What’s the Impact of the U.S. Presidential Election on Climate?

Donald Trump, climate change, elections, COP21, clean energy, renewables, Leon Kaye
Jubilation at COP21 last year – is it under threat due to a President Trump?

Donald Trump’s upset victory over Hillary Clinton in Tuesday’s elections portends many changes, and plenty of uncertainty, once he becomes the nation’s 45th President on January 20. One issue that Trump and his allies will surely take on is the progress that the U.S. has made on climate change, especially after last year’s historic Paris agreement. Trump has been on record for describing climate change as a “hoax” invented by the Chinese, a claim he later described as a “joke.”

Joke or no joke, the evidence suggests Trump will pursue environmental policies in a starkly different manner from his predecessor. So will President Trump be able to reverse the progress made over the past eight years, including pulling out of the global climate pact? After all, he is on the record with Reuters saying that along with other treaties, he would at a minimum “renegotiate” the climate deal agreed upon by almost 200 countries.

Yes, Trump could pull the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement, though many analysts say that is highly unlikely. He could be less confrontational, but still kneecap U.S. commitments, by taking steps such as abolishing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or slashing its funding – both promises he had made during the campaign season. But the reality, as discussed on the Guardian, is that pulling out of a treaty does not necessarily mean a total reversal in policy. The risk, however, is that he can throw global cooperation on climate change into chaos.

Such thoughts have sent shudders throughout the global environmental community. Climate Action Network, for example, has assembled a collection of quotes from leaders that have expressed horror at the thought of what Trump may or may not do while admonishing him that the U.S. has already committed to these climate obligations. “Leaving this important international agreement will damage our credibility with important overseas partners and would be a major setback in the fight against climate change,” said Kelly Stone, a policy analyst with the environmental justice group ActionAid.

Market forces, however, may very well help push the U.S. forward on its climate change commitments, with or without an agreement. Energy is one promise Trump has made that could trip him up during his presidency – just as his fanciful promises of “extreme vetting” of Muslims, building that wall on the border, imposing tariffs, bombing the “s—t out of ISIS” and renegotiating global deals will prove to be tough to enact once he takes office.

Take coal, which Trump has promised to make central to U.S. energy policy. His promises to resuscitate the coal industry won him large margins in Appalachia. But the stubborn fact is that natural gas has become the preferred fuel for power plants across the U.S. Indeed, clean air regulations are part of the switch; but the natural gas boom has made this imperfect but cleaner fuel just as cheap, or even less expensive, than coal.

Meanwhile, renewables have become cost-competitive as well, and sources such as solar and wind power have become far more scalable and efficient over the past few years. Much of this shift has been due to large companies, who view clean energy as a hedge protecting them against volatile fuel prices. Even if a Trump Administration puts the kibosh on many, even all, of the environmental and clean energy programs, that will not stop states, local governments and the private sector from investing in renewables. And these curbs on Trump’s influence come even before the backlash that would likely result if he makes too radical a change in U.S. energy and environmental policies.

Those of us who have been deeply vested in the sustainability movement need to resist the urge to join the collective freak-out and put this week’s election in perspective. Take a page from the book of Joel Makower, founder of GreenBiz:

“We’ll survive this one, too. It won’t be easy or quick, and much is uncertain. One of the hardest things we’ll face is to remain optimistic and empowered and committed. We’ll lose precious time on some pressing issues, but we, too, will find our footing and move forward.”

Our vision of a more sustainable world now has a powerful ally: economics. The market is too powerful a force to succumb to a man seen by many as a hell-bent saboteur of the progress that has been made since the Great Recession. Business now sees the benefits of cleaner energy and sustainable development more than ever, so while there will be setbacks, Tuesday’s outcome does not have to become a complete disaster – unless we idly stand by and allow such events to happen.

Image credit: United Nations/Flickr

 

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Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010. He has lived across the U.S., as well as in South Korea, Abu Dhabi and Uruguay. Some of Leon's work can also be found in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. You can follow him on Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost).

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