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Trump and the Climate: His Hot Air on Warming Is Far From the Greatest Threat

| December 30, 2016

global warming trump

It’s melting. Fast. (NOAA)

President-elect Donald J. Trump has long pledged to undertake a profound policy shift on climate change from the low-carbon course President Obama made a cornerstone of his eight years in the White House.

“This very expensive GLOBAL WARMING bullshit has got to stop,” Trump tweeted a year ago.


In recent weeks, Trump doubled down, nominating champions of fossil fuels to several cabinet positions and peppering his transition team with longtime opponents of environmental regulations.

Both the rhetoric and the actions have provoked despair among many who fear a Trump presidency will tip the planet toward an overheated future, upending recent national and international efforts to stem emissions of heat-trapping carbon dioxide from burning coal, oil and natural gas.

But will a President Trump noticeably affect the globe’s climate in ways that, say, a President Hillary Clinton would not have?

In recent weeks, a variety of consultants tracking climate and energy policy have used models to help address that question. ProPublica asked Andrew P. Jones at Climate Interactive, a nonprofit hub for such analysis, to run one such comparison.

The chosen scenario assumes Trump’s actions could result in the United States only achieving half of its pledged reduction through 2030 under the Paris Agreement on climate change, the worldwide but voluntary pact aiming to avoid dangerous global warming that entered into force on Nov. 4.

In this scenario the difference — call it the Trump effect — comes to 11 billion tons of additional carbon dioxide emitted between 2016 and 2030. That number is huge — it’s the equivalent of more than five years’ worth of emissions from all American power plants, for instance.

But it’s almost vanishingly small in global context. Here’s why. Even if all signatories to the Paris pact met their commitments, the global total of CO2 emissions through 2030 would be 580 billion tons, with the United States accounting for 65 billion of those tons. The Trump difference could take American emissions to 76 billion tons, with that 11-billion-ton difference increasing cumulative global emissions by less than 2 percent.

This calculation assumes Trump’s effect is not as damaging as his rhetoric might suggest. Is that realistic? In interviews, more than half a dozen environmental economists and climate policy experts said yes.

They said this less because they see Trump moderating his stances and more because many of the targets set by Obama, and built on in Clinton campaign pledges, were based on shifts in energy use that are largely being driven by market forces or longstanding environmental laws that are relatively immune to the influence of any particular occupant of the White House.

These include polluting industries moving overseas, increasing industrial energy efficiency, a sustained shift away from coal to abundant, cleaner natural gas and wind, and a host of climate-friendly policies pursued by individual cities or states.

For instance, while Wyoming is among the 27 states fighting President Obama’s Clean Power Plan in court, the coal-rich state looks set to meet the emissions benchmarks in those power-plant rules, largely because of a giant wind farm poised to be built in, yes, Carbon County, and newly approved transmission lines to send electricity to states in the power-hungry Southwest.

It’s notable that while Trump’s choice for secretary of energy, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, is a climate change contrarian, he’s credited by clean-energy champions with overseeing an enormous expansion of wind energy in his state. “Texas is a huge wind state, the biggest by far, and Rick Perry put in these transmission lines and made it wind friendly and that’s why they have such cheap electricity and no problems with reliability — none,” said Hal Harvey, a longtime climate and energy analyst who has advised past Clinton and Bush administrations and run a clean-energy foundation.

For many, this all hardly justifies a sigh of relief.

Indeed, many environmentalists reject the idea that any encouraging trends toward better energy choices are happening on their own. Many coal-fired power plants, they note, were stopped from being built only by lawsuits and political pressure brought by activist opponents, said Kierán Suckling, the founder of the Center for Biological Diversity, which uses the courts to limit harm to public lands and ecosystems.

“Industry and Republicans certainly don’t believe in a secular trend. Instead they have poured enormous resources into trying to amend or repeal old laws, pass new industry-friendly laws, strike down and influence Obama’s policies, and prevent activists from enforcing laws and policies,” Suckling said.

