UNITED NATIONS – Does Donald Trump believe in climate change? Does he intend to carry out his campaign promises in office? And what will happen if the U.S. withdraws from global climate change agreements?
In the search for answers, let’s break down the question.
Does Donald Trump believe in climate change?
Until recently, the answer seemed simple: yes.
In a 2009 letter published in The New York Times, Trump and his children called for U.S. leadership at global climate talks in Copenhagen. The letter went on to warn of the “catastrophic and irreversible” damage that would occur the U.S. did not lead on climate change.
Ben and Jerry, and the CEOs of Patagonia and Seventh Generation also signed the letter. It’s a crowd that we struggle to imagine Donald Trump associating with now.
By last year’s Republican presidential primaries, Trump was no longer distinguishing himself from Republican candidates who actively denied the existence of climate change.
And by this year’s general election he was advocating for U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement and argued for scrapping President Obama’s domestic emissions laws and for new investments in fossil fuels.
Suffice it to say, Trump has done a 180 on the issue of climate change, now calling into question the very climate science be used to support.
What would a best-case scenario for the climate look like under President Trump?
Since Donald Trump has already appointed fossil fuel advocates to his administration a best-case scenario might involve letting them sit at the table but not refocusing the government to serve their financial interests.
Leonardo DiCaprio has already met with Donald Trump to try and convince him of the economic benefits of new green energy investment.
DiCaprio and other big players in the green energy landscape are also thinking about shoving china in Trump’s face, convincing him that if he doesn’t help the US wind and solar energy sectors, China will win that competition and export its technologies to the developing world.
This is a financial argument for climate change that as a businessman, activists are hopeful Donald Trump will listen to.
What would a worst-case scenario for the climate look like under President Trump?
Activists say the current trajectory of the Trump Administration already looks like a worst-case scenario – a combination of appointing those into the cabinet who actively doubt climate change, and sidelining those who don’t.
First, we could look at future EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma Attorney General who sued the very agency he will soon run, questioning whether they had the authority to regulate domestic power emissions.
And then there’s Rex Tillerson, Exxon CEO and incoming Secretary of State, a big advocate for fossil fuel investment.
Then there are Trump’s words. By actively calling into question whether anybody knows whether climate change is real, Trump is emboldening those who deny the very existence of climate change.
He’s also threatened to pull the U.S. out of the Paris agreement on climate change, an agreement that desperately needs momentum to succeed.
How could Donald Trump remove the U.S. from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change?
First, Donald Trump could remove the U.S. from the Paris agreement by executive order. The problem is that the agreement has a four-year countdown built into it, meaning a withdrawal would basically take the entirety of Donald Trump’s first term to enact.
Easier, though more consequential on paper, would be removing the U.S. from the 1992 UNFCCC Treaty, which was ratified by the Senate in 1992. That only has a one-year countdown until the withdrawal goes into effect.
Finally and most alarming for climate scientists and activists, is if Donald Trump doesn’t change anything formally but simply take steps domestically to make sure the U.S. doesn’t meet its commitments for emissions reductions in the Paris Agreement. That means nixing emissions laws at the EPA or Department of Energy, expanding offshore drilling or coal mining.
Essentially, the most alarming thing Donald Trump could do for the planet is also the easiest.
If the U.S. bails on global climate leadership, who will take over?
The answer is likely China.
Chinese energy and environmental policy always take a back seat to national security concerns, and that can sometimes be bad, as when China takes an aggressive stance in the South China Sea to guarantee the free flow of energy imports from the Middle East. Or when it opens up hundreds of new coal factories to meet rising energy demand.
But it can also be a good thing, as when it shuts down those factories and mines and starts thinking about air pollution as a matter of public health.
And as the de facto leader of the G77 group of industrializing nations – mostly in South and Latin america, and in Africa – China has a special relationship with a number of developing economies that would like renewable energy technology, if only they could afford it.
And economies of scale have allowed China to lower the manufacturing cost of those renewable technologies.
China has also taken to the airwaves to criticize Donald Trump’s views on climate change, perhaps the most muscular diplomatic response from China so far on the issue.
But if they have to defend themselves from a trade war or the prospect of a change in the One China policy in Washington, then perhaps the climate issue may take a back seat.