Quantcast
Insights

Bill McKibben: How to Save the Planet From Trump

We're going to be dealing with an onslaught of daily emergencies during the Donald Trump years. Already it's begun—if there's nothing going on (or in some cases when there is), our leader often begins the day with a tweet to stir the pot and suddenly we're debating whether burning the flag should lose you your citizenship.

These crises will get worse once he has power—from day to day we'll have to try and protect vulnerable immigrants or deal with the latest outrage from the white supremacist "alt-reich" or confront the latest self-dealing scandal in the upper reaches of the Tower. It will be a game (though not a fun one), for 48 months, of trying to preserve as many people and as much of the Constitution as possible.

Apollo 17's Blue Marble.NASA

And if we're very lucky, at the end of those four years, we might be able to go back to something that resembles normal life. Much damage will have been done in the meantime, but perhaps not irreparable damage. Obamacare will be gone, but something like it—maybe even something better—will be resurrectable. The suffering in the meantime will be real, but it won't make the problem harder to solve, assuming reason someday returns. That's, I guess, the good news: that someday normal life may resume.

But even that slight good news doesn't apply to the question of climate change. It's very likely that by the time Trump is done we'll have missed whatever opening still remains for slowing down the trajectory of global warming—we'll have crossed thresholds from which there's no return. In this case, the damage he's promising will be permanent, for two reasons.

The first is the most obvious: The adversary here is ultimately physics, which plays by its own rules. As we continue to heat the planet, we see that planet changing in ways that turn into feedback loops. If you make it hot enough to melt Arctic ice (and so far we've lost about half of our supply) then one of the side effects is removing a nice white mirror from the top of the planet. Instead of that mirror reflecting 80 percent of the sun's rays out to space, you've now got blue water that absorbs most of the incoming rays of the sun, amping up the heat. Oh, and as that water warms, the methane frozen in its depths eventually begins to melt—and methane is a potent greenhouse gas. Even if, someday, we get a president back in power who's willing to try and turn down the coal, gas and oil burning, there will be nothing we can do about that melting methane. Some things are forever, or at least for geologic time.

There's another reason too, however, and that's that the international political mechanisms Trump wants to smash can't easily be assembled again, even with lots of future good will. It took immense diplomatic efforts to reach the Paris climate accords—25 years of negotiating with endless setbacks. The agreement itself is a jury-rigged kludge, but at least it provides a mechanism for action. It depends on each country voluntarily doing its part, though, and if the biggest historic source of the planet's carbon decides not to play, it's easy to guess that an awful lot of other leaders will decide that they'd just as soon give in to their fossil fuel interests too.

So Trump is preparing to make a massive bet: a bet that the scientific consensus about climate change is wrong, and that the other 191 nations of the world are wrong as well. It's a bet based on literally nothing—when The New York Times asked him about global warming, he started mumbling about a physicist uncle of his who died in 1985. The job—and it may not be a possible job—is for the rest of us to figure out how to make the inevitable loss of this bet as painless as possible.

It demands fierce resistance to his silliness—clearly his people are going to kill Obama's Clean Power Plan, but perhaps they can be shamed into simply ignoring but not formally abrogating the Paris accords. This is work not just for activists, but for the elites that Trump actually listens to. Here's where we need what's left of the establishment to be weighing in: Fortune 500 executives, Wall Streeters—anyone who knows how stupid a bet this is.

But we also need to be working hard on other levels. The fossil fuel industry is celebrating Trump's election, and rightly so—but we can continue to make their lives at least a little difficult, through campaigns like fossil fuel divestment and through fighting every pipeline and every coal port. The federal battles will obviously be harder, and we may lose even victories like Keystone. But there are many levers of power, and the ones closer to home are often easier to pull.

We also have to work at state and local levels to support what we want. The last election, terrible as it was, showed that renewable energy is popular even in red states—Florida utilities lost their bid to sideline solar energy, for instance. The hope is that we can keep the buildout of sun and wind, which is beginning to acquire real momentum, on track; if so, costs will keep falling to the point where simple economics may overrule even Trumpish ideology.

And of course we have to keep communicating, all the time, about the crisis—using the constant stream of signals from the natural world to help people understand the folly of our stance. As I write this, the Smoky Mountain town of Gatlinburg is on fire, with big hotels turned to ash at the end of a devastating drought. Mother Nature will provide us an endless string of teachable moments, and some of them will break through—it's worth remembering that the Bush administration fell from favor as much because of Katrina as Iraq.