With Republicans controlling the White House and Congress, environmental groups are, in effect, “lawyering up,” vowing to counter any “drill baby drill” efforts with a “sue baby sue” response.

In the end, as global carbon-dioxide tallies reflect, such courtroom sparring, while important, is unlikely to have a game-changing impact on climate trajectories.

Much the same thing can be said of the lasting impact of American presidents. For nearly three decades, White House occupants have pledged to move the needle on climate change one way or the other, without terribly dramatic results.

In the scorching summer of 1988, when global warming first hit headlines in a significant way, presidential candidate George H.W. Bush used a Michigan speech to pledge meaningful action curbing heat-trapping greenhouse gases, saying, “Those who think we are powerless to do anything about the greenhouse effect forget about the White House effect.”

Despite a host of actions since that summer, including President George H.W. Bush signing the foundational climate treaty in Rio in 1992, you’d be hard-pressed to find evidence of such an effect in emission rates.

Globally, the “great acceleration” in emissions (that’s a scientific description) has largely tracked the growth in human numbers and resource appetites — particularly a seemingly insatiable appetite for energy, more than 80 percent of which still comes from fossil fuels despite sustained efforts to spread efficiency and renewable choices.

William Nordhaus, a Yale economist long focused on climate change policy, calls the global situation a high-stakes “climate casino.” He just published a working paperconcluding that all policies so far have amounted to “minimal” steps that have had equally minimal effects.

Nearly three decades after that “White House effect” pledge, after eight years of sustained efforts by President Obama, including building a critical 2014 partnership with China, Nordhaus finds “there has been no major improvement in emissions trends as of the latest data.”

In the end, the main value of the climate calculations spurred by Trump’s election could be in refocusing attention on the true scope of the challenge, which some researchers have described as “super wicked” given how hard it has been, using conventional political, legal or diplomatic tools, to balance human energy needs and the climate system’s limits.

The Paris Agreement itself was far more a diplomatic achievement than a climatic one. Its 2030 pledges leave unresolved how to cut emissions of carbon dioxide essentially to zero in the second half of the century in a world heading toward 9 billion or more people seeking decent lives.

That plunge in emissions is necessary because unlike most other pollutants, carbon dioxide from fuel burning stays in circulation for centuries, building in the atmosphere like unpaid credit-card debt.

The real risk for climate change in a Trump presidency, according to close to a dozen experts interviewed for this story, lies less in impacts on specific policies like Obama’s Clean Power Plan and more in the realm of shifts in America’s position in international affairs.

Even if he doesn’t formally pull out of the climate treaty process, Trump could, for example, cancel payments pledged by the United States to a Green Climate Fund set up in 2010 to help the poorest developing countries build resilience to climate hazards and develop clean-energy systems.

President Obama has already paid in $500 million of the $3 billion commitment, with another $200 million potentially paid before he leaves office next month. Environmentalists last week pressed in an open letter for the full amount to be paid before Trump takes office.

“If the U.S. walks from its commitment, I would think it would be difficult for the other OECD countries to sustain donations, and if those donations are not sustained, developing countries will focus on growth as opposed to low carbon growth,” said Henry Lee, a Harvard scholar working in and studying climate policy for decades.

But in international affairs, Trump and his proposed secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, the Exxon chairman, will confront a world of intertwined interests in which climate change has moved from being an inconvenient environmental side issue in the early 1990s to a keystone focal point now, said Andrew Light, a George Mason University professorfocused on climate policy.

Light, who served on Obama administration negotiating teams in the run-up to the Paris accord, said such intertwined interests will be thrust upon the Trump administration starting this spring and summer in venues like the annual Group of 7 and Group of 20 meetings of the globe’s most powerful countries.

“Those groups have committed to action using very strong climate and energy language,” he said. “The way we got so many leaders to come to Paris and make this happen and ended up getting an even more ambitious agreement than we expected was by breaking climate diplomacy out of its silo — and making it sort of a peer issue to questions like trade and security. In this world you can’t just walk away from all this stuff.”

