'We cannot withstand another four years of direct assault’: What would Trump's re-election mean for the climate crisis?

How Americans cast their ballots in November will, arguably, have wider and more lasting repercussions on this issue than any other

Louise Boyle
New York
,Katie Anderson
Friday 28 August 2020 11:17
Here's what a Trump re-election means for the planet

Imagine, for a moment, that it’s 4 November and Donald J Trump has won in an unquestionable landslide to be re-elected President of the United States.

Four more years of the Trump administration will no doubt be transformative for numerous pillars of American life: from the Supreme Court to access to healthcare; economic inequality to immigration.

But what will a second Trump term mean for the climate crisis? How Americans cast their ballots in November will, arguably, have wider and more lasting repercussions on this issue than any other.

Climate scientists tell us that how we act in the next decade to tackle the crisis – the effects of which are being felt today in the maelstrom of wildfires, heatwaves and hurricanes – will chart the course for generations to come.

“I don’t think we can withstand another four years of direct assault on environmental action,” Dr Michael Mann, climate scientist and member of the National Academy of Sciences, told The Independent.

America turns its back on global climate fight

President Trump has vowed to withdraw from the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement, the commitment by almost 200 countries to reduce emissions and limit global heating to below 2°C.

Mr Trump can officially abandon the agreement on 4 November, the day after the election.

“By stepping away from that leadership role, our ability to work with our allies and help influence the direction of climate change going forward is greatly diminished,” Elizabeth Gore, senior vice president of political affairs at the Environmental Defense Fund, told The Independent.

A recent study found that two Trump presidential terms will delay the global effort to reduce emissions by around eight years – but only in scenarios where the Paris Agreement is assumed to be effective, and where ambitious efforts by one country inspires others to act in a similar way.

Dr Håkon Sælen, the paper’s lead author and senior researcher at the CICERO Center for International Climate Research, told The Independent that under less optimistic assumptions about how effective the Paris Agreement is, then the 2C target is beyond reach, regardless of US participation.

He added: “One thing which can be drawn from the study is how much other countries will need to step up their efforts to make up for US absence in order to reach the 2C target. That figure is approximately 2 percentage points if Trump serves two terms.

“If the 2C target is to be achieved then other countries will need to pick up the slack. The question is whether they will actually do it.”

But the Paris agreement only goes half way to the cuts necessary to avert catastrophic warming – and carbon emissions are rising. Trump turning his back on the multilateral accord sends a signal to other major polluters that America’s apparent disinterest is a green light.

“By threatening to withdraw, Donald Trump sent a signal to the Paris community that the US is no longer taking its role seriously and that unfortunately provides cover for other major polluters, China in particular, to ease off their own efforts,” said Dr Mann, distinguished professor of atmospheric science and director of the earth systems science centre at Penn State University.

He noted that four years ago, China was decommissioning coal-fired power plants, not building new ones, and was on track to surpass their obligations under a bilateral treaty with the Obama administration.

“Now they are building coal-fire power plants again and we have seen their carbon emissions go up,” Dr Mann said.

“That speaks to the damage that Trump has done to international diplomacy.”

With the addition of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia and President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, there is a cabal of global leaders who not only heap derision on calls to address the climate crisis but whose negligence is pushing the planet closer to the point of no return.

“With the abdication of American leadership it just makes it all the harder to make the tough decisions and impose the important changes we need to have in order to address the climate crisis,” Ms Gore said.

The good news for those intent on fighting the climate crisis is the “We Are Still In” initiative – a coalition of 3,800 leaders at local and state level across the US – who have pledged to honour the agreement.

The Independent has contacted the White House press office for comment.

Another wave of regulatory rollbacks

President Trump, who calls the climate crisis a “hoax”, has made good on his promise and dismantled or rolled back more than 100 environmental and climate protections during his time in office.

He repealed the Clean Power Plan, Obama-era legislation to cut pollution from coal-fired power plants. He has attempted to kill an effort for higher fuel-efficiency standards in vehicles and another for limiting the amount of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, being pumped out by the fossil fuel industry.

He’s also taken aim at Nixon-era environmental legislation including parts of the Clean Air and Clean Water acts, and the National Environmental Policy Act, a landmark law which low-income and minority communities have used for decades to fight back against potential polluters.

He has undermined “clean air, clean water, protection of endangered species and the preservation of some of our natural landscapes,” said Ms Gore.

Dr Mann described the actions as “horrific”.

“Trump has basically outsourced his energy and environmental policy to polluters, to fossil fuel interests, to the Koch brothers. They run the show now,” he said.

“We’ve been able to withstand four years of that. There’s enough inertia in the system, enough autonomy at the state and local level to withstand that assault. I don’t think we can withstand another four years of direct assault on environmental action.”

Ms Gore said that although court battles have stymied some of Mr Trump’s rollback attempts, it is entirely likely that his attack on bedrock environmental protection law would continue in a second term.

