How much damage can one man do?

Thomas Robinson

[Note: This article was submitted back in January. Trump’s recent decision re. the Paris Accord makes it rather prescient].

I have always wanted to have a long discussion with someone who openly refutes climate change, as it intrigues me to know what underpins their viewpoints. Unfortunately, I don’t know anyone who openly admits to being a disbeliever in climate change, as most of the people I know take what “science” has to say as gospel. Blindly accepting what we are told might not be the most reasoned way of perceiving the world around us, but when 97% of papers published agree that the global climate is shifting, it’s reasonable to take it as fact.

Climate change is so universally accepted, that at the end of 2016 potentially the largest climate change pact in history came into force. The Paris Climate Agreement (PCA) has many aims, ultimately designed to slow the progress of climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. 194 national governing bodies have signed the agreement, demonstrating the global acceptance of the threat to mankind which climate change poses.

However, four days after the PCA came into effect, Donald Trump was elected to be the 45th President of the United States of America. A man who has repeatedly mocked and even denied the effects of global warming, will now represent the world’s largest economy at global meetings and treaties, such as the one which took place in Paris. The global media has certainly raised concerns over how Trump may approach the delicate subject of the environment. The general consensus in the media is that the outlook for the US controlling climate change leading into the 2020’s, doesn’t look good. However, is it really possible that one man can halt the current progress in climate change reduction?

In 2016 NASA published a statement which accumulated the verdicts of all studies on climate change conducted in the past few decades. The statement announced that 97% of all works confirm the existence of climate change, and that human activities are the leading drivers in accelerating it. This news was far from surprising, in fact it is well established which nations are most responsible for climate changing activities. Since 2005 China has overwhelmingly been the largest CO2 emitter worldwide, and as of 2010 is also the leading emitter of all greenhouse gas combined, accounting for 22.7% of the world total greenhouse gas emissions. However, it was the US which had been at the top of the list for decades before China overtook them, and have since been welded to second place on both lists. Whilst still some way off China in terms of both CO2 and total emissions, the US still contributes 15.6% of the total, global greenhouse gas emissions.

Furthermore, one estimate found that the average American citizen emits five times more CO2 annually when compared to the global average of 4 Metric Tons.
It is clear that the US is well established in dominating greenhouse gas emissions, however, in recent years these trends have been shifting. Between 2005 and 2012, US carbon emissions fell by 12% back to levels not seen since 1994, and during the same period emissions per capita fell by 17% to their lowest levels since the 1960’s. It is clear that there is a cultural shift currently taking place in America, as US nationals are making efforts to reduce their individual carbon footprints.

Much of the more recent success can be credited to the current President, Barrack Obama, who has pushed through laws which have significantly impacted carbon emissions for the better.  The most recent of which is the so called Clean Power Plan (CPP), estimated to reduced carbon pollution by 30% before 2030. The CPP is the first US law which directly controls the carbon outputs of existing power plants, and sets restrictions on the maximum carbon output any new power plant may generate. However, Obama has also passed laws reducing the maximum carbon emissions of vehicles, and new building developments, along with other environmentally friendly protocols such as restrictions on water pollution.

The more mindful lifestyle which is being adopted by US nationals is plain to see in the wider statistics. While Obama may not be able to take all the credit for this, he has been a large force in pushing the US on a more environmentally friendly track. But is this green train about to be pushed off the rails?

President elect Donald Trump is first and foremost a billionaire, made rich by property development. He has been a well heard voice in America for many decades, known for his right wing views on politics and the economy. Following his successful election campaign there has been something of a media hysteria over what may follow his inauguration in early 2017. The jury regarding how successful Obama’s two terms in office have been is still out, however, the common thought in the media is that Trump will likely do more global harm than good.

Fears over Trump’s new found power are particularly prominent when concerning the environment. The core of Trump’s success derives from stirring emotional responses from the public, without ever providing tangible evidence to support his claims. The prime example of this is proposing to solve immigration problems by building a wall between the US and Mexico. However, Trump has never actually said how such a project will work. Trump’s views on environmental issues show similar holes and cracks. Trump is a big fan of Twitter, and uses it effectively to publish provoking messages to stir public reaction. Even before Trump began his campaign, he has used this platform to demonstrate his scepticism of global warming and climate change. Tweets such as “Any and all weather events are used by the GLOBAL WARMING HOAXSTERS to justify higher taxes to save our planet!” and “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive” show that Trump has long been in denial over climate change and its effects. Clearly having a leader who denies the existence of a problem, will not make finding a solution his top priority.

Posting tweets, and taking political standpoints are surely two different things, however. So will his newfound position enlighten the president elect? Trump has already invited “forward” thinking, and environmentally friendly minds, such as Elon Musk to his advisory council, which might suggest a slight change of heart in environmental matters.  Trump certainly has a history of changing his opinions and ideologies at will and is known to contradict himself on a wide variety of issues ranging from swearing and health care to military action and immigration.

