Could a Donald Trump presidency kill off effective global climate action?
Politics is a game played around reality, which is to say it’s not about reality at all, but about what we’d like it to be.
The UN climate meeting at Marrakech, which ended last Friday, was full of such shadow-boxing, like the bravado of UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon, the defiance of French president Francois Hollande and the wishful thinking of US secretary of state John Kerry.
“No going back” was a common theme at Marrakech, backed up by a leaders’ commitment to “full implementation” of the Paris Agreement, its ratification by 111 countries (including the US and Australia) and 47 developing countries pledging to use only renewable fuels by 2050.
But Ban, Hollande, Kerry and many others on the Marrakech podium are near the end of their political careers. What matters now is the political reality of US president-elect Donald Trump and his impact on a much more fundamental reality, man-made climate change.
A Global Carbon Project report for the Marrakech meeting found one positive. In each of the past three years global carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels and industry have barely grown while economies have surged ahead – an unprecedented decoupling of emissions from growth.
That raises the possibility that this shift away from fossil fuels will continue regardless of politics.
But then there was the World Meteorological Organisation analysis of global climate, distilling the work of hundreds of meteorologists from multiple countries, which found that 2011 to 2015 was the warmest five-year period on record globally and for every continent except Africa.
It also found that human-induced climate change had increased by ten or more times the probability of heat waves and coastal inundation – a conclusion supported by southern Florida’s current experience of a steady year-on-year increase in flood tides.
Many, including those advising Donald Trump on climate change, are untouched by such evidence. Often driven by ideology, they take their cue from popular media, blogs, recollections of youthful science studies, or personal experience of weather.
Few of these detractors will have gone to the source – original science published in established, recognised journals whose contents are determined by practising scientists – and fewer still will have attempted to read and analyse for themselves the contents of such research papers.
When I hear of research findings that seem to throw important new light on climate change I get a copy of the original research paper, and for further guidance consult scientists who know the field – many of whom I’ve got to know personally over years or decades.
That’s how I understand the frustration of those people closest to climate change, the ones who work and live with it every day, when ministers and others in government, business or the wider world treat their science as mere opinion.
It’s how I understand their grief over our failure to contain carbon emissions. US carbon chemist David Archer has calculated that we have a six-year time horizon before we pass the relatively safe limit of 1.5C of warming above pre-industrial levels.
Archer thinks that Trump’s election may make little real difference to the fight for a stable climate, but that alarmingly-small six-year window gives his four-year term a whole new meaning.
Last week I speculated that businessman Trump might do a deal that would keep his country in the Paris Agreement. If there are enough moderates in his cabinet, like 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney, they might persuade him to stay put.
But against that is the rock-hard ideology of Trump’s current climate adviser, Myron Ebell, whose target won’t be just Paris but the entire UN climate change convention. Developments in other policy fields last week pointed to Ebell getting his way.
If the US pulls out of the global climate convention, those of us seeking a universal focus on the looming menace of global warming will face an unpalatable choice: should we redouble our efforts, or step back from the public debate and just wait, as climate’s ultimate reality becomes clear to all?
Watch this space.