LONDON – Even before Donald Trump hijacked the Republican Party, he was loudly declaring in 2012 that the science of climate change was a Chinese hoax “created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”
The implication is clear. Back in the late 1980s, when climate change was first publicly identified as a threat, those sneaky Chinese must have bought or blackmailed prominent Western leaders and scientists to perpetrate this hoax. At the time, most grown-ups wrote Trump off as a harmless crank — but they certainly have to take him seriously now.
Trump has promised that within 100 days of taking office he will “cancel” the Paris climate agreement and “stop all payments of U.S. tax dollars to U.N. global warming programs.” He will also rescind the executive actions that President Barack Obama has taken to limit U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide, especially in the field of electricity.
Now in practice, Trump can’t cancel the Paris Agreement, which has been signed by 195 countries. But he can pull the United States out of the treaty. He certainly can cancel all of Obama’s executive orders and encourage Americans to burn all the fossil fuels they want. Indeed, he has already appointed Myron Ebell, a professional climate-change denier, to be the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Ebel’s mission is to gut it, and he will. But even Trump cannot save the American coal industry, because it has simply become cheaper to burn natural gas.
The net effect of a Trump presidency will certainly be to slow the rate at which U.S. greenhouse gas emissions decline, but simple economics dictates that they will not actually rise, and might even fall a bit. Renewable energy is getting cheaper than fossil fuels in many areas, and even Trump would find it hard to increase the large hidden subsidies to oil and coal any further.
So how hard will the American defection hit the Paris Agreement, whose target is to stop the average global temperature from reaching 2 degrees Celsius higher than the pre-industrial level? Will it cause everybody else to walk away from it too, because the U.S. is no longer doing its share? And even if they do carry on, what does that do to their hopes of staying below 2 degrees?
The U.S. is the second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases (after China), accounting for about 16 percent of global emissions. Its commitment under the Paris deal was to cut that amount by just over a quarter in the next 10 years, so what is actually at stake here is around 4 percent of total global emissions in 2025 if the U.S. just lets it rip. It could be considerably less in practice.
That is not a make-or-break amount, particularly given that all the pledges of cuts made in Paris last December did not get us down to the target of never exceeding plus-2 degrees. They got us a lot closer to it, but we would still be heading for around plus 2.7 degrees if everybody kept all their promises. Without American cooperation we are probably heading for plus 3, but in either case there was still a lot to do.
The unwritten assumption at Paris was that everybody would be back in a few years with bigger commitments to emission cuts, and so we would eventually stagger across the finish line just in time. It was always a dangerous assumption, but the other major players might simply refuse to go any further if the U.S. is not doing its share. Especially China, which is responsible for 26 percent of global emissions.
On the other hand, China is terrified of the predicted local impacts of climate change, and has installed more solar and wind power than any other country. It already gets 20 percent of its power from renewables, and is aiming much higher. The Chinese will resent the Trump administration’s refusal to carry its share of the burden, but it will not cut off its nose to spite its face.
The world has grown wearily familiar with this aspect of American exceptionalism, and the effort to avoid a climate disaster will stumble on elsewhere even while Trump reigns in Washington.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist.
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