The election of Donald Trump at President of the United States may turn out to be a disaster for the climate and especially for climate change negotiations if he sticks to the threats he made during his election campaign. At the same time, it may provide the developing world, especially China, an opportunity to take over the leadership of the battle against climate change.
On his very first day in office, Trump would rescind Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan, withdraw the US from the Paris Climate Agreement and “end the war on coal”, he promised on the campaign trail.
As news of Trump’s victory reached Marrakech — the city in Morocco hosting the November 7-18 UN climate summit — US government delegates reportedly went into a huddle, while negotiators and observers from other countries pinned hope on Obama being able to push through at least some of the promises his government has made over the past eight years before he leaves office in January.
Overturning the Clean Power Plan may not be easy because any such move is likely to be challenged and the case can drag on for over a year, according to experts in Washington. For the rest of the world, the Clean Power Plan is the part that concerns people the least, since it is a mostly domestic plan of the US.
The biggest setback to the global war against climate change will be if Trump actually withdraws the US from the Paris Agreement. Legally, he may find it easier to do this, since so far the US promise to be a part of the agreement is on the basis of an executive order by Obama. As the next president, Trump can withdraw that order. Or, he may seek ratification from the Senate, knowing that a motion to enter the agreement will be defeated by Republican senators.
The decision of the US under the George W. Bush administration not to ratify the Kyoto Protocol set back efforts by all countries to control greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by many years. Other developed countries were told by their industries that any emission control action would make them uncompetitive to the Americans. Developing countries were told by their industries that they should do nothing because the US – historically the world’s largest GHG polluter and still second today after China – was doing nothing.
There could be a repeat now, but it will be worse for three reasons. First, because science has made it clear that global GHG emissions must peak by 2020 if average temperature rise is to be kept within 1.5 degrees Celsius; so there is no lag time available for the world to go through the denialism debate all over again.
Second, the Paris Agreement will not work if rich nations fail to keep their commitment to provide poor nations US$100 billion a year by 2020 to help the transition to a greener economy and to handle the impacts of climate change. This was a figure that Hillary Clinton had given during the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit, when she was Obama’s Secretary of State. If Trump’s animosity towards the candidate he defeated extends to breaking this promise, the Paris Agreement will be in serious trouble.
Domestically, some American analysts foresee an era of lawsuits as environmental groups take the Trump administration to court over its expected failure to keep the promises made by his predecessor. To avoid any such rash of lawsuits, some other analysts predict that Trump will be advised to kill any moves towards a greener economy by inaction rather than action, by delaying executive orders or not making them.
Some environmentalists feel that initiatives towards greening the American economy cannot really be stopped by a Trump administration because most of the initiatives are by state governments. That is small comfort to the rest of the world, which has to deal with the federal government.
Over the past few years, developing countries have been making relatively greater efforts than industrialised nations to control GHG emissions. China already has the largest share in the global market for key green products, such as solar photovoltaic cells and wind farm equipment.
As news of Trump’s victory came in, a prominent Chinese climate expert said it was time for his country to take over the global climate leadership under its One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative. Such a sentiment would resonate better in large parts of south, south-east and central Asia if there was more trust in Chinese intentions behind the OBOR initiative.
Be that as it may, if the US now fails to provide finance or technology transfers under attractive terms to developing countries to enable them to move towards a greener economy, many of them will have no choice but to look towards China.
Continued bilateral cooperation with Brazil, which signed joint statements on climate change with both the US and China last year, is uncertain. But according to José Sarney Filho, Brazil’s environment minister, the Trump administration would unlikely renege on the Paris Accord: “I have trust in American society to uphold the commitments they’ve made,” he said last week. Sarney, however, placed that same faith in US citizens’ "discretion" not to elect Trump.
Carlos Rittl, director of Brazilian civil society coalition Climate Observatory, said Trump would likely change the US course on climate but that this wouldn’t impede global action. “Climate change prevention no longer depends solely on one country, like it has in the past. The Paris Agreement has 102 ratifications on top of the American one and other countries will not wait,” he said, adding that whatever his beliefs on climate change, Trump must adapt to a new world economy powered by renewables.
India, meanwhile, has a large bilateral solar energy programme with the US. Indian officials said they did not expect any change to that, but they would wait and watch for any personnel changes in the relevant departments in the US government before saying anything more.
American environmentalists react
Most American environmentalists were clearly dismayed by the election result. Kelly Stone, ActionAid policy analyst, said, “Climate change is already having major impacts on the lives of millions of people in the United States and around the world. Droughts, flooding and other types of extreme weather events are becoming stronger and more frequent, and the US is not immune. This is a global crisis that President-elect Trump will have to address. The US has joined the Paris Agreement and must continue to meet its climate obligations. Leaving this important international agreement will damage our credibility with important overseas partners and would be a major setback in the fight against climate change.”
Tina Johnson, Policy Director, US Climate Action Network, said, "President-elect Trump has the opportunity to catalyse further action on climate that sends a clear signal to investors to keep the transition to a renewable-powered economy on track. China, India, and other economic competitors are racing to be the global clean energy superpower, and the US doesn’t want to be left behind."
Carroll Muffett, President of the Centre for International Environmental Law, said, “The Paris Agreement was signed and ratified not by a President, but by the United States itself. As a matter of international law, and as a matter of human survival, the nations of the world can, must, and will hold the United States to its climate commitments.”
Michael Brune, Executive Director of the Sierra Club, said, “Trump must choose whether he will be a President remembered for putting America and the world on a path to climate disaster, or for listening to the American public and keeping us on a path to climate progress.”