The future of the Earth’s environment is in the hands of a man who has called climate change “bullshit” and a hoax invented by China.
Although Donald Trump has pledged to spend the first day of his presidency deporting illegal aliens with criminal records and starting work on his Mexican wall, it will be what he doesn’t do that causes tremendous long-term damage. It will be difficult for him to “cancel” or pull the US out of the Paris environmental accords because once a country has signed it must wait three years and then give a year’s notice before pulling out, but nothing says he has to enforce the regulations designed to stop global warming rising above the two degrees hotter than pre-industrial temperatures predicted by the end of the century. And Paul Ryan, the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives has confirmed that the economy will take precedence over the environment.
There is some optimism about the Paris agreement because China and India, both responsible for high levels of emissions, are committed to its terms and because renewable energy is becoming more lucrative for investors and consumers. And beyond its terms, below the national level, individual US states and other communities such as the Vatican are embracing the science calling for action on clean energy.
The world is watching carefully to see who Trump appoints to lead the Department of the Interior, responsible for permits to drill for oil and mine coal on federal land. He has already selected Myron Ebell, a well-known climate change denier, to head his transition Environmental Protection Agency. Ebell wants to devolve more power to the individual states and to allow more drilling, logging, and mining on federal lands. And, Trump has promised to revive domestic oil, gas, and coal production, which could lead to a rise in emissions when all over the rest of the world, countries are working to limit them. Robert Watson, the former head of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said Trump was a “potential disaster” for the environment. Watson told the Washington Post that the effects will spread beyond America’s borders because developing nations agreed to limit their emissions in return for aid from the first world, including the US. The famously isolationist Trump is highly unlikely to agree to honour any such obligations. Speaking before the election, Khalid Pitts, the head of the Sierra Club, said, “The ice caps don’t negotiate, and neither do the rising seas. Donald Trump’s moral failure to acknowledge the climate crisis might very well mean planetary disaster if he is elected.”
Trump’s election will also probably re-open discussions of the Keystone XL pipeline, rejected by President Obama, and the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline, about to be built through the traditional lands of the Standing Rock Sioux in North Dakota. Trump owns stock both in the company building the Dakota pipeline and in a company that will own part of it once completed.
Observers are uncertain about Trump’s position on the protection of federal lands for parks and public access: he is reported to have expressed private support for the “land takeover” movement of ranchers and others occupying federal land but he has also said that the government and the people must be “stewards” of the environment and that states should not be able to seize federal land. He supports drilling and fracking on federal land and has said he supports offshore oil exploration, including in the Arctic, but then again, so does Obama…
With all three branches of the US government—executive, legislative, and judiciary—controlled by the Republicans, it will be up to individual states and communities to hold the fort. There are green shoots of hope. For example, last spring, the school board in Portland, Oregon, voted to ban textbooks that question the link between fossil fuels and climate change. Also in Oregon, a group of children aged nine to 20 has won the right to sue the US government, President Obama, and the fossil fuel industry for not acting quickly enough over climate change.
Donald Trump doesn’t take office until January 2017, and environmental activists in the US must step up their public education efforts at the state and local levels. It is there that the fight to protect resources will be winnable in some places. And, here in Canada, we must be vigilant as we work to protect our own precious resources. It is not just toxic chemicals that can spill over the border. Poisonous ideas can ooze here too. Dr Kelly Leitch, a candidate to lead the Conservative Party, has expressed admiration for Trump’s policies, particularly towards immigrants, and suggested that those wishing to enter this country should be screened for adherence to her interpretation of “Canadian values.”
Fasten your seatbelts, folks…. it’s going to be a bumpy four years….