THERE are many areas of uncertainty in this brave new world into which the Trump victory has thrust us.
Following his controversial and divisive campaign, people in the U.S. and across the world are rightly concerned with the path the new president-elect is likely to take.
In the four-year term he will serve, there may well be many areas in which he can inflict damage to an already fractured society, but there is one issue that will prevail long after Donald Trump’s presidency is over. While many decisions may be deemed reversible, it is his stance on climate change that has the potential to leave a lasting legacy of indescribable damage.
As news of his victory cast a dark cloud over climate talks in Marrakech, delegates remained optimistic in the hope that he would maintain America’s commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement, or at the very least, place focus on domestic issues such as economy and immigration before turning an eye to the environment.
Unfortunately these optimisms appear to have been unfounded as, within days of becoming president-elect, Trump has already set in motion measures to dismantle the U.S.’s environment protection legislation.
Reuters reported yesterday that Trump was seeking a way to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement despite widespread international backing of the plan.
A source from Trump’s transition team for international energy and climate policy told news agency that he was looking for ways to bypass a theoretical four-year procedure for leaving the accord.
In theory, Trump would have the ability to withdraw from the 1992 Convention that is the parent of the Paris deal, thereby making the U.S.’s involvement in the agreement void within a year. Alternatively he could simply pass a presidential order that would in effect delete the U.S. signature from the Paris accord.
The lack of punitive measures within the Paris agreement also means that Trump could simply ignore the agreement, refuse to implement any of the agreed strategies, and face no reprisal as a result.
If he succeeds in withdrawing, as looks likely, the unfulfilled commitments made by the U.S. in the Paris accord are substantial enough to have a severe impact on global climate in their own right, but by backsliding they also run the risk of creating a knock on effect to countries throughout Asia that could potentially hinder their ability to reach their own climate goals.
While Trump cannot legally prevent any other nations from fulfilling their commitments to the Paris deal, it is questionable as to whether developing nations will see the urgency if the world’s second largest (and one of the richest) greenhouse gas polluter is not willing to pull their weight.
His refusal to engage with climate change policy would also result in him cutting all “global warming payments” to the United Nations (UN). This would include reneging on a pledge made by then Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, for rich countries to mobilise US$100 billion annually by 2020 to help poor countries make the transition to cleaner forms of energy.
Developing nations such as India, the world’s third largest polluter, have made clear that their steps to cut emissions depend on this funding. Without it, targets are incredibly unlikely to be met and we may have no way of avoiding the most devastating consequences of climate change.
The only entity that may stand to benefit from America’s anticipated years of backsliding on climate policy is China.
For years, China has worked together with the U.S. to develop a plan that balances environmental protection and economic growth, and the world’s largest polluter has demonstrated clear resolve to stick to the agreed strategy.
With America seemingly giving up its role as leader in climate governance, this could open the way for China to become the new and unlikely champion in the fight against climate change.
For many years, China battled against the ever encroaching movement to tackle carbon emissions, claiming its right to develop unhindered just as those industrialised nations before them. But it now knows which way the international consensus is heading and, by sticking to its climate plans, could create a strategic opportunity on the world stage.
“Proactively taking action against climate change will improve China’s international image and allow it to occupy the moral high ground,” Zou Ji, deputy director of the National Center for Climate Change Strategy and a senior Chinese climate talks negotiator, told Reuters.
With this new found global credibility, within an international community of nations for whom climate change is a highly pressing issue, it will be able to increase its influence “into other areas of global governance and increase China’s global standing, power and leadership”, securing its place as a clean energy superpower as well as advancing its objectives on a range of other topics.
But even with China taking the lead, if the U.S. pursues its plan to essentially opt-out of any responsibility on climate change, the scientists fear the worst. Under the Paris plan alone, the policies by the U.S. would account for approximately 20 percent of the planned greenhouse gas reductions from 2016 to 2030.
This contribution is essential if the goal of reducing carbon dioxide emissions enough to prevent an atmospheric warming of at least 2 °C is to be reached. Anything passed this point, many scientists believe the planet will be locked into an irreversible outlook of extreme and dangerous warming.
This, along with Trump’s domestic plans to dismantle the Environment Protection Agency and eliminate Obama’s Clean Power Plan, is a dangerous and unpopular approach that will place America firmly on the wrong side of history.
With Trump in the driving seat, the future of our planet does indeed look dismal.
** This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of Asian Correspondent