“It’s hard to know what the extent of the damage would be,” she said. “There’s no question that we would continue to see a chipping away of those very fundamental safeguards that we all depend on for drinkable water, breathable air and a stable climate.”

Fossil fuel free-for-all

President Trump has made no secret of his love for the fossil-fuel industry which has returned the sentiments by pouring millions into his campaign coffers.

“The oil and gas industry, I want to promise you, has no greater friend than President Donald Trump,” VP Mike Pence told an Oil and Gas Association meeting last year.

Trump has approved the Keystone and Dakota pipelines; eliminated the hydraulic fracking rule and declared “the war on coal” as over.

The global failure to decarbonise had taken root long before Mr Trump descended the Trump Tower escalator. If we had reversed course on emissions in 2000, the 1.5C target would have only required a reduction of 3 per cent per year, CarbonBrief noted.

“By contrast, limiting warming to below 1.5C starting in 2019, without net-negative emissions, would require a 15% cut each year through to 2040.”

But waiting another four years to begin the swift ramping up to clean energy appears a catastrophic delay.

“We have this perverted structure promoted by the Trump administration where we are rewarding polluters, making it cheaper and giving them an unfair edge when it comes to competition in the energy marketplace,” Dr Mann said.

"We need to get rid of fossil fuel subsidies and there’s a real danger that when we invest in [oil and natural gas] infrastructure, it really locks in place our dependence on fossil fuels for decades down the road.

"We don’t have a decade to get off fossil fuel."

Some activists were already looking at strategies to mitigate a Trump win.

Jamie Henn from Stop the Money Pipeline, a coalition of over 100 organisations working to end the financing of fossil fuels, told The Independent: “Under another Trump win, we’d need to find ways to continue to accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels to a clean energy economy.

“One powerful strategy will continue to be pressuring the financial sector to stop investing in climate destruction. Except for a few oil majors, companies can’t drill in the Arctic without financing or build a pipeline without insurance.

“Just like his failed attempts to ‘make coal great again’, Trump is powerless to stop the transition to clean energy if money is flowing in that direction. If Washington is lost, Wall Street becomes an essential battleground.”

Ignoring a 'threat multiplier' to national security and public health

The 2010s have been the hottest decade since records began.

And the extreme weather impacts are playing out in real-time.

“All we have to do right now is look out the window or turn on the TV. The western US is on fire, we have a major hurricane impacting the Gulf coast. The impacts of climate change are no longer subtle,” Dr Mann said.

“To some extent, dangerous climate change has arrived and the question is how bad are we willing to let it get?"

He added: “Climate scientists understand that there’s a continuum – the more carbon we dump into the atmosphere, the more we warm the planet, the worse things get.

"Once we get beyond about a degree and a half celsius, that’s where we will really start to exceed our adaptive capacity."

A 2019 report by NYU Law School’s The State Energy & Environmental Impact Center declared the "Trump administration’s actions amount to a virtual surrender to climate change”.

It added that failing to tackle the crisis, compounded by environmental rollbacks, would cause “serious health harms ... including thousands more premature deaths, hundreds of thousands more asthma attacks, and countless additional missed school and work days”.

The country's top defence and intelligence officials have declared the climate crisis a threat multiplier when it comes to national security. Not only will extreme weather put military bases, overseas operations and troops at risk, it will likely lead to mass migration as parts of the world become uninhabitable. Mass displacements of people have historically been linked to instances of conflict.

"When I look at climate change, it's in the category of sources of conflict around the world and things we'd have to respond to. So it can be great devastation requiring humanitarian assistance — disaster relief — which the US military certainly conducts routinely,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford said in 2018.

Locking in the courts and silencing science

During his first term, Mr Trump has appointed around 200 conservative judges with lifetime appointments to the courts, along with two Supreme Court justices – Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.

During his RNC speech on Monday, he noted that whoever wins the election could have four or five Supreme Court picks in the next term.

“This is so — whether you’re talking about life, whether you’re talking about Second Amendment, whether you’re talking about military. This is so important. We have to do this. We have to win this election,” Mr Trump said.

Even one more conservative on the Supreme Court bench may have far-reaching consequences for any pro-fossil-fuel industry groups interested in challenging landmark environmental legislation.

Along with his reshaping of the judiciary, the first Trump term has had significant impact on federal agencies. Hundreds of scientists has been ignored or forced out by the administration, the Washington Post reported earlier this year.

In Trump’s first two years, more than 1,600 federal scientists left government – a 1.5 per cent drop, compared to an 8 per cent increase under Obama, according to the Post.

“We’ve lost precious time during his first term as he has denied the data, silenced the scientists and pushed aside the experts on climate change,” Ms Gore said.

“Another four years of that puts us in a very perilous position.

“Moving backwards in the fight against climate, isn’t just bad for the United States. It’s bad for the whole world."

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