Climate Action in the Age of Trump

Welcome to the Age of Trump.

Few if any members of the environmental community expected the result that millions of Americans woke up to on Wednesday, November 9. Fueled by a surge of support from manufacturing-heavy states in the traditionally blue Rust Belt, from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin, Donald Trump defied the pollsters and claimed the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House.

So here we are.

In my last blog post, I predicted that we as environmental champions would face significant challenges under a new administration of either party. No one can deny, however, that the challenges of a Trump presidency will be more serious and more immediate. Already, Trump has tapped a climate change denier to manage the EPA transition team, and is reportedly considering the CEO of an oil company as the next secretary of energy.

In light of all that, it’s small wonder that some lead environmental voices have seemingly thrown in the towel on averting climate change. The uphill battle that we’ve been fighting on climate action just got a lot more uphill.

But I would argue that as we face the Age of Trump and all the new uncertainties that come with it, silver buckshot – the incremental environmental solutions that make progress, not headlines – will be that much more important. We definitely won’t come across a silver bullet to solve climate change in the next four years, so let’s fight with what we have.

The first thing we have is the rest of the world on our side.

At the annual UN climate negotiations that recently wrapped up in Marrakech, Morocco, delegates issued the Marrakech Action Proclamation, which promises “a shift towards a new era of implementation and action on climate and sustainable development.” Despite the shadow that hung over the conference from Trump’s surprise election, the international community forged ahead, developing a roadmap to help countries move toward a low-carbon economy by 2050. Twenty-two countries, including the US, have signed on to that long-term vision, while another 47 countries, many among the world’s poorest, have promised to transition to 100% renewable energy as soon as possible.

The opening ceremony of the UN climate negotiations in Marrakech, Morocco. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Perhaps most significantly, any backsliding by the US on its pledge to cut CO2 emissions under the Paris Agreement will create an opportunity for a new world power to take the reins of climate leadership. China, the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, remains committed to peaking its emissions by 2030. In Marrakech, China’s deputy foreign minister Liu Zhenmin said that China would continue its efforts to tackle climate change “whatever the circumstances.”

While a US retreat from its position of leadership in the UN climate change negotiations is far from ideal, it’s telling that developing countries like China are now ready to step up and continue the fight. This is not a repeat of the Kyoto Protocol, when the US’s failure to participate essentially doomed the global agreement. Now, whether the US leads or not, the world is moving ahead to combat climate change together.

The second thing we have on our side is public opinion.

Despite the fact that 47% of voters in the presidential election just put a climate change skeptic in the Oval Office, nearly two-thirds of Americans polled earlier this year believe that climate change is a serious threat, and that humans are the main cause of that change. This concern is showing itself intermittently at the ballot box, such as this election season in Florida, where voters in the swing state rejected a utility-driven referendum to put a tax on solar power.

But there’s a missing link between public opinion and policy action: a political movement. Not everyone who cares about climate change would call themselves an environmentalist, so the environmental movement cannot stand alone in advocating for the climate. Our challenge as environmental advocates for the next four years will be to build that movement for climate action – a movement that is loud, persistent, and inclusive.

The third thing we have on our side, somewhat ironically, is the inertia of the American political system.

Even with a president and majorities in both houses of Congress united against environmental protection, agency actions take time to rescind and replace; legislation takes time to work its way to the floor of the Senate and the House; and it takes quite a bit of time – four years, in fact – to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. All of it will also require a good amount of political capital, of which even the newly-elected President has a finite amount.

Think of it as the “Obama baseline.” It will be harder than Trump expects for him to reverse course on many of Obama’s existing policies, just as Obama found it harder than expected to overturn many of George W’s policies. But in order to convince the Trump administration to spend their political capital elsewhere, we’ll need to fight hard to protect the Obama baseline. That means calling our legislators persistently, supporting NGOs that challenge Trump’s federal actions (or inactions) in the courts, and making it clear that the majority of Americans do not support the administration’s new direction on climate.

With the international community, US public opinion, and the effect of the Obama baseline all leaning our way, now would be the worst time to give up on our climate. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and get to work mobilizing a movement.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some representatives to call.