Climate Change in the Trumpocene Age

In the year since the Paris climate agreement was concluded, the world’s efforts to limit global warming seemed to gain momentum. How worried should the world be about the prospect that US President-elect Donald Trump and the fossil-fuel lobbyists populating his administration will derail progress?

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COPENHAGEN – In the year since the Paris climate agreement was concluded, the world’s efforts to limit global warming to 2º Celsius above pre-industrial levels seemed to gain momentum. Enough signatory countries took the necessary steps to formalize the agreement to ensure that it entered into force on November 4. Meanwhile, in October, the international community reached a separate aviation-related climate accord, which covers an area that the Paris agreement did not address; and agreed to amend the 1989 Montreal Protocol to phase out hydrofluorocarbons – a potent greenhouse gas.

But, following the United States’ presidential election, many observers fear that international efforts to combat climate change – such as the Paris accord and the Sustainable Development Goals (specifically, SDG 13) – could be derailed. During his campaign, President-elect Donald Trump – who in 2012 took to Twitter to declare that climate change is a Chinese-created hoax – said that he would walk away from the Paris agreement. But, in a post-election interview with the New York Times, Trump said that he had an “open mind” about the Paris agreement, implying that he is now backing away from his previous statements.

Given Trump’s belief that “unpredictability” is a virtue, no one can know for certain what he will do when he takes office in January, including how his policies might affect existing frameworks and agreements to address climate change. Since Election Day, Project Syndicate commentators have been weighing in on what a Trump presidency might look like; and they have long been discussing how we can confront the problem of a warming planet. Most agree that such a collective threat demands a concerted response; but, if Trump chooses to abandon the US government’s climate-related commitments, the rest of the world will have to find a way forward on its own.

Burning Down the House

How might US climate-change policies change under Trump? The initial signs do not bode well. As Oxford University Chancellor Chris Patten notes, Trump “has already appointed Myron Ebell, an outspoken climate change denier, to oversee the transition at the US Environmental Protection Agency.” Under US President Barack Obama, the EPA was at the forefront of American efforts to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, and to phase out dirty energy sources such as coal. Those efforts will almost certainly be scrapped if Trump is taking advice from Ebell, the director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute – which has received funding from hydrocarbon producers.