Unfortunately for the environment, judging by Trump’s choices for leaders of high profile agencies, his stance on climate change does not appear to be one of these uncertain issues. The president elect has named Rex Tillerson, head of the Exxon Mobil oil giant, who is currently under investigation for misleading shareholders on the risk of climate change, as Secretary of State. Trump has also named Rick Perry and Scott Pruitt as Energy Secretary and head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) respectively. Both men have campaigned to have the organisations they now lead, shut down; and the latter of the two has been described as the most hostile man conceivable for his position. The direction in which Trump is heading with his cabinet appointments is away from neutral minds who have nothing to gain from their positions. Instead, Trump is surrounding himself with people who not only share his ideologies concerning investment in fossil fuels, but also have the most to gain from reduction in environmental laws.

Administrative appointments might not be the most detrimental thing for the environment during Trump’s term in office however. Trump supports policy which would drive the US back in terms of carbon reduction. One of the cornerstones in his campaign was to “cancel job killing restrictions” in the energy sector (one result of the lowered carbon output in America has been increased redundancies in the fossil fuel sector). Trump has proudly promised to bring back jobs in mines and refineries, in exchange for political support. However, it is obvious that rebuilding the fossil fuel energy sector, means moving away from clean energy sources. Trump has underlined this in numerous interviews, stating that one of his top priorities, within his first 100 days in office, will be to revoke Obama’s Clean Power Plan. More worryingly however, Trump has also pledged to “cancel” or at the very least “renegotiate” the terms of the Paris Climate Agreement. This shocking pledge is something which particularly worries international leaders, as it isn’t just the US carbon footprint that would be affected. Seeing such a major contributor leave a globally accepted agreement could undermine it entirely. The future of combating climate change doesn’t look good, as one of the most powerful countries on the planet has elected a leader which simply doesn’t care about it.

Perhaps this is not the end of the story though, as it’s very easy for a man, moreover a politician, to make promises, but how likely is he to actually keep them? First and foremost, it is important to remember that despite how concrete Trump is in his disbelief of climate change, he is yet to produce a detailed manifesto of changes which he intends to implement. This has led to much speculation on what exactly he will do whilst in office, particularly regarding the environment.

As for Trump’s promises to cancel or withdraw high profile agreements, he may find it much harder than expected to withdraw from such acts. For national policies, such as the Clean Power Plan, any changes Trump wishes to make will have to be approved by Congress, who are notorious for blocking presidential decrees. In the early 2000’s George Bush ran into exactly this problem when attempting to scrap existing environmental protocols. Even Obama ran into problems when pushing through environmentally friendly bills, such as the Clean Energy and Security Act, early in his administration. Trump may find it difficult convincing even a republican dominant Congress to support the withdrawal of bills which not only have just been passed, but will be met with much public hostility if removed. The American public is clearly in favour of a cleaner nation, revoking a recently passed bill which is supported by the public is certainly not within the interests of Congress.

Undoubtedly though, it is international law from which Trump will find it the hardest to withdraw from, or even to renegotiate. As the UK is currently learning with Brexit, simply leaving an international agreement is far from easy, and with the PCA, Trump wouldn’t just be leaving a continental pact, but a globally unified agreement. Even if Trump did decide to leave, one clause of the PCA is that all signed parties must fulfil their obligations for at least 4 years before changes may be made, so withdrawing would span his entire (first) term. Even if his activities were limited to renegotiating the agreement, any changes he wishes to make would be met with a mountain of bureaucratic processes. Such systems are unlikely to align with his political priorities; given the volume of other commitments he has made.

Of course Trump could simply choose to ignore his PCA obligations, however, inevitably this causes more problems than it solves. Due to the nature of the PCA agreement, any notions of negativity from Trump would raise serious questions over his ability to cooperate with other nations. This is cooperation which Trump certainly wouldn’t want to lose if he is serious about forcing through other high priority issues such as immigration, foreign policy (regarding military action) and trade.

Even if Trump were to make good on all the promises he made, it still might not have a significant impact on the entire United States. The US truly does act as a congregation of individual countries, all following the same leaders; with each state governed by its own head, and their own policy and set of laws. While Trump could make it possible for states to continue with environmentally unfriendly activities, states such as New York and California have long since pledged their commitment to reducing their carbon footprints. California in particular, which stands as the world’s 6th largest economy, has pledged to reduce carbon emissions by 40% before 2030. Other states may very well follow the example of California, and American media outlets have been quick to point out that just because Trump plans to allow more oil drillers, doesn’t necessarily mean every state will immediately start drilling for oil.

It is unlikely that Trump will actually be able to make good on all of the complex promises he has made. If for no other reason that most of them are far too time consuming for him to seriously put into practice. However, it is obvious that Trump will certainly do no good when it comes to combating climate change. Having a man who so easily disregards the consequences of such a devastating force, certainly threatens to undo all of the good which has been achieved by the US in the last decade or so. However, I am inclined to agree with the director of the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, who recently said that the idea of a Trump presidency completely changing the delicate balance of energy in the US is a bit farfetched. Let us remember that the point of a democracy, is that one person cannot simply change the direction of an entire nation.

However, whilst the rest of the world has taken to the Paris Climate Agreement, the thought certainly remains that the largest forces in climate change should be leading by example when it comes to combating it. Arguably America has more responsibility in the climate change world than anyone else. It is certainly understandable that there is a sense of anxiety when the man chosen to solve an issue as large as climate change believes that it is merely something his predecessor used to make money from.

How much damage can one man do?

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