Climate Policy Environment 24 September, 2018 10:30 am   

Will climate policy survive Trump?

The COP24 climate summit in Katowice is coming up. Meanwhile, in the US such a summit, organized by supporters of the ambitious US climate policy, opposed by the current President Donald Trump is going on, writes Wojciech Jakóbik, editor-in-chief of

Climate policy must be central

The President of the United States has declared that his country will withdraw from the Paris Agreement. It let down the supporters of global action to fight climate change, because this agreement gives concrete commitments to signatory countries who by 2020 are to determine how they will engage in mitigation and adaptation to climate change. Although the American delegation will be present at the COP24 summit in Katowice, there is a fear that it will remain silent, or vice versa, it will torpedo the multilateral climate policy.

In the days preceding COP24, there is a rebellion in the United States against climate policy, and perhaps anti-climate, Donald Trump. The Global Climate Action Summit, convened by California Governor Jerry Brown, ran from 11 to 14 September. He is a democrat who wants to mobilize cities and regions to fight climate change despite Trump and other skeptics of an ambitious policy under the America’s Pledge initiative. The participants of the summit talk about carbon tax, financing and adaptation. Will they be able to overcome Washington’s reluctance?

– Historically we know that President can have a big impact on climate policy. Clinton supported Kyoto Protocol and Bush reversed U.S. engagement. We had 8 years of absence in global climate policy. Then Obama took over and we were back – says Karl Hausker, a longtime analyst and former adviser to Barack Obama’s administration on climate policy, currently an expert at the World Resources Institute.

– America is probably moving backwards in the process of energy transition – warns Mark Alan Hughes from the Kleinman Center for Energy Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. – Insufficient attention was given to sustainability policy – he adds.

According to Karl Hausker, Trump’s climate policy is not rational, because it consists in denying the science of climate change as such. Bush was afraid of climate policy costs, but accepted scientific facts – points out my interlocutor. In this context, he gives as an example of the cynical use of this kind of policy the theory that the theory of climate change was invented by the Chinese who want to harm the US economy. Meanwhile, the Americans are preparing for another hurricane, this time it’s called Florence. – Due to climate change they will be more frequent and longer-lasting – explained Climate Reality experts, Al Gore’s think tank, at the conference in Los Angeles.

According to Hausker, acceptance of the science of climate change raises the need for international cooperation to effectively counteract them. – “We are still in” movement is strong but it is not enough. We have lower renewables costs but it is also not enough. Climate policy is about electrifying the economy, energy efficiency, land use management. That is why government action is necessary. Energy transition is not inevitable even when market is helpful – he says.

– Polls clearly show that most Americans support the sustainable policies that Obama championed. The minority, however, have stronger feelings that mobilized them during the elections. This is one important factor in how a very vocal minority was able to defeat a complacent majority – Hughes estimates. In his opinion, myths and a kind of romanticism, especially in states like West Virginia and Wyoming, have grown around coal mining. “Democrats there are lobbying for coal,” says the scientist. In fact, 17-18 percent of US electricity comes from coal and real economic interests follow it. – Climate policy since the election has been more heavily focused on incumbent energy interests instead of on managing the impacts of energy transition on the workers and families in coal regions – my interlocutor adds.

Trump’s climate policy can be authoritarian

A researcher from the University of Pennsylvania is afraid that Donald Trump will propose an “authoritarian climate policy.” – Consider this nightmare scenario: During COP24, Trump’s team moves to promote LNG exports as a good substitute for coal. This would result in many problems, such as methane leakage and a leapfrog effect – he admits. The point is that in the opinion of supporters of radical transformation, staying with gas can be risky in the face of rapid technological changes that can soon allow the replacement of gas sources with renewable ones.

Ruth Greenspan Bell from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars has a similar opinion: – There is no national leadership toward energy transition; if anything, Trump is obviously trying to revive coal and sabotage any alternatives.  If the Democrats manage to flip at least one House of Congress, any legislation they pass will face a veto threat, but they will have the opportunity to do real oversight, demand documents, bring officials up to the Hill to answer questions in hearings.  Energy transition could be one topic. We will know more about that in November – she says.

Bell lived in Poland and created a task force for Janusz Reiter, who was then the Polish climate Ambassador. In her opinion, the success of the Paris Accord required ongoing leadership, presumably, at the least, from the US, Germany and France.  But the changing political fortunes in each of those countries have created distractions challenging that assumption. We know the US changes, Angela Merkel must deal with the political struggle in her country, and the supporter of ambitious climate policy Nicolas Hulot left the government of Emmanuel Macron.

According to Mark Alan Hughes, a trade war led by Trump could be transferred to budget talks to combat climate change. – This budget could be treated by Trump as a takeover resource to defend US interests and spend funds in accordance with their interests – warns the scientist.

