Barack Obama has safeguarded America's climate change commitments – for now

Even if the frozen north can be judged safe for the time being, the same cannot be said for the Paris Treaty on mitigating climate change

Wednesday 21 December 2016 18:58
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The outgoing President has used his executive power to protect large swathes of the Arctic and Atlantic seaboards
The outgoing President has used his executive power to protect large swathes of the Arctic and Atlantic seaboards

Barack Obama, as a “lame duck” president with less than a month left in office, could have chosen to spend the remainder of his time in the White House tying up a few loose ends and making plans for his future. No doubt he has been busy with that, but he has also found the time to launch a major environmental initiative that offers a little hope to those fearful of what Donald Trump may have planned for America the Beautiful.

Suspicious, as so many are, of the links between the appointments made by President-elect Trump to the energy industry, President Obama has taken the bold decision to use executive power to protect a large swathe of the Arctic and Atlantic seaboards, under existing legislation. The decision, to borrow a Trump favourite phrase, shows that the President is smart, and, with little effort can thwart any attempt by an incoming Trump administration to despoil one of the last wildernesses on earth. It is additionally heartening that the US move is being implemented in cooperation with Canada, which is also keen the get the balance right between the environment, climate change and energy supply. If Mr Trump’s officials want to undo the decision they will need to grind their way through the American courts, never a quick route to anything.

Mr Obama was right to take pre-emptive action. As usual, Mr Trump himself has said some contradictory things about man-made climate change. Maybe, then, we should judge him more by his actions, and it is a matter of fact that his Cabinet and advisers will have an unusually large representation of ex-oil men in it. Rick Perry is the Trump nominee for energy secretary, a former governor of Texas, a leading oil producer. During his unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 2011 he proposed to eliminate the Energy Department. Presumably he isn’t going to abolish himself now, but you never know. Rex Tillerson, the future secretary of state is chief executive of Exxon Mobil; and Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt is to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Pruitt has been a strong opponent of Mr Obama’s attempts to limit climate change.

Even if the frozen north can be judged safe for the time being, the same cannot be said for the Paris Treaty on mitigating climate change. Reports suggest that the Trump administration will try to find ways to short-circuit the four-year-long procedures to rescind the Treaty. Even if they are unsuccessful in that, quitting the Treaty and effectively blocking its operation in the United States – one of the world’s major polluters – would represent a severe threat to the future of life on the planet.

The environment has had to fall down the agenda of policy-makers for most for the past decade because of the pressing challenges of the financial crisis and the great Recession. The arrival of Donald Trump reminds us that the old problems have not gone away, and the solutions to them, such as they were, may be abandoned. On that broader agenda, Mr Obama is powerless, and the world is in the hands of a man who once described climate change as a “hoax”.

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