Introduction by RSGS Chief Executive, Mike Robinson.
How disappointing and yet unsurprising that a greedy, morally corrupt, narcissist obsessed with short-term profiteering for selfish gain has withdrawn from a long-term global agreement that shows moral and ethical leadership and magnanimity. It barely registers as news, because it was so foreseeable and whilst the liberal west is quite rightly outraged there are undoubtedly those who will rejoice at this as if it is some sort of enlightened reality check on those who worry about the climate. We live in an ever more divided political landscape.
Here in Scotland, and more widely in the UK, we have been at the forefront of concern for climate change, often championing the need for the international community to take the responsibility more seriously, and in many cases trying to ensure we are not left behind in the need to reduce dependency on fossil fuels. The reasons to do this go well beyond well-intentioned environmentalism. They cut right to the heart of our society’s future and the need to provide more sustainable economic, social and environmental policies for the long term prosperity of us all. For younger members of our societies, this is also about how much we care about the future we are leaving for them to live in. Is it one full of hope, opportunity and prosperity, or one full of traffic, waste and debt?
So as the USA steps away from its moral and global responsibilities, and towards a more self-serving short term agenda, this decision, whilst predictable, sets the world back twenty or thirty years, when we needed to accelerate action not delay it. And worryingly here in the UK, we seem to be veering more towards Trump’s America and away from Macron and Merkel’s more socially responsible Europe.
There is still hope, as outlined in Professor Bomberg’s article below, although it is sobering that this hope is largely predicated on being able to stop or hinder these negative decisions.
Trump’s first 100 days: the curious case for climate optimism
Professor Elizabeth Bomberg, Professor of Politics, University of Edinburgh
A perusal of President Donald Trump’s early climate and environmental initiatives makes for sobering reading. Within his first 100 days he appointed a series of climate sceptics and oilmen to his Cabinet and closest advisory circle. He vowed to “end the war on coal” by attempting to dismantle Obama’s Clean Power Plan (CPP), which is designed to regulate carbon emissions from power plants. He lifted a moratorium on coal leasing, and issued permits for controversial oil pipelines. Meanwhile, his proposed budget included huge cuts in funding for scientific agencies and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the federal institution charged with upholding and implementing environmental legislation. This list is partial.
What readers might not realise, however, is that regardless of what Trump would like to implement, his policies, budget cuts and actions will confront constitutional, institutional and societal barriers. Some of Trump’s proposals will get through, but a lot will not. Four checks and countervailing trends are particularly important.
The first check is constitutional. Both Congress and, even more so, the judicial branch will pose formidable checks on Trump’s power. Any proposed dismantling of the CPP, for instance, will be subject to lengthy congressional but also judicial review, triggered by suits filed by a range of states, environmental, labour and health NGOs. Regardless of whether NGOs are successful in their legal challenge, the delay could last years, longer than the presidential term itself.
The second barrier is economic. Trump cannot stop the global and national market forces which have sent coal use in a downward spiral. Hundreds of US coal power plants have closed, and the number of jobs in the coal sector has plummeted. Meanwhile, renewables are a tremendous growth industry in the US, especially in the Midwest. Costs for wind and solar have fallen markedly and employment has shot up. In the electricity sector, according to the US Department of Energy, employment in solar alone now outstrips employment in oil and gas.
We can also expect lots of opposition below the federal level. Much of the relevant statutory power (and creativity) in climate and environment policy is found here. California has led other states vowing to defy Trump’s harshest moves and committing to sharply reduce state emissions, regardless of federal inaction. Just as important is pushback from a growing number of Republican states like Iowa, Kansas, and Ohio who have benefitted enormously from a renewables revolution which has brought to their states jobs, investment, and reduced energy costs. These Republican leaders have become unexpected champions of low-carbon economies and low-carbon policies. Cities will also continue their core efforts to reduce carbon as part of their efforts to reduce costs, protect coasts, infrastructures and public safety. More general citizen mobilization has also grown and diversified. In addition to increased membership of environmental NGOs, early 2017 featured a record-breaking number of protests from unlikely quarters including religious communities, health groups and – in a series of very well-organised protest marches – scientists concerned by the Administration’s dismissive view of research and data.
Beyond the US, Trump’s threat to ‘cancel’ the Paris Climate Agreement will also be blocked. He cannot undo a multilateral agreement, though he can withdraw the US from it. Doing so would be foolhardy (even according to some in his Cabinet) but would in any case take a minimum of four years (longer than his term) due to provisions written into the Paris Agreement. Moreover, as Mike Robinson highlighted in the winter 2016-17 edition of The Geographer, the Paris Agreement enjoys wide support from a huge range of countries, and several other parties to the Agreement have promised to fill the void left by US inaction. These parties include the European Union for sure (“We are ready to lead the fight,” said a spokesman), but also China which has huge incentives to take on the leadership role abandoned by the US. China is highly vulnerable to climate change and suffers dangerously high levels of urban pollution. Moreover, its economy benefits enormously from the global development of renewables. Less clear is how other major emitters such as India will react, especially if the US reduces its contribution to the green climate fund promised to developing countries. But there is plenty of evidence to suggest that, for most countries, the environmental, economic and diplomatic incentives for moving forward on Paris far outweigh the temptation to follow a laggard.
In the February 2017 edition of the Young Geographer magazine, The Future We Want, several contributors identified the changes necessary to address climate change in Scotland and globally. These include societal mobilization, an economic shift to low-carbon energy, sub-state action, and behavioural and cultural shifts. While not receiving much attention in the UK press, these forces are all thriving in the US. Combined with the constitutional checks outlined above, it is not unreasonable to think these countervailing forces will shape – and in many cases curtail – the Trump Administration’s attempt to scupper progress on climate policy and action. The case for climate optimism continues, with or without Trump.
Professor Elizabeth Bomberg is Professor of Environmental Politics and Deputy Head of the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Edinburgh.
Thank you to Professor Bomberg for writing this article for RSGS. The article will also be published in the next edition of our magazine The Geographer.