The Trumped-up Elephant-in-the-Room at COP22?

COP22 in Marrakesh (Nov. 7-18, 2016) was yet another opportunity for the world to come together to do the right thing on arguably the biggest issue of our time. I felt lucky to be there, with some of our students, to see the world coming together to make necessary change. Climate change is not a simple issue, but just the type of complex and transdisciplinary issue that is the focus of our Faculty of Environment.

And the momentum in many ways was there. Just a few weeks before COP22, a global deal to reduced hydrofluorocarbons was reached, perhaps the “largest temperature reduction ever achieved by single agreement”

Further, just a year after COP 21 in Paris (2015), the Paris Agreement came into force on Nov. 4, 2016, in large part due to the coming together of the U.S. and China on the issue. COP22 was branded as “the COP of action,” when the details of the high-level Paris Agreement could be hashed out.

It’s well recognized that the Paris Agreement doesn’t do enough, though, not least because the commitments aren’t binding (and countries haven’t even made commitments to nationally determined contributions (NDCs) yet). There is a recognized gap between commitments to date and what is needed to actually keep projected temperature increases below 2° – if not the much preferable 1.5°. For greater context, consider that 2016 will in all likelihood be yet another “hottest year on record” and the models now predict we’re well on the way to a 3° increase. And then there’s the recent analyses that go further to state that we’re on the “‘apocalyptic side of bad’ temperature rise of more than 7C within a lifetime.”

Despite this context, the oftentimes elephant-in-the-room was President-elect Donald Trump. In one workshop I attended, on the potential for multi-scale governance with regard to climate change policy in the U.S., the first speaker, an Obama advisor on climate change, didn’t use Trump’s name once – it took the second speaker to say what everyone in the room was thinking, to name everyone’s fear of a Trump apocalypse.

Trump will likely be very bad for the environment, especially given Republican control of the U.S. government, which Obama lacked. Not mincing words, Noam Chomsky summarized as follows:

“[The Republican Party] has become the most dangerous organization in world history”. He goes further to make a frightening comparison: “There are definite similarities to Brexit, and also to the rise of the ultranationalist far-right parties in Europe — whose leaders were quick to congratulate Trump on his victory … And these developments are quite frightening. A look at the polls in Austria and Germany — Austria and Germany — cannot fail to evoke unpleasant memories for those familiar with the 1930s, even more so for those who watched directly, as I did as a child.” Scary times.

Trump has claimed that climate change is a hoax and has threatened to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, so our initial hope must rest on his only consistency: waffling on everything. He has already backtracked on some of the more egregious ‘promises’ from his campaign, in many instances because he apparently didn’t know much about the subtleties involved. As one, important example, unless he thinks his military is inviolate (and he might), he will have to face up to the increasingly strong evidence that climate change is a major cause of global security issues, wars, and terrorism around the world. Or his greed may ultimately help the planet once he realizes that there is money in renewables, and that they are not ‘more costly’ as their cost continues to decline and the potential of batteries improves.

Because it has gone into force, the Paris Agreement is legally binding and it can withstand whatever happens in the U.S., as long as other governments don’t take potential back-tracking by the U.S. as a reason to weaken their commitment. Though imperfect, this agreement took a lot of work – and it remains fragile. Importantly, in the current context, “the United States is the country with the single greatest historical responsibility for causing climate change—about 25 percent of historical emissions since the start of the industrial revolution are from this country”. So it may be hard for ‘developing countries’ to swallow a potential withdrawal by the U.S. Yet it appears that many governments remain committed. Ban Ki-Moon, the X of the United Nations, has spoken with Trump, and has hope. Even Hilda Heine, the president of the low-lying Marshall Islands, is optimistic that he will ‘see the light’.

The Paris Agreement is also built to withstand political cycles such as this one, though that’s not to say there aren’t ways that Trump might be able to speed up the requisite 3-4 year process of withdrawing. And he can set back climate policy even beyond his term in many ways, for example by changing policies Obama has been working on (albeit slowly given Republican roadblocks), such as clean energy subsidies and regulation of power plants, that are meant to reduce reliance on coal.

There is one indication that Trump will go the wrong way on carbon emissions. The leader of his transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency, Myron Ebell, is a prominent climate sceptic and “a man once described by a senior George W Bush aide as ‘crazy Myron’“. Trump is surrounded by others who subscribe to “lukewarmism,” the agnostic belief that CO2 may be increasing but that it won’t have a negative effect.

