There’s been a lot of hand wringing in climate change circles over Donald Trump winning the US elections. Under president Obama, America had finally begun to come round to climate change, at least at the government level. It was very late and hesitant, but finally turning in the right direction. All bets are off with Trump. Those first steps could be very swiftly reversed, and with the US uncooperative, the world will not be able to stop climate change.
It’s difficult to know what Donald Trump really thinks about anything, and climate change is no different. At best, he appears unconvinced on the subject, and at worst he thinks it’s a conspiracy. Either way, we can’t expect serious action. It’s equally difficult to know what he’s actually going to do in office, because he appears to be making it up as he goes along. But if he makes good on his election promises then he’ll be withdrawing the US from the Paris agreement, and throwing his weight behind fossil fuels, including coal. The EPA will be cut down to size, and the latest news is that NASA’s globally respected climate research will no longer be funded.
Trump can’t have it all his own way – the economics are against him on coal, but he can still do a huge amount of damage. The timelines are so tight on climate change that even if he does nothing at all, that would be bad enough. We don’t have four years to wait around. America needs action on climate change, and so does the rest of the world.
Can Trump change his mind? Even though he is busy surrounding himself with people who agree with him, he does appear to be able to take advice. Nobody is unreachable. We can probably assume with some confidence that Greenpeace or the WWF won’t be able to talk him round, but others may speak his language. I’ve been thinking about it, and I reckon there are at least six ways that Trump could be brought round on climate change.
Business – as he will tell you himself at length, Trump is first and foremost a business man, and so business leaders are the most obvious people to take the message. They’re on the case already. An open letter was sent to Trump earlier this month calling for a commitment to the climate. It was signed by Nike, Intel, Gap, Monsanto, and hundreds of other US businesses. There’s also Trump’s own business empire. When his own interests are threatened by the climate, he will act – and indeed he has done so already. His golf courses or the prospects of his vineyards may win him over.
Military – the rest of the country may be moving slower, the US military knows all about climate change. They’ve correctly identified it as a risk, they factor it into their scenario planning, and have contingencies in place. He gets to pick his security advisors, but there’s only so long Donald Trump can go as Commander in Chief before this is explained. It comes up too regularly in risk assessments, and as a factor in overseas conflict – including Syria.
Trade talks – one of Donald Trump’s biggest promises is to renegotiate trade deals, and climate change could become a sticking point here. Trump’s America is planning on being a climate freeloader, but the rest of the world may take a view on that. Everyone wants to trade with the US, so it would be a brave country that made it a deal breaker, but the climate can and will come up in negotiations. China has already notified Britain that climate concerns would feature in any post-Brexit deal.
California – out of curiosity, I looked up the campaign for Californian secession on the morning of the election, and it had 1,115 followers on Twitter. It has a few more today. I don’t think secession is going to happen, but we will see states take responsibility for their own climate action. A California delegation held a series of meetings at the Marrakech climate talks this month, investigating whether or not they could remain a contributing member at the state level if the US pulls out. Even if that doesn’t happen, many states or even cities may choose to act independently, or cooperate with each other despite the federal government.
Grassroots – Trump could turn out to be his own worst enemy. If he makes big moves to disrupt or block climate action, he could prove a radicalising force, both domestically and internationally. Climate change moves in slow motion, and it is hard to build a sense of urgency. He could prove to be exactly what the movement needs to shake off the complacency and get people out on the streets – blockades, civil disobedience, occupations, who knows what might happen. Many people believe that only a mass movement can stop climate change, and Trump could be just the spark it needs.
Disaster – finally, there’s one last thing that could change Trump’s mind, and that’s climate disaster. America has experience of this already, several times over. While it’s never straightforward to link individual events to climate change, the trend is upwards, exactly as climate science predicts. The number of billion dollar weather disasters in the US has doubled in the last five years. I thought that Katrina might be the event that makes the connection for people, but it wasn’t. Then I though Sandy would do it, and then the California drought. Apparently not, so I’m under no illusions. But surely it can’t be ignored forever. If nothing else, the mounting insurance losses will force the issue.
I’m not optimistic about any of this, but I do think that climate change is reaching a point where it can’t be ignored any more. As president of the USA, climate change is going to come across Trump’s desk, and he can’t brush it off with the usual sarcasm. Climate denial is an increasingly untenable position, and any one of the factors above – or a combination of them – may force a change of mind.