Trump’s Win Scrambles Climate Change Debate

International negotiators try to figure out what a Trump regime means.

Participants and delegates attend the opening session of the Climate Conference in Marrakech, Morocco on Monday. Climate negotiators have started work on implementing the Paris pact on global warming amid uncertainty over how the U.S. election will impact the landmark deal as temperatures and greenhouse gases soar to new heights.
AP Photo/Mosa'ab Elshamy
Jason Plautz
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Jason Plautz
Nov. 9, 2016, 12:09 p.m.

Halfway around the world, ne­go­ti­at­ors at a United Na­tions cli­mate con­fer­ence in Mar­rakesh, Mo­rocco are com­ing to grips with the real­ity that Don­ald Trump will take the White House and stands to re­verse years of U.S. pro­gress on cli­mate change.

This year’s meet­ing was meant to start adding teeth to the land­mark Par­is agree­ment passed last year and rat­i­fied this month. But the elec­tion of Trump, who vowed to with­draw the U.S. from the cli­mate deal, is rat­tling en­vir­on­ment­al­ists the world over.

“We can­not pre­tend that this out­come will be any­thing less than dis­turb­ing to those of us who care about cli­mate sta­bil­ity and the role of the United States in the world,” said Nat Keo­hane, vice pres­id­ent for glob­al cli­mate at the En­vir­on­ment­al De­fense Fund.

“Clearly every­one is pay­ing at­ten­tion and it may very much af­fect the tone of the ne­go­ti­ations in the com­ing days,” said Mari­ana Pa­nun­cio-Feld­man, who is rep­res­ent­ing the World Wild­life Fund at the Mar­rakesh talks. “There’s a shared sense that this cli­mate crisis can­not wait, and so with that the mood is forge ahead.”

Trump has claimed that cli­mate change is a hoax in­ven­ted by China and that act­ing on it would cripple the Amer­ic­an eco­nomy. Des­pite mar­ket forces that are driv­ing coal plants out of busi­ness, Trump has also prom­ised to re­vive the in­dustry and lift gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tions, even say­ing that the core mis­sions of the En­vir­on­ment Pro­tec­tion Agency are on the chop­ping block.

The Clean Power Plan, which set lim­its on car­bon emis­sions from power plants, is already tied up in courts, but Trump has prom­ised to res­cind it (a Re­pub­lic­an-con­trolled Con­gress passed le­gis­la­tion to do just that and is sure to do so again). Like­wise, a re­write of the Clean Wa­ter Act that ex­pan­ded EPA’s au­thor­ity to reg­u­late wa­ter pol­lu­tion. Trump has also said he’d ask Tran­sCanada to re­apply for the Key­stone XL pipeline and would open up new areas of fed­er­al land to en­ergy pro­duc­tion.

These may not be as easy to ex­ecute as he prom­ises—em­boldened en­vir­on­ment­al­ists will sue to try to pro­tect all ma­jor reg­u­la­tions. Mar­ket forces such as abund­ant nat­ur­al gas and cheapen­ing re­new­able en­ergy may con­tin­ue to make coal pro­duc­tion un­ap­peal­ing, while the lo­gist­ic dif­fi­culties of drilling in the Arc­tic may keep com­pan­ies away from fed­er­al wa­ters.

But Trump’s ac­tions will send a ma­jor sig­nal to the rest of the world. The United States spent the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion re­vers­ing its leg­acy as a cli­mate lag­gard, us­ing its eco­nom­ic power to nudge oth­er coun­tries along. A bi­lat­er­al agree­ment with China to set long-term emis­sion cuts (in China’s case, a vow to peak car­bon emis­sions) helped to jump­start talks that led to the 195-na­tion agree­ment in Par­is last year set­ting a goal to lim­it glob­al warm­ing to be­low 1.5 de­grees Celsi­us.

Now the U.S. will be led by the only head of state who does not be­lieve in the sci­ence of cli­mate change, even as the sci­entif­ic con­sensus grows more cer­tain and dire (on Elec­tion Day, the World Met­eor­o­lo­gic­al Or­gan­iz­a­tion is­sued a re­port on the “in­creas­ingly vis­ible hu­man foot­print on ex­treme weath­er and cli­mate events”). An ana­lys­is by Lux Re­search es­tim­ated that Trump’s en­ergy policies would mean 3.4 bil­lion tons great­er emis­sions over eight years than Hil­lary Clin­ton’s plan, which would have con­tin­ued and ex­pan­ded Obama’s cli­mate agenda.

The U.S. can­not of­fi­cially with­draw from the U.N. agree­ment for four years, but a Trump White House could simply not hold up its com­mit­ments in the in­ter­im, tak­ing the world’s second-largest emit­ter out of the table. Trump en­ergy ad­viser Kev­in Cramer, a North Dakota rep­res­ent­at­ive, had floated the idea of sub­mit­ting the plan to the Sen­ate for rat­i­fic­a­tion, but the deal has already taken ef­fect.

The fab­ric of the Par­is deal—which re­lies on each coun­try ful­filling its own com­mit­ments—makes it fra­gile to non­com­pli­ance, es­pe­cially as ne­go­ti­at­ors still work out en­force­ment and re­port­ing mech­an­isms. And fresh in people’s minds is the George W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion’s op­pos­i­tion to the Kyoto Pro­tocol, which res­ul­ted in the U.S. de­clin­ing to rat­i­fy it. In­ter­na­tion­al cli­mate ac­tion has long re­lied on trust, since it takes on large emit­ters to blunt the curve of emis­sion re­duc­tions.

En­vir­on­ment­al­ists sought to take a pos­it­ive ap­proach Wed­nes­day, point­ing to the mo­mentum in the mar­kets and in oth­er coun­tries that would be un­touched by a Trump White House.

“The polit­ic­al land­scape in the U.S. may have changed, but the real­ity of cli­mate change hasn’t,” said Celia Gau­ti­er, policy ad­viser for Cli­mate Ac­tion Net­work France. “Cli­mate ac­tion will con­tin­ue, in­clud­ing in the European Uni­on, and the rest of the world will not wait for the U.S.”

A Chinese ne­go­ti­at­or told Re­u­ters that China would keep work­ing, and ex­pec­ted the U.S. to do so as well. “If they res­ist this trend, I don’t think they’ll win the sup­port of their people, and their coun­try’s eco­nom­ic and so­cial pro­gress will also be af­fected,” Xie Zhen­hua said. A let­ter to Trump from the pres­id­ents of the European Com­mis­sion also men­tioned cli­mate change as a top­ic for the gov­ern­ments to work on.

En­vir­on­ment­al­ists also poin­ted to cli­mate com­mit­ments from cit­ies, states, and ma­jor busi­nesses even in the United States that would con­tin­ue un­der a Re­pub­lic­an gov­ern­ment.

EDF’s Koe­hane said that while cli­mate change was a ma­jor dif­fer­ence between the two can­did­ates, the 2016 elec­tion was “driv­en by eco­nom­ic in­sec­ur­ity and dis­lo­ca­tion.”

“And a de­cision by the next pres­id­ent to go back­ward on cli­mate change would only ex­acer­bate those con­cerns—be­cause the biggest source of eco­nom­ic in­stabil­ity in the long run will be cli­mate change,” he said.

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