Nov 22, 2016
The climate after Trump
‘Devastating’, ‘embarrassed’, ‘worried’ and ‘set the clock back’ were just some of the words used by environmental scientists when environmentalresearchweb asked for their views on the election of climate sceptic Donald Trump as US president.
As you might expect, opinions varied widely. Some researchers found the news depressing, others felt it’s too early to comment until Trump announces his policies, or wanted to keep scholarship and advocacy separate, whilst some found glimmers of hope despite the outlook for US commitment to the UN’s Paris climate agreement. Several think that communication and understanding in both directions between researchers and the public are the way forward.
First, let’s look at the reaction of the country that Trump reckons invented the phenomenon of manmade climate change for its own ends. As reported by Reuters, Chinese climate-change negotiator Xie Zhenhua said that if the Trump administration resists the trend towards balancing environmental protection and economic growth, "I don't think they'll win the support of their people, and their country's economic and social progress will also be affected. I believe a wise political leader should take policy stances that conform with global trends."
"We must get out and listen deeply and with empathy, we must stop preaching to the converted." Hallie Eakin
China overtook the US as the world’s biggest emitter of carbon dioxide in 2006 but the nation now has more than 145 GW of wind capacity, well ahead of the US, which is in second place with roughly 74 GW. The costs of renewable energy have fallen dramatically in recent years and in many cases wind and solar power are cheaper than natural gas, which in turn is cheaper than coal. So a move to renewable energy generally makes more economic sense than boosting coal and gas power, especially if you take air quality and public health into account.
According to Reuters, businesses and investors including DuPont, Gap, General Mills, Hewlett Packard, Hilton, Kellogg, Levi Strauss & Co., L'Oreal USA, Nike, Mars Incorporated, Schneider Electric, Starbucks and Unilever have called on Trump to continue to support agreed curbs on global warming and to speed up efforts to move to a low-carbon economy. Known as the 360+ group, the businesses released their statement at the COP22 UN climate meeting in Marrakech, Morocco on 16th November. "Failure to build a low-carbon economy puts American prosperity at risk," they said. "But the right action now will create jobs and boost US competitiveness."
Trump, however, who in January will become the only leader of a major industrialized country to deny the existence of human-caused climate change, looks set to renege on the Paris climate agreement that came into force on November 4th. The US Clean Power Plan, which aims to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the electricity sector by 32% in 2030 compared to 2005 levels also looks under threat, and the nation’s Environmental Protection Agency is likely to be led by Myron Ebell, another climate sceptic. These prospects are disturbing many scientists.
"It took the US two decades to go from climate obstructionist to climate leader, and one ugly season to throw it away," Dan Kammen of the University of California, Berkeley, US, told Scientific American. "…I am embarrassed for my generation and am having trouble facing a younger generation that have very basic questions about our selfishness…what we have just done is to steal from our children’s future."
Carolyn Stephens of the Amazonia-Yungas Observatory for Biodiversity, Indigenous Health & Equity, who is affiliated to the UCL Institute of Health Equity/London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, UK and Programa de Extension, Universidad Nacional de Tucumán, Argentina, was also down-hearted on hearing the news. "My heart sunk as I woke up at dawn in the threatened and beautiful cloud forest of Argentina, and found that Donald Trump had won the US elections," she told environmentalresearchweb. "He is a proud climate denier against all the scientific evidence. It would be worrying to have a climate-denying leader in any country today, but one who leads the USA is much more dangerous for our planet. This makes the job of the rest of the world’s leaders harder, but even more essential, and all scientists and citizens have to fight to keep climate change commitments on track."
Concerns plague Benjamin Brock of Northumbria University, UK, too. "We will have to wait and see how the harsh language of the election campaign translates into policy in the realities of office," he told environmentalresearchweb. "I share the concerns of most climate scientists about the potential of the USA reneging on the Paris climate agreement and the withdrawal of billions of dollars of funding for UN climate programmes."
" As a climate scientist, I am optimistic that we will make significant progress towards a carbon free, sustainable energy future in the next four years, not because of, but in spite of the federal government." Beate Liepert
Brock, however, has some optimism that the declining cost of non-carbon energy sources means the transition away from fossil fuels to renewables will continue, even if current clean energy subsidies are withdrawn. "Although the 2° global warming target now looks unrealistic, we may not be in a worst-case scenario," he said. "Of higher uncertainty and potential greater impact is the rhetoric that sees the environment as something to be exploited for human needs, and scientific experts as untrustworthy and interested mainly in pursuing their own agenda. Reason and evidence-based arguments now seem ineffective in communicating environmental concerns to the new administration and millions of voters. I fear that this could severely undermine efforts to combat pollution, habitat loss and sustain biodiversity worldwide."
Talking and listening
Indeed, communication was raised as an issue by multiple respondents, with some feeling that it’s crucial to continue writing and talking about their work – "it is impossible to make America great again without making science and education great again," said Chuixiang Yi of Queens College, City University of New York – and others seeing a need for a new approach.