None of these efforts will prevent massive, and perhaps fatal, damage to the effort to constrain climate change. It's quite possible, as many scientists said the day after the election, that we've lost our best chance. But we don't know precisely how the physics will play out, and every ton of carbon we keep out of the atmosphere will help.

And amidst this long ongoing emergency, as I said at the beginning, we've got to help with all the daily crises. This winter may find climate activists spending as much time trying to block deportations as pipelines; we may have to live in a hot world, but we don't have to live in a jackbooted one, and the more community we can preserve, the more resilient our communities will be. It's hard not to despair—but then, it wasn't all that easy to be realistically hopeful about our climate even before Trump. This has always been a battle against great odds. They're just steeper now.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Moyers & Company.

Show Comments ()
Sponsored
Energy
Alaska's Kenai Fjords National Park, which was impacted by the Exxon Valdez oil spill, could be harmed again if expanded offshore drilling plans go through. National Park Service

Trump’s Offshore Drilling Plan Puts 68 National Parks at Risk

Sixty-eight National Parks along the coastal U.S. could be in danger from devastating oil spills if President Donald Trump's plan to open 90 percent of coastal waters to offshore oil drilling goes through, a report released Wednesday by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the National Parks Conservation Association found.

Keep reading... Show less
Climate
E. coli. The World Health Organizations says antibiotic resistance is "one of the biggest threats to global health, food security, and development today." U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Climate Change Could Supercharge Threat of Antibiotic Resistance: Study

By Andrea Germano

The World Health Organization and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have previously sounded alarms about the growing issue of antibiotic resistance—a problem already linked to overprescribing of antibiotics and industrial farming practices. Now, new research shows a link between warmer temperatures and antibiotic resistance, suggesting it could be a greater threat than previously thought on our ever-warming planet.

Keep reading... Show less
Renewable Energy
Powerwall residential battery with solar panels. Tesla

Tesla's Massive Virtual Power Plant in South Australia Roars Back to Life

Tesla's plans to build the world's largest virtual power plant in South Australia will proceed after all.

The $800 million (US $634 million) project—struck in February by Tesla CEO Elon Musk and former South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill—involves installing solar panels and batteries on 50,000 homes to function as an interconnected power plant.

Keep reading... Show less
Climate
A French lavender farmer is part of the group suing the EU for more ambitious emissions targets, saying climate change threatens his crop. Iamhao / CC BY-SA 3.0

10 Families Bring First Ever 'People’s Climate Case' Against the EU

Ten families from Fiji, Kenya and countries across Europe who are already suffering the effects of climate change filed a case against the EU Wednesday in a bid to force the body to increase its commitments under the Paris agreement, AFP reported.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Oceans

Swimmer Plans to Cross Pacific to Highlight Plastic Pollution

Ben Lecomte, the first man to swim across the Atlantic in 1998, will attempt another grueling, history-making ocean crossing.

On Tuesday, the 50-year-old Frenchman and his crew will set out from Tokyo for a 5,500-mile swim across the Pacific, Reuters reported. If all goes as planned, Lecomte will arrive in San Francisco six to eight months later.

Keep reading... Show less
Business
Tesco supermarket near Ashford Hospital in West Bedfont, England. Maxwell Hamilton / CC BY 2.0

UK's Largest Grocer Takes on Food and Plastic Waste

It's been a green week for Tesco, the UK's largest supermarket.

First, the chain said it would remove "Best before" labels from around 70 pre-packaged fruits and vegetables in an attempt to stop customers from discarding still-edible food, BBC News reported Tuesday.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Climate
"While roads around our plant are impassable, our ride-out crew has two boats that could be used to carry the crew out of the site," said a spokesperson for Arkema on Aug. 29, 2017 after Hurricane Harvey. EPA

Chemical Industry Lacks Preparation for Extreme Weather, Investigation Finds

A Houston chemical plant company did not properly prepare for hurricane season, resulting in a toxic accident during Hurricane Harvey last year, federal regulators have found.

The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board on Thursday released an extensive investigation into the flooding-induced chemical fires at the Arkema plant in Crosby, Texas, finding that while the company's insurers flagged the high potential for flooding a year before Harvey, plant employees were unaware of the risk.

Keep reading... Show less
Business
Calgary Reviews / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

McDonald's Shareholders Vote to Keep Distributing Plastic Straws

McDonald's shareholders rejected a proposal to take the first step in banning plastic straws at its 36,000 outlets worldwide.

The proposal, published in an SEC filing in April, would have required the fast food giant to prepare a report on the business risks of using plastic straws, and the company's efforts to develop and implement more sustainable alternatives in its restaurants.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!