In his opinion, the current administration is close to the optics of countries competing for resources in order to survive climate change. – The policy could also lead to a trade war that interferes with global carbon budget talks. The carbon budget itself could be seen by Trump as a resource to be seized—ensuring that the U.S. owns it and spends it. The administration might argue that nations should compete for resources to survive climate change. This could lead citizens to mobilize and create a resilient American fortress to survive the 3 to 4 degree global temperature increase. This nightmare scenario —an  “America First” climate policy— would be a total disintegration of global climate policy as we know it – the head of the Kleinman Center for Energy Studies tells me.

Renewable energy one hundred percent?

Contrary to Trump, Jerry Brown’s democratic California declared that it wanted to put energy one hundred percent on Renewable Energy Sources until 2045. Will it be possible? Will this state be an example for others? My interlocutors from the US government admit that “energy transformation has market fundaments”, but they warn against overly optimism. Supporters of a quick transition have no doubts.

– Every kind of Energy system has subsidies – reminds Anya Schoolman from Solar United Neighbors, which helps put solar panels in American cities with expertise and legal advice. – It is more complex to examine if we are subsidizing the right things at the moment. The big question is if the system will let the new, independent players like our community, in – she adds. She refers to the example of the states of California and Hawaii, which adopted the law with the goal of increasing the share of Renewable Energy Sources up to 100 percent in 2045.

However, the assumption that the energy transformation will bring as rapid a turn towards RES, as is necessary according to Bell, one hundred percent may be too optimistic. – It is a huge shift. It cannot happen overnight, no matter what anyone says and despite the inexorable physics of climate change – says Ruth Bell. In her opinion, a quick turnaround would be possible only thanks to the mobilization of the kind that followed the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. – It will require a willingness to walk away from a lot of investment, to create a totally different set of winners and losers – and the current winners won’t give up easily – she warns.

My interlocutors close to Barack Obama administration remind us that Hawaii is an island, so investments in renewable energy pay off more because of their isolation. The situation in California is also unique compared to other states. It also affects neighbors because it leads to uncontrolled exports of electricity interfering with the stability of nearby state systems. Finally, it would not be possible thanks to a significant generation of gas and nuclear power that works at the base and stabilize the rapid development of renewable energy in a sunny state.

What’s next?

From the global point of view, state and city policies may not be enough. University of Yale research shows that global declarations from nearly six thousand cities, states and regions accounting for 7 percent of the global population and over 2,000 companies with a combined income comparable to the size of the US economy, will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 1,5 -2,2 million tons of greenhouse gases by 2030.

Although this will be a significant change on the US scale, it is poor on the global level, because it is not enough to avoid the global temperature increase by 2 degrees, which is the aim of the Paris agreement, even with reductions made by the USA, China, India, Brazil and the European Union. If Trump additionally withdraws the States from the system, according to Yale researchers, this will mean an additional one billion tons of CO2 emissions in the next 15 years. When we combine this with the plans to revise the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations under the Clean Power Plan, there may even be an increase in emissions from the coal sector in the US. Even after the full implementation of the arrangements from Paris to the end of the century, the world is about to warm up by about 3,3 degrees Celsius. Global leadership is needed to give new tools and commitments to fight climate change.

– The Paris Agreement in the sixth article provides for the possibility of introducing broad financing of climate policy – indicates the adviser of the President of the Republic of Poland for climate policy Paweł Sałek. – There are good market examples from Kyoto that motivated business to spend on climate. It is a former mechanism of joint implementations, a clean development mechanism and the classic trade in emission allowances at the national level, on which Poland has gained. These three mechanisms in some form after 2020, when the Paris Agreement will start working, should be implemented. They will not be the same, but for climate policy to be effective, financial resources must be included in it. We are in agreement to mobilize 100 billion euros annually for climate protection and the mechanisms mentioned above that are conducive to climate protection – he reminds.

There is a lot to fight for at COP24. However, it is not known if there will be anyone to do so. Despite the involvement of many cities and regions, countries may be reluctant to take ambitious efforts to protect the climate. At the COP24 summit, there probably will not be a breakthrough, but the worst scenario is a step back. The current situation in the US may be temporary. – In general, extreme conservatives hate government and international cooperation, but climate policy inherently requires both – Karl Hausker concludes.

Will a vision from California or West Virginia win? – I hope that moderate conservatives can re-emerge in the Republican Party and embrace the need to fight climate change. But they are afraid of punishment from the extreme conservatives that dominate the party and from Trump’s base voters – he states. – Present U.S. Federal policy is temporary and our progress on the ground to expand renewable energy is very profound – sums Anya Schoolman.

This publication was created thanks to cooperation with the Fundacja im. Heinrich Böll in Warsaw. The views and conclusions contained in it express the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Heinrich Böll Foundation