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On climate change, pragmatism won't save us from Trump

Image credit: nars co (Flickr: Creative Commons)

'Pragmatism' seems to have become the reassuring theme of liberals and world leaders fearfully contemplating a Trump presidency, with many seizing upon the word as if squeezing a stress ball. Aiming to reassure both a domestic and international audience, President Obama declared that President-elect Trump was a ‘pragmatist’ and not an ‘ideologue’. The crux of this hopeful message was that the bombastic approach showcased on the campaign trail would give way to a more thoughtful approach to governance.

Trump has promised to decimate existing environmental regulation, as well as to eject the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement. Despite such promises, some hopeful insistence remains that as President, Trump may be compelled to either abandon such commitments, or that he will be frustrated in putting them into action, such that progress towards worldwide decarbonisation might continue. Outgoing UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon declared that global action was now 'unstoppable'. French President Francois Hollande said the Paris Agreement was 'irreversible'.

Yet, make no mistake: the current pledges at Paris were probably insufficient in the first place to avoid the threshold of 2°C rise. Further, Trump’s recent cabinet nominations tie his administration to the fossil fuel industry, dispelling most of the earlier ambiguity generated by mixed signals on the subject. Even if Trump softens his stance on climate issues, or is unable to fully follow through on his extreme anti-environment agenda, these represent at best a chance of saving the current progress we’ve made, right when we need to be building on it by rapidly decarbonising the world economy. Given the urgency of this task, any dithering or deviation constitutes a massive risk for future generations.

Mixed signals over Trump’s climate change intentions have offered some hope to those concerned with what his election means for climate change. Last week, Trump and his daughter Ivanka met with Al Gore to discuss this very subject. A similar meeting then took place between Trump and actor Leonardo Dicaprio, with the same brief. Reportedly, Ivanka has both a genuine interest in climate change and her father’s ear. In an interview with the New York Times (NYT), Trump seemed to equivocate on the Paris Agreement, saying 'I’m looking at it very closely. I have an open mind to it'. This hesitancy is at odds with more strident comments on the campaign trail. Trump has shown an unusual level of flexibility in his core pledges (to put it politely), offering a glimmer of hope that his commitment to derailing climate change progress may yet be abandoned. Perhaps coming to terms with political realties of governance might evince a more conciliatory approach?

But these are very vague bases for optimism. Recent cabinet appointments make clear that concerning environmental regulation, a Trump administration will be on the warpath. Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma’s Attorney-General, has been nominated to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. A vocal climate change sceptic, Pruitt has been a key antagonist of the EPA in the Obama years and will now be in the unusual position of leading the agency he is litigating. In more recent news, the NYT reports that Rex Tillerson, a 40-year veteran of Exxon Mobil, is expected to be Trump’s pick for Secretary of State. Under his leadership as CEO, Exxon first publicly admitted the reality of climate change. But this came after decades of suppressing the science and actively funding groups that aimed to propagate misleading information on climate change.

These are not mere gestures; they are determinative of policy trajectories. A cabinet stacked with individuals tied to the fossil fuel industry is unlikely to conduce to a progressive policy on climate change.

There's also hope that there may be enough incentives to keep Trump tied to the Paris Agreement. There are legal difficulties in escaping from the Paris Agreement, which locks in participants for a minimum of three years. The Agreement is merely a framework in which individual member countries agreed to nationally determined cuts, with mandated verification procedures (yet to be decided fully), while no actual policies for achieving these cuts are specified in the content. For the US, the Clean Power Plan was a bit part of achieving those necessary cuts it had agreed upon in Paris.

The Plan, which mandates significant emissions cuts from power plants by 2030, is now under severe risk. Trump has declared in his ‘Contract with the American Voter’ that he aims to rescind American involvement from the Agreement within 100 days of his administration. He is currently looking at ways to do this. The significance of an American pull-out of Paris has been downplayed in some corners. The FT recently reported that with the US continuing along a ‘business as usual’ path, the average annual cuts in ‘carbon intensity’ (the amount of carbon relative to GDP) for the G20 would only fall from 3% to 2.8%. This focus ignores the cumulative effect of this differential, however, as well as the fact that the commitments at Paris were insufficient in the first place. As the article also notes, the effect could be far greater if American non-involvement deters other countries from following through on their contributions. If Trump also reneges on the promised aid to poorer countries under the Paris deal, this could also sharply affect their ability to deliver their promised cuts.

Returning to Obama’s sanguine assessment of Trump as a pragmatist, the recent nominations belie this reading. Pragmatism also requires a nuanced understanding of world affairs. A remarkably ignorant and impressionable leader, Trump has already shown a willingness to reward loyalty over experience. Given the astonishing paucity of knowledge that Trump brings to the White House, he will be even more than usually pliable and reliant on advice. Predictions about Trump’s impending pivot to a more conventionalist form of politics has too long been frustrated to be any longer believed with conviction. We must expect that the appointees of Trump are a good indication of policy under his administration.

There is another important point here: pragmatism does incline a President of the US towards some action on climate change. That is true. For years, there has been a powerful consensus. Now there is something more: an actual legal framework that reifies that consensus. There will be diplomatic costs associated with ignoring this. However, pragmatism, in the sense of being attuned to the immediate and perhaps medium-term incentive structure of international politics – material, diplomatic and the like – does not necessarily entail urgency of the kind required. To avoid catastrophic climate change requires a massive transformation in energy and economics in a very short period of time. Claiming that progress in combating climate change is ‘irreversible’ or ‘unstoppable’ implies that it is simply about getting from A to B. It does not capture the timeline. If the task of escaping species-threatening climate change is imagined as a race – there is obviously a spatial and temporal dimension to this task. We must cover a certain distance within a certain time period. In the way have been placed several hurdles. Encouraging words about the path-dependency of global efforts to fight climate change downplay the temporal element of the monumental task facing humanity.

Instead of arguing whether the hurdles that a Trump presidency will erect to decarbonisation are surmountable, we should have a view towards whether their delaying effect will prevent us winning the race against time. According to this broader view, there can be no doubt about the following: Trump’s election represents a major setback and ensures that the costs and difficulties for his successors will mount even higher.

Jack Shield is the Climate Change & Energy Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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