“I just think we have much bigger risks. I mean I think we have militarily tremendous risks. I think we’re in tremendous peril. I think our biggest form of climate change we should worry about is nuclear weapons. The biggest risk to the world, to me — I know President Obama thought it was climate change — to me the biggest risk is nuclear weapons. That’s — that is climate change.”
– President Donald Trump
About a year ago, the New School and the Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis (SCEPA) hosted a talk titled “Climate Policy after Paris.” The tone of the talk was guarded optimism — there was much work to be done to meaningfully address climate change, but the United States and some 195 other countries had reached the agreement that climate change mitigation should be given high priority. The agreement was still in its early stages as of the talk, and the adoption of specific policies and targets had not yet been reached. As it turns out, the United States’ policy on climate change “after Paris” is going to be guided in large part by Donald Trump, and, if the first 100 days are any indication, policy will be driven by spite, money, and general flippancy.
With this drastic change in the executive branch, The New School together with SCEPA convened a group of experts for the discussion “What Does Trump Mean for Global Climate Change” on Wednesday March 19, 2017. The event was part of a series of discussions convened by SCEPA’s Willi Semmler, the Arnhold Professor of International Cooperation and Development and Professor of Economics at the New School for Social Research. The basic structure of the talk was (1) a discussion on the history and science of climate change and what is needed to reach sustainability targets, (2) a comparison of environmental legislation and policies under the Obama administration and the Trump administration, and (3) an examination of what the Trump presidency means for the United States’ role in the international dialogue on climate change and mitigation.
Peter Schlosser, Professor of Geophysics and Chair of the Department of Earth and Environmental Engineering at Columbia University, kicked off the discussion with an overview of what has become known as the Anthropocene. Dr. Schlosser summarized the impacts that humans have had on the environment over the last couple hundred years and emphasized the fact that immediate action is needed to restrict greenhouse gas emissions if we hope to minimize the warming effects that are already underway. Yes, there have been wide periods of cooling and periods of warming in Earth’s long history, but the current warming trend is a different beast. The world is out of equilibrium, according to Dr. Schlosser. The period since the industrial revolution has been marked by a population explosion and humankind’s overall domination of the natural environment. Thirty to fifty percent of the Earth’s surface, and about fifty percent of freshwater sources, are used for humankind’s benefit. The implementation and increasing dependence on fossil fuels has led to greenhouse gas accumulation of nearly 420 parts-per-million, up from 280 ppm in the time prior to mass industrialization. Global temperature and climate history provides no template for what might happen given the current warming projections and the relatively short time span over which they are expected to be realized. There are natural feedback cycles that are likely to be engaged — for example, warming temperatures melt land ice uncovering caches of stored greenhouse gases, further contributing to the warming trend (melting more ice, uncovering more carbon, and so on). In short, humankind’s domination of the environment, which has grown substantially over the last 150 years, has put us on a dangerous trajectory for future wellbeing. Schlosser claims that the Paris Agreement targets of maintaining global mean temperature rise to 1.5-2 degrees Celsius is the best realistic outcome we can hope for, and that to attain it we need not just reduce emissions, but to ultimately impart negative emissions. That is, we will need to rely on things like increased forestation to reabsorb carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. In his final point, Schlosser acknowledged that while the technologies and finances that are needed to drive sustainability and climate improvement are attainable, the big hurdle will be influencing global societies to act urgently and make the necessary sacrifices.
Michelle DePass followed Dr. Schlosser and framed the climate policy milestones attained under President Obama against the promises and plans of the current administration. Dr. Depass is the Dean of the New School’s Milano School of International Affairs, Management & Urban Policy, the Tishman Professor of Environmental Policy and Management, and former Assistant Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency during President Obama’s time in office. During her time at the EPA, President Obama’s administration pursued the most aggressive, substantive climate policy (though still insufficient on numerous counts) of any administration. Obama directed billions of dollars into climate science and diplomacy efforts. During his tenure, a social cost of carbon was established at roughly $36 per ton, climate adaptation plans were developed, task forces on preparedness were assembled, and perhaps most importantly climate science was give high profile. To a large extent, Trump intends to do the exact opposite; The decree thus far has been to cut science budgets in programs related to climate change, and to appoint climate change deniers and fossil fuel executives into highly influential cabinet positions.