Hallie Eakin of Arizona State University, US, fears those working in sustainability science are often too caught up in its elite, introverted language, even as they speak out on issues of global inequity and poverty. "We need to understand what is behind the difficult choices people make; how individuals and groups view their options and their future," she said. "As academics, we are in a position to engage, broker, understand and communicate. As yet, I feel I am not doing this well enough – particularly here at home, where I too am a stakeholder in more ways than one. Listening closely and deeply is the first step; withholding judgement. Learning and teaching go both ways."
According to Eakin, researchers continue to erroneously assume that better information and more knowledge are enough. "It is hard not to feel that the values that are embedded in knowledge for sustainability are above interrogation, are somehow universal, and somehow must resonate with all humanity because we believe these values to be essential for sustainability," she said. "However, if we are ever to have a fundamental transformation of our social-ecological interactions, we must leave our castles in the sky; we must get out and listen deeply and with empathy, we must stop preaching to the converted."
Kammen too reckons engagement with voters is crucial. "Now, advocates of sustainability and intra- and inter-national equity and partnership must re-tool, but without any buffer or luxury of time," he told Scientific American. "Above all, this new strategy and route to integrate and partner must evolve fast, and must find common ground with an electorate infused with the sad anger and pessimism that led to the Trump victory. What California—and Morocco, Kenya, Denmark, Bangladesh, The Vatican, Germany, Nicaragua, and others—offer are imperfect but very real examples that show that our energy and material system can actually evolve much faster than previously thought. It takes steadily evolving technology. But more important is the development of a coherent plan."
Conquering the divide
Talking of coherence, Eakin reckons that one of the clearest indicators that the US is a fragmented nation is the rural/urban divide. "It is a divide in terms of livelihood opportunity, it is a divide in terms of access to information and basic services, it is a divide reflected in our education system and in the values people hold, and it is a divide accentuated by poor understanding and lack of empathy," she said. Eakin, who works on human vulnerability and adaptive capacity in rural households in developing countries, says she’s had to think hard about this division in the aftermath of the election, which she found devastating. "Trump’s base is grounded in – although by no means exclusive to – the nation’s relatively sparsely populated, rural districts; these are areas of disinvestment and outmigration," she said. "Agriculture and other activities of natural resource exploitation have historically constituted…the sense of place and community. As a scholar of rural vulnerability and adaptive strategies, I should know these constituents. I should understand their challenges and their struggles to maintain some sense of security while the world transforms. And, intellectually I do understand. Yet as a citizen, hoping to affirm my agenda of social equity, tolerance and environmental integrity with my political voice, I do not."
" It is impossible to make America great again without making science and education great again." Chuixiang Yi
Govindasamy Bala of the Indian Institute of Science Bangalore has also been trying to gain an insight into the election result. "The backlash against globalization and the developed countries moving towards ‘my country first’ is understandable because of the rising unemployment or underemployment in the developed world and the cheap labour in the developing world," he said. "This sentiment is real and it needs to be addressed in the global agenda. One of the main contributing factors is the ever-expanding global population, which also contributes to accelerated global carbon emissions and climate change. I hope the global community finds a way to take up the population issue in sustainability discussions in the near future."
Other scientists found some consolation in the state system. Beate Liepert of NorthWest Research Associates, US, detailed how ballots in states, counties and municipalities also included referenda directly related to climate and the environment. Whilst Washington State rejected a carbon tax, the county that includes Seattle, where Liepert lives, voted for a public transportation bill. "Although it didn’t pass (due to [the] required super majority), half of Floridian voters said ‘yes’ to the right to produce and consume your own solar electricity," Liepert added. "In the state of Iowa, which Trump handily won, wind provided 31.3% of Iowa’s total electricity generation in 2015, the highest portion of all states."
Liepert believes that, independent of what a Trump administration does, it will be on the local and state level that environmental and climate initiatives will most likely succeed. "We can easily lament the election and call it a loss for climate and the environment," she said. "But there is a lot us scientists, engineers, inventors and entrepreneurs can work on to keep the momentum we generated over the years. Lofty international goals may not be realistic during a Trump administration; concrete steps from the bottom up, however, will be more likely. So yes, as a climate scientist, I am optimistic that we will make significant progress towards a carbon-free, sustainable energy future in the next four years, not because of, but in spite of the federal government."
Dan Kammen agrees, at least to a certain extent. "If there is a ‘silver lining’," he told Scientific American, "it is that we are a nation of strong institutions and now we shall see, are our ideals up to the task? My state of California—hardly popular to the Trump voters—offers a hopeful perspective."
As to how the situation will play out, only time will tell. Yet time is exactly what the planet doesn’t have if it’s to avoid the 2° level of climate change widely accepted as dangerous and enshrined as a goal in the Paris Agreement.
About the author
Liz Kalaugher is editor of environmentalresearchweb