Given how Trump appears to be relishing his position as a wild card and a self-described master of the deal, it’s still impossible to say what will unfold starting January 20.

In a blistering speech to thousands of earth scientists in San Francisco earlier this month, California Gov. Jerry Brown vowed to fight Trump in the near term using that state’s influence on everything from automobile standards to the national laboratories, which are managed by the University of California system.

But he also accurately described the climate challenge for what it is: “This is not a battle of one day or one election. This is a long-term slog into the future.”

–Andrew Revkin, ProPublica

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21 Responses for “Trump and the Climate: His Hot Air on Warming Is Far From the Greatest Threat”

  1. Veteran says:

    We are nowhere near providing the country/world power without fossil fuel. Technology not there yet. Most of the warming is due to the earth going through long term weather cycles.

  2. Duncan says:

    It is absolutely mind boggling to me why so many (of the dimmest minds) don’t see CO2 emissions as public enemy number one. We are certainly motivated to deter terrorism, a potentially life ending threat for many; but for some strange reason, we mostly ignore this Planet ending problem that is staring us right in the face. I just don’t get why we don’t create and fund the programs that could ultimately save the human race should we not figure out how to move to another “earth like” planet that we can exploit.

    We humans are so dim witted. If it’s not something that we can see an near immediate payoff for , for the most part we are simply not interested. We’ll wait to the last minute and then try to fix something that can no longer be fixed.

    I’m sure advanced life forms everywhere have correctly assessed that we deserve self-extinction.

  3. Mark says:

    If he keeps al gore and leo out of their planes he will save the world!

  4. Sw says:

    Cmon dont worry hes smarter than all those Scientists lol

  5. Mark101 says:

    Trump and climate change. After he sat down with the New York time on Nov 22, things changed.

    “Does Trump think human activity is linked to climate change? “I think there is some connectivity. Some, something. It depends on how much.”

    “Tom Friedman asks if Trump will withdraw from climate change accords. Trump: “I’m looking at it very closely. I have an open mind to it.”

    So once the man heard the truth behind GW, he changed his mind,.

  6. Sherry says:

    @ Veteran. . . please cite your “expert” . . . or, even better, please learn the truth and study what actual scientists present as factual analysis on Climate Change. . . this from NASA:
    http://climate.nasa.gov/evidence/

  7. Sherry says:

    For those who “think” they are knowledgeable about such things, well over 90% of scientists agree with the following NASA “facts”: http://climate.nasa.gov/evidence/

    We need to stop believing “fake news” and propaganda blasted out by the fossil fuel industries, and actually make cleaning our environment and reversing the devastating effects of climate change our number ONE priority NOW! Each moment we delay with make it that much harder to save the planet! That is where the jobs need to be!

  8. Pogo says:

    “…You know, Ronald Reagan used to quote a Scottish philosopher, who predicted that democracies and civilizations wouldn’t last much longer than a couple hundred years. And John Adams wrote this, “Remember, democracy never lasts long; it soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” That’s John Adams.

    I believe that America has proven these dire predictions wrong for two reasons. First, we’ve been blessed with great presidents, with giants among us. Men of character, integrity and selflessness have led our nation from the very beginning. None were perfect. Each surely made mistakes. But in every case, they acted out of the desire to do what was right for America and for the cause of freedom…”

    “…He’s (Trump) playing the members of the American public for suckers. He gets a free ride to the White House and all we get is a lousy hat…”

    – Mitt Romney, March 3, 2016

    http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/04/us/politics/mitt-romney-speech.html?_r=0

  9. Anonymous says:

    Trump will put a stop to smoke screen that is there to benefit a few. Climate change is a natural change and anyone who thinks everything doesn’t change over time needs their head examined. Sure there are glaciers melting and that is natural, the water level is not increasing because of this. When you fill your glass with ice, add tea, and not drink it and the ice melts the glass doesn’t over flow, so to say the water level is raising due to climate change is absurd.There are people who promote agendas for some individuals to benefit and hopefully Trump will put a stop to it and do the right thing. There are going to be some non believers because they believe everything that is spoon fed to them, and then there are some who promote their agendas….it is up to us to figure out who is telling the truth and go from there. Trump won his election for President because the American people are tired of being treated like idiots.

