Nov 11 2016

Trump and Climate

arctic-iceDonald Trump is our president-elect. Dramatic transitions are always anxiety-provoking, partly because of the unknown, and since Trump has never held public office there is a lot of uncertainty.

I do think, as Obama and Clinton have expressed, that it is important that we respect the outcome of our democratic process and a peaceful transfer of power, even if we don’t like the results. I disagree with the current protests (it’s too late, the election is over). Similarly, I disagree with the trend in the last two decades of challenging the legitimacy of the president. This started with Bush’s win over Gore, and has been an element of every election since. Trump himself has done a lot to undermine confidence in the process and its results.

While I further agree with Clinton that we should give Trump a chance to be a good president, and Democrats should even try to work with him, he is not a blank slate. He said a lot in the campaign that is worrisome. He will now be judged by what he says and does as president-elect during the transition, and of course by his actions as soon as he takes office.

Trump on Climate Change

One of the biggest concerns for the scientific community is Trump’s position on the climate. He has said that he thinks global warming is a Chinese hoax and that he intends to “cancel” the Paris agreement once in office. (He can’t literally do this, but he can seriously undermine it, and in the extreme pull out of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.)

Perhaps most worrying is that Trump appointed a leading climate skeptic, Myron Ebell, director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute, to head his EPA transition team. Appointing someone who rejects global warming to head your environmental team is a very strong signal for what a Trump administration will look like.

Trump has also promised to block the Clean Power Plan, an effort to trap CO2 release at power plants. This is a major part of America’s commitment to the Paris agreement.


On many policy issues if you don’t like the stance of the current administration, you can wait for the next election and hope to move things in a better direction. Climate, however, is perhaps the one issue where we do not have the luxury of time. We cannot just grin and bear it, and hope for a course correction next time. You cannot hope to just undo any damage – you will never get the time back that we lose.

There is no meaningful debate among climate scientists about whether or not man-made global warming is happening. The real debate is about whether or not it is already too late to avoid some seriously negative consequences, and how bad those consequences will be.

Climate skeptics are essentially arguing for doubt and uncertainty. While I think they are grossly exaggerating current uncertainty, even if we generously grant them their alleged doubt about climate change, it is still prudent to reduce our CO2 emissions. I have argued before that with something like climate change, we will have to by necessity act long before we have certainty.

I have also pointed out that the health benefits alone from reducing fossil fuel burning makes the reduction cost effective. Clean energy sources become very economical if you include such costs, plus you get a hedge against climate change as a bonus.

So even if climate skeptics were right, which they are not, they are still wrong to oppose reasonable measures to reduce fossil fuels and build our clean energy infrastructure.

Further, the evidence just keeps moving more and more in the direction of man-made climate change. Eleven of the last twelve months have been the hottest months on record. 2016 is shaping up to be the hottest year on record, as 2015 and 2014 were.

There is also clear evidence that we are losing Arctic ice:

But a new data visualization accompanying a NASA release today shows that in 1984, old ice—which is supposed to withstand many cycles of warming and cooling—made up 1.9 million square kilometers of sea ice cover, compared with just 109,998 square kilometers as of this September.

Climate skeptics frequently point to Antarctic sea ice, which is increasing, as a counterpoint. However, global warming does not necessarily mean warming is universe. The climate is complex and even as average temperatures increase there are many other factors at work. For example:

The mighty Southern Ocean Circumpolar Current prevents warmer ocean water from reaching the Antarctic sea ice zone, helping to isolate the continent. The winds within that ice zone keep the water extremely cold, enabling the sea ice cover to grow in recent years even as global temperatures have risen markedly.

Further, global ice is diminishing.

A recent study published in Science also finds that ecosystems around the world are reacting to climate change. Even 1 degree C temperature increase is putting stress on many ecosystems. Of course we don’t know what the ultimate consequences of this will be, but it is clear that climate change is having an impact.

The goal of the Paris agreement was to limit global average temperature increase to 1.5C. There are those who doubt we can achieve even this modest goal, or that this is enough because even that amount of temperature rise may still have significant negative effects. There is general agreement that a temperature rise of 2C could be disastrous, and it may already be too late to avoid it.

Many scientists believe that if we are going to avoid a 2C temperature increase, and avoid the worst outcomes of global warming, we need to act quickly and dramatically.

Personally I think we should be investing heavily in solar, wind, and nuclear power. We should be upgrading our power grid as well, and working hard to develop effective grid storage. This is an infrastructure project that will very likely be hugely cost effective in the long run. It will require some up front investment for long term benefit, but that is exactly the proper role of government, in my opinion.

We should rapidly phase out burning coal to make electricity, and limit all fossil fuels as much as possible. The savings in health care costs alone will probably be worth it. We will have less pollution. We will reduce the power of unstable parts of the world that happen to be sitting on lots of crude. We can become world leaders in emerging energy technologies.

I fail to see the downside in any of this (unless you are looking narrowly at oil company profits).

There doesn’t have to be any pain for the consumer in any of this. It is already cost effective for most home owners to put solar on their roofs. Yes, this includes some government subsidies, but the government will be saving money in the long run from avoiding the negative consequences of pollution.

The political right has to abandon their conspiracy narrative about climate change. Likewise, the political left has to abandon their prejudices against nuclear power. This is an issue that needs to be solved and if both sides come together and are willing to be reasonable we can do it.

We can only hope that Trump turns out to be a very different president than he was a candidate.

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