Climate Action and the President-Elect – 11/23/16

The president-elect has expressed doubts about the potential impact of climate change, but what steps will he actually take once he’s in office?

In 2009, he signed a public letter calling for a reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions. In 2012, he dismissed climate change as a Chinese hoax. As a candidate, he said he would “cancel” the Paris Climate pact and “focus on real environmental challenges.” But in a recent interview with the New York Times, he said he would “keep an open mind” about the climate change accord. Such disparate opinions make it difficult to guess what position he will eventually settle on.

Acting with an “America First” mentality probably won’t mean favoring or rejecting globally-minded climate agreements so much as leaving other nations to lead them instead while taking each on its benefits for the U.S.

Should the U.S. ignore the agreement’s goals or renounce the treaty that established the talks, it would certainly be a blow to climate change mitigation efforts. However, the loss of the U.S. wouldn’t necessarily change much in the grand scheme of things. The Paris Agreement is already criticized as being not nearly enough to prevent cataclysmic climate change and many experts believe it would have fallen short one way or another.

With over 170 countries already signed on to the agreement, it is unlikely to fall apart completely anyway. The other signatories seem committed to lowering carbon emissions with or without U.S. leadership. Envoys from Europe to China have called the shift to a low-carbon economy inevitable and warned that to ignore it could mean missing out on business opportunities in clean power and energy-efficient technologies. Ironically, China has also vowed to step up as an environmental leader if the U.S. abandons the role.

China, India, and other developing nations have strong incentives to embrace cleaner technologies. Unlike rich countries, where energy demand is stagnant and efficiency is rising, many poorer countries still have many citizens whose lives would be vastly improved with access to cheap energy. To minimize environmental and health costs associated with extreme weather and air pollution from fossil fuels, these nations are seeking out any alternatives they can.

Even just in the U.S., there are limits to what a presidential embrace of fossil fuels could actually do.

Opening up federal lands to fracking means nothing if it is unprofitable to do so under oil prices that are stubbornly close to half of what they were at their 2014 peak. Coal, too, has been displaced by cheap shale gas, which burns with roughly half the CO2 emissions of coal. Besides, energy investments like oil rigs or coal power plants last for decades so firms may hesitate to risk their money turning into stranded assets as soon as the next president takes office.

In the end, there is no telling what the president-elect will do once he takes office or how the world will react.

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