  10. Pogo says:

    Every time a Trumpitt (thank you Sinclair Lewis) tells the lie that Little Crooked Donald won the election, they should be reminded that Little Crooked Donald lost the vote by more than 2.9 million votes.

    Every time a Trumpitt repeats the propaganda of the oily pricks denying the crisis of climate change – and ignores the good news about cost comparisons between renewable energy sources and killing the planet – people need to call bullshit:

    https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-04-06/wind-and-solar-are-crushing-fossil-fuels

    There are some idiots in this country. They voted for a little crooked liar.

  11. NortonSmitty says:

    I find it hard to believe Reagan ever quoted any Philosopher that he didn’t memorize from a shit-stall wall.
    The funniest thing I’ve seen on FB lately was a statement last week from the High Ayatollah of Iran who said “In the words of the 19th Century French philosopher Alexis De Tocqueville who I’m sure all Americans have read…” !!!
    That’s hilarious! Very few in the US would admit to recognize the man who did the first study of Democracy in America in the early 1800’s, and most of them would swear he was a famous French Porn star.
    One of the toss off lines we have heard even if we never took PolyScy 101 is the old maxim that a People always pretty much gets the Government they deserve. Well buckle up Buckaroos, because we are about to get it.
    In Spades.

  12. NortonSmitty says:

    Sinclair Lewis died in 1951. Did he know Trumps Daddy?

  13. Pogo says:

    @NortonSmitty

    Obviously Raygun was quoted from a speech he spoke – not wrote. Yes, the rest of the world has always admired and studied American history and its creators. After all, Americans and their revolution against both monarchy and colonialism has been the great inspiration of the modern world.

    I can’t say the large electoral majority is getting what we deserve. Almost 3 million more people voted for the sane alternative to the little crooked liar. If the election were decided by the importance of state’s contribution to the national GDP – Secretary Clinton’s landslide would be huuuge!

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_U.S._states_by_GDP

    Well, we can let the little crooked liar and his reverse of Robin Hood sobs walk all over us or we can fight for our lives. I choose fight. Here’s my new first tab in my browser’s homepage queue:

    https://www.indivisibleguide.com/

  14. Sherry says:

    @Anonymous. . . OMG! Do you really NOT understand that the vast majority of the massive amount “fresh” water content in the glaciers is in the MOUNTAINS world wide? That water is currently in the AIR! NOT the water! Get it?

    As glaciers melt, that fresh water it drains into our oceans and raises the water level! Not only that, it also decreases the salinity level in the oceans and greatly endangers sea life. . . you know, the fish that is vital to sustaining human life on the planet!

    Please people. . . please do try go beyond the garbage on FOX and “educate” yourselves on a subject before spouting off idiotic comments that have absolutely no basis in any kind of fact.

  15. Veteran says:

    Sherry, Anonymous is talking about the polar ice which IS in the ocean! The glaciers have been flowing and breaking off in the water for thousands of years. A little common sense goes a long way.

  16. Sherry says:

    @Veteran. . . please, please for the love of your own credibility. . . educate yourself, read the information from the “scientific experts”. Even an elementary school child can understand that any ice that currently resides in the AIR . . . like the top part of even a floating iceberg. . . will raise the level of the water when it melts.

    Why Oh why do any of you continue to throw your brain out the window and disbelieve “scientific proof” ???? Do you really believe FOX over NASA??? OMG!!! We are really in trouble if this level of intellect is choosing our leaders!!!

