Opinion

Donald Trump will take office at the worst possible time for climate change

The damage could echo for centuries

The greatest immediate danger of the upcoming Donald Trump administration is to minorities and women, particularly Muslims and Latinos. With the power of the executive vastly expanded under George W. Bush and Barack Obama, President Trump will be able to ban Muslim entry into the country, and will be able to deport millions and millions of people. A new ban on abortion is probably coming, and perhaps even a ban on gay marriage.

But the greatest danger over the long term is what Trump might do on climate policy. He will take power at an extraordinarily unfortunate moment, right as serious action on climate change is becoming a brutal necessity. It's not necessarily a tipping point that will lead to unavoidable disaster, but the damage inflicted by Trump will echo for centuries to come. Even four years of delay is going to be extraordinarily costly for America and the world — and Trump is likely to do more than that.

Trump is a climate change denier and, like most Republicans, is in the pocket of the fossil fuel industry. As Ben Adler and Rebecca Leber explain, there are a number of terrible actions Trump can take immediately. He says he's going to repeal all federal spending on green items, like solar and battery research. He can probably roll back President Obama's fuel efficiency standards, the regulations on coal pollutants, and the Clean Power Plan that is the only aggressive climate policy on deck. Worst of all, he can pull out of the Paris climate accords — they have already taken effect, but since it is not a real treaty, he can simply renege on all the promises.

This will be hard to accomplish regulation-wise, but it might be simpler if the GOP Congress just repeals the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, thus obviating all the regulations promulgated under them. They might also just abolish the EPA altogether, or simply make it incapable of doing its job by cutting staff, funding, and putting a climate denier in charge. The coal industry is likely to be revitalized, and the Keystone XL pipeline is probably going back in. All in all, a field day for the fossil fuel industry.

What Trump probably can't do is break up the green energy industry, which was powerfully enabled by Obama's Recovery Act and now is strong enough to stand on its own two feet even if all subsidies are withdrawn. As of a year ago, some 209,000 people worked for the solar industry alone — more than work in the coal industry — and a number which has no doubt grown substantially since then. Green business will be hampered, but not destroyed.

And for all the repeal of coal regulations, that industry will still probably face the stiff headwind of cheaper natural gas. Coal will not return to its old size and strength.

What this means for global carbon policy depends largely on how the rest of the world reacts. If Trump pulling out of the Paris accords prompts the rest of the world — especially China and India — to also pull out, it could be very bad. If Trump wins re-election, most of the rest of the carbon budget could be gone before the next president takes office.

But this might not happen either. China is now the world's biggest emitter (producing nearly twice as much as the United States), and its voracious consumption of coal kills millions of Chinese people every year through pollution alone. India is hopefully going to attempt to avoid the filthy coal-power development that China has gone through over the last 20 years, and leapfrog straight to renewables as much as possible.

Those two countries are the center of world climate policy now, and they are going to be absolutely hosed if climate change spins out of control — far worse than the United States or Europe. There is a strong incentive for them to keep on trying and just hope that someone who isn't a complete maniac takes power in the United States in 2020. What's more, state level efforts, especially in California and New York, might help convince the rest of the world to keep plugging away.

But all that is a pretty small silver lining in a very large and dark cloud. Under President Trump, more Americans will die of pollution-caused disease, there will be more fracking earthquakes and more oil spills, and any hope of keeping warming under 2 degrees Celsius is probably dead.

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