I have rotated through numbness, rage, despair, confusion, and a strange sense of resolve almost bordering on elation (not the right word, but it captures the sense of a high, compared to the nothing but lows that preceded it) that comes with a clear sense of purpose (resistance and response to what will come) since the election of Trump went from a background dreadful possibility to a profoundly real nightmare. The potential for disaster is so wide for so many issues and for so many people that I have a hard time coming to grips with it. Climate politics is my work and passion and while I realize that it might not be the most immediate disaster that a Trump presidency could portend (the racism and misogyny stoked by his campaign is already having deplorable and terrifying, if predictable, effects) , it is one that I care deeply about. So when the University of Toronto News asked me to comment on what the election meant for climate change in general and for Canada, I obliged with the comments pasted below (the abridged published version can be found here). The risk for disaster on the climate front must be acknowledged with clear eyes. Trump will attempt to set back national climate and environmental policy in the US by decades. However, I’m convinced (at least today) that despair at these prospects isn’t a viable option (at least for me). The quest for an effective global response to climate change and decarbonization has never been and was never going to be easy. It just got that much harder. What the world needs now is a redoubling of efforts and mobilization at all levels (cities, provinces, countries, civil society, private sector). Trump’s election is a disaster on so many levels, but it does put into sharp relief the scale and scope of the work that needs to be done to move towards decarbonization. We must be of good courage (as hokey as that sounds, hokey is probably what we’ll need in the days, months, and years to come).
Anyway, here’s what I told University of Toronto News:
- What can we expect from Trump in regards to climate change and all the climate change agreements signed under President Obama?
It is not hyperbole to say that the Trump administration will likely be a disaster for climate change policy in the United States and for the pursuit of an effective global response to climate change. The risks on climate change policy from this election are manifold and serious. We are likely to see a reversal of the directions and leadership that the Obama administration was pursuing in the US and abroad on emissions reductions and support for renewable energy. Meeting the climate crisis just became much harder than it already was with an engaged United States. The world now needs other nations, subnational actors (cities and provinces), corporations, and NGOs to significantly rally around the cause of climate action.
U.S. climate policy is almost certainly headed for a stark, retrograde shift given that the president elect has described climate change as a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese and that his transition team has already includes a noted climate denier as the person heading up the EPA transition. Trump made various campaign pledges along the way to gut the EPA entirely and to cut all funding for renewable energy and climate change research. President Obama’s signature policy, the Clean Power Plan, is also virtually certain to be abandoned both because the new administration will not pursue it and it is likely that a Supreme Court including a Trump nominee would strike it down anyway. If the Trump administration’s actions in any way match the campaign rhetoric, U.S. climate policy (and energy policy more generally) will be set back decades.
Given that the United States is a key contributor to global emissions and had been looked to for international leadership on global climate action, the damage a Trump administration promises will not be limited to U.S. climate policy. The Trump administration has various means to officially withdraw from the Paris Agreement, or could, just as easily and perhaps with less political fallout, simply not pursue the commitments that the Obama administration put forward in the Paris Agreement (because of a lack of enforcement measures on countries achieving their pledges in the decentralized approach to global climate governance). In addition, the bilateral deal between the United States and China that paved the way for the Paris Agreement is now in significant doubt. The loss of U.S. leadership on the global stage also has the potential to dampen other countries’ ambitions and pursuit of aggressive climate action.
There is no sugar coating the potential for serious setbacks on climate change that a Trump administration portends—setbacks that frankly have the potential to make it impossible to stave off some of the worst consequences of climate change and therefore put millions of lives at risk over the coming decades from various climate impacts (sea level rise, changing drought and storm patterns, heat, severe weather and flooding, secondary climate-induced conflict, etc.).
These are the risks of a Trump administration in terms of climate action and policy and we should be clear eyed about them. However, we should also remember that there are countervailing forces and that even a disastrous Trump administration cannot derail all action on climate change. There is quite a bit of momentum on climate change globally and within the United States that will continue to build in spite of Trump’s election. The costs of renewable energy relative to fossil fuels continue to fall and the growth of renewable energy capacity and use world-wide will likely continue to grow rapidly regardless of the results of the U.S. election. Trump almost certainly cannot bring back coal in the United States because of the economics of energy production have shifted so distinctly in the last 10 years. Internationally, the Paris Agreement is a decentralized approach to climate change so the world does not depend on the US to take action. Every country has designed its own plan. Other countries will need to forge ahead, however, and even redouble their efforts and urgency. Finally, a great deal of action on climate change, especially in North America, takes place at the state/provincial and municipal levels and amongst businesses and NGOs. This is where energy on climate action has been and will need to be moving forward.
A number of post-election reflections that have spread around social media are urging that the election of Trump be met with resolve and organizing to prevent his campaign rhetoric from becoming reality. Climate change is an issue where this resolve and organizing will be necessary at multiple levels across the globe and this election must serve as a clarion call to action on climate.
- What does that mean for Canada?
The Trump administration will significantly complicate energy and climate policy making for Canada. First, it is clear that pipeline approval will not be an obstacle from the U.S. side of the border and I expect that a new Trump administration would offer approval for Keystone XL within weeks if not days of inauguration. However, cooperation on energy and climate change is now significantly uncertain and Canada’s new federal policy on climate change will be significantly out of step with U.S. policy. The notion of a continental approach to energy is in question and such an approach to climate policy is almost certainly dead. This will be a significant challenge for Prime Minister Trudeau to navigate.
Internationally, Canada faces a choice of standing with much of the rest of the world in pursuing urgent action or being sucked into a new North American obstructionism on climate change. Canada no longer needs a decent climate policy to trade off for pipeline approvals in the United States, the question is whether we will pursue progressive climate policy because it is the right thing to do, especially in the context of open hostility to climate action from the United States.
Finally, the provincial links with U.S. states and Canadian cities contributing to transnational urban climate action become even more the focus of North American climate policy. Canada can and must still contribute to the global efforts on climate change in multiple ways.