Symbolic of the distinction between the two administrations is the treatment of the Dakota Access and Keystone Pipelines. After much consideration and weighing of benefits and costs, including the danger of running a line under the Ogallala Aquifer, President Obama ultimately blocked further construction of the pipelines. On the other hand, one of Trump’s first orders of business as President was to greenlight the construction of the pipelines, citing job creation and energy independence as deciding factors.
While there are numerous reasons for environmentally-focused citizens to be concerned as the Trump administration settles into office, there are likewise reasons to be hopeful. Under Obama, it was successfully argued that greenhouse gases endanger human health and welfare. This “endangerment finding” cannot simply be overturned by Trump; It would require a court decision. As this finding underpins much of the justification for regulatory action to curb GHG emissions, it likewise limits the new administration’s ability to undermine or reverse certain regulations. However, there are certain informal rules or agreements that will be easier for the President to dismantle. For example, the so-called “tailpipe” rule, an agreement with automakers to produce more fuel efficient and cleaner cars, is already in the process of being rolled back by the Trump team.
There are reasons not to lose all hope in the battle against climate change. Certain regulations are codified and protected by law, and it is unlikely these will be threatened. Also, states and localities continue to move forward with their own mitigation and adaptation strategies. However, it is painfully clear that we cannot expect climate leadership at the federal level.
Michael Oppenheimer then gave an assessment on how the international community is likely to respond to the shift in priorities that accompanied the Trump administration. Dr. Oppenheimer is Professor of Geosciences and International Affairs and the Director of the Science, Technology & Environmental Policy (STEP) Program at Princeton. How will the IPCC (the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) respond to the new administration? By doing what they always do, he asserts, though with significantly less money. Dr. Oppenheimer anticipates that the Trump administration will attempt to weaken regulations by challenging the social cost of carbon. Doing this would essentially minimize the environmental impacts of dirtier fuels in economic analyses, thereby justifying their continued use. However, there is already progress underway in the move to renewable energy sources and more sustainable economic practices in general, and this progress is unlikely to come to a stop. Pure inertia is likely to keep things on track, despite Trump, though not with the increasing level of intensity needed to meaningfully address climate change goals. The world will move forward with more sustainable and cleaner technologies, regardless of Trump. By aligning so strongly with the fossil fuel industries, the President risks setting American competitiveness behind in the fields of alternative energies and sustainable technology. When fossil fuel inevitably becomes obsolete, the U.S. will be playing catch up with its production processes and infrastructure.
Dr. Oppenheimer anticipates that Trump’s tone will signal some countries to weaken their commitments to recent international agreements. Regardless of how the US engages in the Paris Agreement, the regressive regulatory policies of the current administration weaken international buy-in for some participant nations. How the administration ultimately interacts with the Paris Agreement is yet to be seen, but withdrawal is unlikely for the simple fact that we would have heard about it by now. The first hundred days of an administration represent the biggest opportunity for getting big agenda items completed. As time drags on, the political will to fight the Paris Agreement outright will diminish, though there are a number of ways the President can try to dilute the US’s role.
In the end, Trump’s plan for addressing climate change is similar to his plan for immigration, infrastructure, health care, etc. — it is non-existent. He seems clueless on scientific matters and relies on a nefarious group of advisors for policy direction. Thus far he has shown that he favors the fossil fuel industry’s wellbeing over that of the American public. While his negligence and ego threaten to set us a step or two backwards in the pursuit of environmental sustainability, there are a lot of smart people, codified laws, and thriving institutions that will limit the extent of the backslide.