This time last year I wrote a post called Six reasons why Trump could be won over on climate change. In it I argued that there were a number of voices that might get through to the man in the White House and change his mind on the subject. I wasn’t optimistic about it, and so far they have not been successful. Trump pulled the US out of the Paris Agreement, much against everyone’s advice. So how much of last year’s post still stands?
Here are the six voices I wrote about. They may not have convinced Donald Trump, but they’ve certainly been active. Here’s what’s happened with each of them over the past year:
Business – the official US delegation to the Bonn climate talks this month was token, and their only event was a much derided panel on coal power. Since there was no US presence in the exhibition area, American corporations sponsored one instead. Their inflatable pavilion was the largest at the conference, and hosted events with a string of governors, mayors, and CEOs. #wearestillin says the banner outside. Trump can ignore all of this, especially since he has plenty of businesses and donors that support him. But he’s been made to look silly and out of step with the rest of the world.
Military – the US military understands climate change as a risk factor in its operations, now and in the future. It knows it will have a destabilising effect that could play into future conflict. It’s also studied the potential effects of rising sea levels on its network of naval bases around the world – and 128 out of 800 would be put at risk by 2100. So the military gets it. Defense Secretary James Mattis has all but admitted that the Pentagon is ignoring Trump’s order to cease climate planning. And then in the summer Congress passed an amendment to the defense spending bill that formally recognises climate change as “a direct threat to the national security”. Trump has essentially been over-ruled.
Trade talks – Trump intends to renegotiate various trade deals, and that presents the world with a leverage point. If America is seen to be ducking its responsibilities, other countries could make climate pledges a part of the trade talks. I’m not sure if this is happening or not, since trade talks happen behind closed doors. What we have seen is the G20 issue statements on the climate as a G19. We’ve also heard China’s Xi Jinping talk about global cooperation on climate and trade. It might happen, if and when trade talks begin in earnest. Then again, depending on the power imbalance, it could also go the other way. China and the EU are big enough to pressure the US. Britain will have to deal with America once we fall out of Europe, and we will have virtually no control over terms.
California – When Trump pulled the United States out of the Paris Agreement, some hoped that US states might be able to sign up independently. That’s not possible in the current wording of the agreement. If you’re not a member of the UN, you can’t be a signatory. But there is what some have been referring to as a ‘back door’: the Non-State Actor Zone for Climate Action, or NAZCA. Thousands of cities, companies and regions have signed up for non-binding pledges, including California. As head of the fifth largest economy in the world, people pick up the phone when governor Jerry Brown calls, and the state has signed climate deals with China and Germany. It’s also set up its own climate conference, and is creating its own science centers as federal funding is pulled.
Grassroots – Last year I suggested that Trump could be his own worst enemy if he unites people in grassroots opposition. So far I’ve mentioned how business leaders and regional politicians have come together in defense of climate action. Are we seeing a resurgence of grassroots action too, in cities and streets? I’m not sure I see much evidence of that yet, but the climate movement is quite different from the one in Britain, and I don’t have an inside line on where the energy is. What I do know is that Trump is trying to advance the Keystone XL pipeline, which Obama shelved after a long battle. He has also sanctioned drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. That sort of behaviour could trigger substantial protests and direct action. I suspect that, like fracking in Britain, we’ll only see the strength of the opposition once industry starts to move.
Disaster – Just as a heart attack can jolt people into a healthier lifestyle, it’s possible that a natural disaster might change Donald Trump’s mind on the climate. So far 2017 has offered plenty of opportunity, with a record number of incidents costing over a billion dollars. It might have been different if Hurricane Irma had gone up the other side of Florida and flattened Mar-a-lago, but so far Trump has proved quite capable of ignoring the flashing red warning lights.
Where does this leave us? None of those six voices succeeded in persuading Trump to stay in the Paris Agreement. I don’t think there’s much chance of a U-turn on that, even with Syria joining the agreement and leaving the US alone on the outside. Trump is too proud to back down, though he may prove us wrong.
So the question has changed. It’s not about changing Trump’s mind any more, but about pressing on without him and his administration. On that all six of those voices have been active. There are others too, such as the legal profession, which I’ll write about another time. Trump has been sidelined on the climate, ceding American leadership to other heads of state and business. US states and even departments of government are ignoring his directives. If Keystone XL reignites, his decision may yet turn out to be entirely counterproductive.