It may be a pure coincidence that the inauguration of Donald Trump is taking place at the same time as the world’s most respected climate monitoring scientific organisations are reporting that 2016 was the hottest year ever recorded.
While our planet earth is increasingly facing the danger of global warming, a person who enters the most powerful political office in the world says that global warming is a ‘hoax’ and a conspiracy hatched by China to hurt US industry’s competitiveness. Donald Trump had gone even further than this when during his election campaign he had vowed that he would take the USA out of the Paris Climate Pact and end US funding for UN initiatives to control climate change. Apart from all the other risks associated with the Trump agenda to push the US towards isolationism in economic and political policies, sabotaging global climate negotiations would be the most dangerous policy shift because the biggest threat humanity faces today is from global warming.
Not only is 2016 the hottest year ever recorded, it is the third year in a row to record the highest temperature. Both 2015 and 2014 were earlier reported to be the hottest. According to NASA, 2006 is the warmest year since the records available with them from 1880 onwards. Scientists from both NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the US have reported that global surface temperatures were nearly 1C warmer in 2016 than the mid-20th century average. There are small differences in the other estimates. The UK Met Office’s national weather service, has reported that 2016 was 0.77 above the long term rate and one of the two warmest years on record. The World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), which integrates temperature data from a range of different sources, agrees that 2016 broke the previous annual temperature rise record. Additionally, when 2016 is included, 15 of the 16 warmest years on record have been since 2001. According to the NOAA, the only year from the last century to be included in the top 16th warmest years is 1998 which was the seventh warmest ever.
The 1C or near 1C rise in global temperature is an important number to understand the risks associated with it. There is a worldwide scientific consensus that if the average global temperature rises by 2C in comparison with the pre-industrial period, we would enter a period of irreversible environmental changes. Therefore, all previous global climate negotiations have emphasised the need to aim at controlling the global temperature below 2C. In fact, the Paris Climate Pact went even further and put below 1.5C as the more desirable target to achieve because some of the coastal regions in the world face threat even with 1.5C degree increase. While the global consensus moves towards more strict targets in controlling climate change, Trump’s climate change denials threaten to undo the limited progress made so far. The statement by Nikky Hailey, who is Donald Trump’s choice as US Ambassador to the UN, that the UN does more harm than good is a reflection of the anti-internationalist and isolationist ideological stance that is encouraged by Trump’s declaration of taking the US out of internationally agreed pacts. Reducing greenhouse gases emissions, which is central to controlling global warming, is not possible without internationally agreed and enforced targets, and the strengthening of the UN role in reaching international agreements is of critical importance even if the UN has not lived up to its expectations in many arenas of global conflict.
Reducing fossil fuel use (i.e. oil, gas and coal) is central to decarbonising economies and, thus, reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Trump has not only vowed to increase the use of coal but has chosen Scott Pruitt to head the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) knowing very well that the past career of Scott Pruitt has been one of bitter clash with the EPA’s efforts to introduce regulatory measures to control pollution and reduce gas emissions. In particular, Scott Pruitt had waged a war against Gina McCarthy who headed the EPA during the Obama regime and was the chief architect of President Obama’s climate change policies. She played a key role in bringing the Clean Air Act, one of the key environmental initiatives of the Obama regime. Scott Pruitt was a critic of the Clean Air Act as it clashed with the economic interests of the fossil fuel industry and Mr Pruitt was an attorney general of oil-rich Oklahoma, and was so widely known as the defender of the fossil fuel industry that one green group 350.org had mockingly described him as a “fossil fuel industry puppet”.
Trump’s anti-environmental stances have encouraged the climate change denial tendencies that have always existed in the Republican Party. The main saving grace is that the scientific community is united on the position that human actions mainly in the form of fossil fuel use are primarily responsible for greenhouse emissions and global warming. It will not be easy to completely oppose science even for Trump. More importantly, the economic and technological changes that are taking place are making renewable energy resources such as solar and wind energy cheaper than fossil fuel-based energy. These economic changes are likely to put a section of the American business class also in opposition to Trump’s pro-fossil fuel initiatives. More than anything else, it will be the scale of political opposition mobilised by persons like Bernie Sanders supported by environmental campaigners and action groups, and hopefully by a substantial if not whole of the Democratic Party that would be the most decisive factor in checking Trump’s flawed thinking and policies. Given his isolationist thinking, he is unlikely to be influenced by other countries or international organisations such as the UN and the Paris climate pact. It will be mainly the domestic opposition — scientific, environmental, business and political— that can stop Trump from undermining climate change negotiations and agreements that are so vital to protect the planet earth.
The writer is Professor of Economics at Oxford Brookes University, UK