It is here that things get quite frightening. Science is hard, so it’s much easier to believe whatever you like and do something easy, like business as usual (though one could turn that around and question how a return to 19th-century coal burning is advisable). It is true that there is still uncertainty about climate change, yet it’s not really about whether it’s occurring or whether it’s caused by humans, but about how much things will warm. And the risks of not acting are now simply much greater than those of acting. Yet the fear is that such rational arguments may not go far in the Trump era: as one journalist asked during a session with the U.S. delegation at COP22, “will you have to convince the incoming administration that 2+2 = 4 and not 5?”

For uneducated people, this is all quite complicated and too long-term. And, not understanding science, they’re susceptible to the idea that ‘it’s not necessarily true’ and/or that ‘it’s too expensive,’ etc. We must keep in mind that a fairly high percentage of the U.S. problem is unconcerned about global warming because “Christ is returning in a few decades.”

The critical problem is that these issues are both challenging and time-dependent because of the lag between reducing carbon emissions and its effect. Even more worrisome is Trump’s ability to move the U.S. Supreme Court to the right, which may hold back environmental legislation in the U.S. for decades.

As always, those of us who have concerns about the environment can only shake our heads when someone in a position of power seems so ill-informed and uncaring. Fundamentally, concern about climate change does ask one, at least a little bit (if one has not gone through all the training necessary to understand the science), to rest on faith on others (in this case the scientific community). It also, more importantly, requires one to think about things beyond oneself over very long time scales: things such as the beauty and diversity of ‘ways of living’ on this planet – importantly, not just human ones, but non-human ones as well. The impacts are already being seen on human lives and health and biodiversity around the world. As just one example, I am tremendously sad that my son, now 3, appears unlikely to see the beauty and grandeur of coral reefs that I’ve been able to see. But none of this is the kind of thing that an egotist like Trump is centered upon.

So where does this leave us?

I know that youth are frustrated and despairing about the ineptitude of adults and of established processes (even so-called democracy). Twice, in Marrakesh, a youth group asked Canada’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change about the arrest of student protestors and the government’s recent approval of pipelines, but did not really receive a good, honest answer. I can assure you, though, that I saw a lot of well-intentioned effort in Marrakesh; many people are sensitive to what’s going on and not least equity among peoples both now and in future generations. Yet that doesn’t change some of the bad decisions humans have made in the interests of their children (and other species) recently. The election of Trump – unless he turns out to be a way better character than he appears – is one of these, and it was not made by young voters but in large part by old, disenfranchised, uneducated, older white males.

Regardless, “While defeatism may feel like the only option right now, with something as important as the planet, you can never give up.” We first need to seek hope everywhere we can. Emissions are falling, globally, and we have to do everything we can to strengthen that pattern.

Hope can come from seemingly unlikely places (e.g., CEOS, banks) or at different scales (e.g., from mayors rather than Presidents). Americans at the meeting hearkened back to how things weren’t as bad as they had thought they might be during the Bush era, mainly because so many ‘environmentalists’ worked so hard to challenge at every step and to find work-arounds to keep things moving in the right direction.

Here’s another really good place to put our hope: a judge has just granted a group of American children the legal right to sue the U.S. government “for their right to a stable climate.” As one commentator put it [as I wrote last year], “the plot of this lawsuit is like something out of a Disney movie: A group of committed kids from across the country and a charismatic lawyer are fighting for the future of the planet against Big Oil and the president of the United States.”

And we can move beyond simply having hope in a political system that is often seemingly beyond our control (though that’s not a reason not to work to influence it). Our daily choices with regard to climate change still matter – see some ideas here

I felt lucky to be at COP22 with a few of your fellow students. You will unfortunately bear more of the impact of climate change than I will, but I hope that the different roles we play can come together to make change sooner rather than later so that the effects are not as dire as they might otherwise be.

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Dr. Brendon Larson is an Associate Professor and Associate Dean within UWaterloo’s School of Environment, Resource & Sustainability Studies. His research concerns the social dimensions of biodiversity conservation, or, more specifically, how people perceive and evaluate conservation options in the current era of dramatic global change (which some call the Anthropocene).

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