  17. Veteran says:

    Sherry, do your home work on displacement of water. Total weight of iceberg, above and below water, displaces an equal amount of water. Do a simple experiment. Put an ice cube in a glass. Fill it half way with water. Mark the water level. After the ice cube melts check the water level. No change. It doesn’t matter how many ice cubes you use.

  18. Katie Semore says:

    @Sherry, I think you are asking too much of the self-imposed deaf, dumb, and blind on the Right to educate themselves. They will, thank you very much, wait for FOX and the like to tell them what to think and advise them of what they want them to know.

  19. Sherry says:

    OK. . . if NASA is not good enough. . . try this simpler explanation from National Geographic. . . the melting of glaciers is already making sea levels rise:

    Core samples, tide gauge readings, and, most recently, satellite measurements tell us that over the past century, the Global Mean Sea Level (GMSL) has risen by 4 to 8 inches (10 to 20 centimeters). However, the annual rate of rise over the past 20 years has been 0.13 inches (3.2 millimeters) a year, roughly twice the average speed of the preceding 80 years.

    Over the past century, the burning of fossil fuels and other human and natural activities has released enormous amounts of heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere. These emissions have caused the Earth’s surface temperature to rise, and the oceans absorb about 80 percent of this additional heat.

    The rise in sea levels is linked to three primary factors, all induced by this ongoing global climate change:

    Thermal expansion: When water heats up, it expands. About half of the past century’s rise in sea level is attributable to warmer oceans simply occupying more space.

    Melting of glaciers and polar ice caps: Large ice formations, like glaciers and the polar ice caps, naturally melt back a bit each summer. But in the winter, snows, made primarily from evaporated seawater, are generally sufficient to balance out the melting. Recently, though, persistently higher temperatures caused by global warming have led to greater-than-average summer melting as well as diminished snowfall due to later winters and earlier springs. This imbalance results in a significant net gain in runoff versus evaporation for the ocean, causing sea levels to rise.

    Ice loss from Greenland and West Antarctica: As with glaciers and the ice caps, increased heat is causing the massive ice sheets that cover Greenland and Antarctica to melt at an accelerated pace. Scientists also believe meltwater from above and seawater from below is seeping beneath Greenland’s and West Antarctica’s ice sheets, effectively lubricating ice streams and causing them to move more quickly into the sea. Moreover, higher sea temperatures are causing the massive ice shelves that extend out from Antarctica to melt from below, weaken, and break off.

    Consequences

    When sea levels rise rapidly, as they have been doing, even a small increase can have devastating effects on coastal habitats. As seawater reaches farther inland, it can cause destructive erosion, flooding of wetlands, contamination of aquifers and agricultural soils, and lost habitat for fish, birds, and plants.

    When large storms hit land, higher sea levels mean bigger, more powerful storm surges that can strip away everything in their path.

    In addition, hundreds of millions of people live in areas that will become increasingly vulnerable to flooding. Higher sea levels would force them to abandon their homes and relocate. Low-lying islands could be submerged completely.

  20. jonsey says:

    Ice melting puts droplets of water into the atmosphere, and where it is melting faster it creates currents and patterns that lead to worse, stronger storms. Ever look at a satellite map of the weather and note the hurricane-like moving pattern of these massive storms that cause so much damage as they cross our country over land? The Amazon rain forest used to provide nearly 25% of our oxygen, but much of it has been cut down, slashed and burned since the 1970’s, taking away all that oxygen and putting into the air all that released carbon dioxide (basic science 101 – plants and trees ‘breathe’ in carbon dioxide and ‘breathe out’ oxygen, just like humans and animals breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide). Too much carbon dioxide and less oxygen and we start dying.

  21. Duncan says:

    Unfortunately, understanding GW requires more than common sense; otherwise we would not even be having discussions about it validity (and Donald Trump would not be are next President) . When the vast majority of the smartest scientists in the world are in agreement that CO2 emissions is the biggest contributor to GW; I’m inclined to believe they know what they are talking about.
    ,

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