How the Global Climate Fight Could Be Lost If Trump Is Re-Elected
By Oliver Milman
This story was originally published in The Guardian on July 27, 2020.
It was a balmy June day in 2017 when Donald Trump took to the lectern in the White House Rose Garden to announce the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement, the only comprehensive global pact to tackle the spiraling crisis.
Todd Stern, who was the U.S.'s chief negotiator when the deal was sealed in Paris in 2015, forced himself to watch the speech.
"I found it sickening, it was mendacious from start to finish," said Stern. "I was furious … because here we have this really important thing and here's this joker who doesn't understand anything he's talking about. It was a fraud."
The terms of the accord mean no country can leave before November this year, so due to a quirk of timing, the U.S. will officially exit the Paris deal on 4 November – 100 days from now and just one day after the 2020 presidential election.
The completion of Stern's misery, and possibly any realistic hopes of averting disastrous climate change, rests heavily upon the outcome of the election, which will pit Trump against former vice-president Joe Biden, who has vowed to rejoin the climate agreement.
The lifetime of the Paris agreement, signed in a wave of optimism in 2015, has seen the five hottest years ever recorded on Earth, unprecedented wildfires torching towns from California to Australia, record heatwaves baking Europe and India and temperatures briefly bursting beyond 100F (38C) in the Arctic.
These sorts of impacts could be a mere appetizer, scientists warn, given they have been fueled by levels of global heating that are on track to triple, or worse, by the end of the century without drastic remedial action. The faltering global effort to curb greenhouse gas emissions and head off further calamity hinges, in significant part, on whether the U.S. decides to re-enter the fray.
"The choice of Biden or Trump in the White House is huge, not just for the U.S. but for the world generally to deal with climate change," said Stern. "If Biden wins, November 4 is a blip, like a bad dream is over. If Trump wins, he seals the deal. The U.S. becomes a non-player and the goals of Paris become very, very difficult. Without the U.S. in the long term, they certainly aren't realistic."
Nearly 200 countries put their name to the Paris accords, pledging to face down the climate emergency and limit the average global temperature rise to "well below" 2C above the era before mass industrialization started pumping huge volumes of planet-warming gases into the atmosphere from cars, trucks, power plants and farms. A more aspirational goal of halting temperatures at a 1.5C rise was also included although, just five years on, the planet is already creeping perilously close to this mark.
The Paris deal brought major, growing emitters like China and India on board with the quest to shift towards cleaner sources of energy, in part due to the urgings of Barack Obama, who claimed the agreement showed the U.S. was now a "global leader in the fight against climate change."
Trump, who once famously called climate science a "hoax," has never looked kindly on the deal, which he framed as an international effort to damage the U.S. while letting China off too lightly. In his Rose Garden speech, Trump remarked that he was elected to "represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris." In reality, each country is free to choose its own emissions cuts without any sort of enforcement. "Paris is like a vessel, such as a glass – you can pour water or wine into it," said Sue Biniaz, a former U.S. state department lawyer who drafted parts of the Paris deal. "It's not the design of Paris that's the problem, it's that there's not the political will to do enough."
Abandoned Climate Efforts
The U.S. government in practice abandoned any concern over the climate crisis some time ago, with the Trump administration so far rolling back more than 100 environmental protections, including an Obama-era plan to curb emissions from coal-fired power plants, limits on pollution emitted from cars and trucks and even energy efficiency standards for lightbulbs. In an often chaotic presidency, Trump's position on climate change has been unusually consistent – American fossil fuel production must be bolstered, restrictive climate regulations must be scrapped.
Unswayed by growing alarm among Americans over the climate crisis, Trump is taking this same message to the election. "Biden wants to massively re-regulate the energy economy, rejoin the Paris climate accord, which would kill our energy totally, you would have to close 25% of your businesses and kill oil and gas development," the president said this month, without citing evidence, as he announced another rollback, this time of environmental assessments of pipelines, highways and other infrastructure.
Despite all this, U.S. emissions have continued to fall, due in large part to the downfall of a coal industry that Trump has attempted to prop up. The international ramifications have been telling, however – in the absence of any sort of positive cajoling from the U.S., global emissions have remained stubbornly high and most countries are lagging behind their own promised actions.
According to the Climate Action Tracker, only Morocco is acting consistently with the Paris agreement's goals, with the global temperature rise set to exceed 3C by the end of the century even if the current pledges are met. Paris was meant to be only the beginning – countries are supposed to continually ratchet up their ambition levels until the more extreme ravages of climate change, such as dire flooding, heatwaves, crop failures and the loss of coral reefs, are avoided.
"There's been less political will from other countries to take action to a certain extent because the U.S. isn't pushing for it," said Biniaz. "During the first four years of Trump it's easier to say it's likely to be an aberration, a short-term deviation, but if it's eight years it's harder to keep together the coalition of countries that care about this."
‘Another Meteorite Is Coming’
Another four years of a Trump administration uninterested in the climate crisis could set back global emissions cuts by a decade, according to one published analysis, making the chances of meeting the goals of Paris near to impossible.
Hakon Saelen, an environmental economist at the University of Oslo who led the study, said the U.S. withdrawal is a "significant major blow" to the mitigation of the climate crisis. "The world cannot afford any delay if the 2C target is to be reached," he said. "Our model indicates that the chance of reaching it is very low already, but near zero with another Trump term."
But even with an engaged Biden administration that is somehow able to get Congress to agree to a $2tn plan to shift the U.S. on to renewable energy, the challenge is immense. The world has dithered on cutting emissions for so long that only an unprecedented, rapid overhaul of the way we travel, generate energy and eat will keep humanity within the bounds of safety outlined in Paris.The world will have to slash emissions by more than 7% a year this decade to have any hope of meeting the 1.5C target, according to the United Nations. This annual cut will be achievable this year only through the devastation of the coronavirus pandemic, which shuttered much of the global economy. A more sustainable path to decarbonization will need to be immediately identified and implemented.
"The warmer it gets the worse it gets and the [Paris] targets are broadly at a level where things will get really bad," said Zeke Hausfather, director of climate and energy at the Breakthrough Institute. "We don't want people to give up hope, the human race won't become extinct at 2C but that's an unnecessarily high bar. There are still large threats and a lot of good reasons to keep warming below that.
Stern said American voters will naturally be "supersonic focused" on coronavirus and the economic fallout. "But climate change can't be forgotten this election," he said. "The Covid crisis has shown us countries can do remarkable things in short order when they believe they have to. It shows us we need leaders who also understand what we need to do on climate change, because that is another meteorite heading our way."
This story originally appeared in The Guardian and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
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A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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