Will the chance to slow global warming melt away with Trump presidency?

States and citizen activists may need to work around the climate-change denier in the White House, say UAlberta experts.


In the wake of Donald Trump’s election victory, hopes to limit global warming have never been lower, say U of A observers of climate change policy.

"My reaction to the U.S. election was absolute despair,” said Makere Stewart-Harawira, professor of indigenous, environmental and global studies. “I simply couldn't believe this was really happening."

"I'm pretty pessimistic,” said David Kahane, director of the Alberta Climate Dialogue. “Pre-Trump we were on something of an ice edge about whether there was really a chance to hold things to two degrees Celsius (rise in global temperature). After Trump, I hope for the best, but it seems much less likely.”

The feeling was shared by many delegates at climate talks in Morocco last week, as the world tried to surmise what impact the American election would have on efforts to curb carbon emissions.

Trump said in his election campaign that he believes global warming is a hoax propagated by China. He threatened to cut funding to climate science, ease environmental regulations, boost oil and gas development and even revive the coal industry.

Most worrisome to many, however, is his intention to pull out of the Paris Agreement signed by 195 countries last spring, aimed at holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 C above pre-industrial levels.

This could be a devastating blow to the climate-change agenda, leaving a leadership vacuum when it is most needed. For many, the Paris Agreement was a toothless compromise to begin with, one lacking sufficient financial resources and enforcement measures, said Stewart-Harawira.

"I was so utterly disheartened I couldn’t take it anymore, so I came home early,” she said of her time attending the Paris talks last spring. “I was pessimistic then and I am 100 times more pessimistic now.

“I hope this will tip sufficient movement on the ground that people actually do something. And maybe this will finally change the face of local politics."

Slim hope lies in citizens demanding action

If there is any hope at all, said Stewart-Harawira, it’s that citizens will finally wake up and take climate change seriously, putting pressure on governments—including the Trump administration—to act decisively and with force. Though far from guaranteed, added Kahane, the shock and outrage about Trump’s victory may prompt a movement of citizen mobilization “that dwarfs anything we've seen so far.”

One need look no further than Ronald Reagan’s administration of the 1980s, said Debra Davidson, an environmental sociologist and former member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The former president shared Trump’s distaste for environmental regulations, but his position gave rise to unprecedented growth in environmental social movements in the U.S.

For Trump to turn his back on the rising green economy could mean losing out on the very promise of jobs that helped him win the election.

“People really mobilized to positive effect and a lot of that momentum carried through the Clinton years, when a lot of positive things were done,” said Davidson. “Trump will be facing a very large social backlash from within his own country and from the international community.”

But Trump is, after all, just one man. And though his lack of leadership could certainly do damage, Davidson said it’s important to remember that some of the most effective climate policies in the U.S. have been put in place at the state level.

“Lots of states have renewable portfolio standards,” said Davidson, “and those 29 states aren't simply going to roll over their own state-level climate policies because of Trump. Major cities also have lofty climate commitments and so do corporations."

California, for example, has some of the most aggressive climate policies in the world while enjoying an economy that has outpaced the rest of the country. In fact, California is the sixth largest economy in the world.

Canada is also pushing its own progressive climate agenda, promising to phase out coal-fired power plants by 2030, despite Trump’s plan to revive the coal industry.

The economy will dictate

In the end, it may be economic considerations that stand the best chance of appealing to Trump’s pragmatism. Investments and innovation in green technology may have crossed the tipping point, said Kahane, with the cost of alternative energy continuing to decline while oil and gas extraction becomes more expensive. For Trump to turn his back on the rising green economy could mean losing out on the very promise of jobs that helped him win the election.

It’s a message that was echoed by Secretary of State John Kerry last week as he tried to calm post-election jitters.

“The market is clearly headed towards clean energy and that trend will only become more pronounced," said Kerry. "It is cause for optimism notwithstanding what you see in different countries with respect to politics and change."

But in the short term, said Davidson, Trump’s policies could hurt climate scientists—and that’s a reality that hits close to home.

"Even more concerning for me is not his potential to change emissions but his commitment to cutting off all funding for climate science,” she said. “That has immediate repercussions on my colleagues in the U.S. who get their research funding from the federal government. People in my position are looking for jobs in other countries."