRUMP ACTUALLY DO?

In regards to the Paris Agreement, Trump has a few options. He can formally withdraw from the agreement, using the controversial argument that the Paris Agreement is a treaty, not simply an agreement, and hence subject to U.S. senate approval, which President Obama has not secured. However, the full withdrawal process can only be completed by 2020, near the end of his first term in office. He could also take advantage of the agreement’s few and small enforcement provisions and simply ignore the U.S.’s obligations under the agreement, failing to deliver on the submitted emission reduction target (26-28% by 2030 compared with 2005). Considering Trump’s likely move to dismantle the Clean Power Plan and his hopes to revive the U.S. coal industry, this reduction target will become unachievable anyway. A more serious and immediate move would be to announce the country’s departure from the UN Climate Change Convention (UNFCCC), which would take effect after one year and include automatic departure from the Paris Agreement as well.

Furthermore, ditching the Paris Agreement and stalling or reversing domestic climate change action – in whatever form or shape – may set the path for other nations to follow. It will entail a set-back for global climate change finance and impact poorer nation’s abilities to transition to lower carbon energy systems.

Yet, such moves do not come without consequences. Losing credibility is one, but countries committed to climate change action will also not just let the U.S. off the hook with its turnaround policies. China, the European Union and Canada have already reaffirmed their own positions, and will urge the U.S. to stand by its pledge with actions ranging from positive engagement to threats of retaliation on other policy issues dear to the Trump Administration and Congress. How exactly these diplomatic maneuvers will play out remains to be seen, but it appears that China is emerging as a new climate change leader, willing to fill the void created by a U.S. retreat. The Paris Agreement will remain in effect, with or without the U.S., and thereby at a minimum continue an international process for dialogue and action. At the same time, a renewed focus may need to be placed on regional, state and local action in the U.S. and elsewhere. Technological innovation in clean energy and market forces affecting coal and natural gas prices have created a substantial path-dependency towards de-carbonization that federal action cannot fully dismantle.

But nevertheless, international progress on climate change is now at risk, and it may be up to the world to dissuade the Trump administration from reneging on the country’s climate commitments.