President Trump Dismantles US Climate Policy As Thousands Suffer From Natural Disasters

This week saw ex-cyclone Debbie ravage north-eastern coastlines of Australia. An avalanche near the Nasu Onsen ski resort in Japan killed eight and injure 40 more, and flooding and flood-induced landslides in Peru and the Colombian city of Mocoa together killed over 350 people, with many more missing and injured.

Meanwhile, President Trump signed an executive order to roll back the linchpin of US policy action on climate change, initiated by former US President Obama. Surrounded by coal miners, Trump signed the executive order whilst emphatically proclaiming that the “war on coal” is over.

Obviously, this is not to suggest that Trump caused the various natural disasters this week, nor that each or any of these weather events would definitely not have taken place without human-induced climate change. What is clear, however, is that the frequency of extreme weather events of this kind will rise, and the effects of regressive political decision-making on climate will have dramatic material effects far beyond the jurisdictional borders. The reality is a tragic irony where the world’s historically greatest polluter holds back the necessary international intervention on climate, leaving smaller and poorer populations to be the greatest consequence bearers.

The executive order directs the Environmental Protection Agency to repeal the Clean Power Plan initiated by the Obama administration, regulations under which required states to slash carbon emissions from power plants. Trump hailed the order as minimizing government intrusion and reversing “job-killing regulations.”

The order has also placed the landmark Paris agreement of 2015, the central aim of which is to keep global temperature rise well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, under threat. Whilst the order does not withdraw the US from its commitments under the Paris agreement – although that was another of Trump’s campaign promises – it will mean near impossibility for the US targets under the accord to cut emissions by 26 percent on 2005 levels by 2025.

“This is not the time for any country to change course on the very serious and very real threat of climate change,” said Erik Solheim, executive director of the United Nations Environment Program. “The science tells us that we need bolder, more ambitious commitments.”

The move effectively cedes American leadership of the international campaign to halt the trajectory of global warming. The danger is that other high carbon-emitting economies will follow suit. “One of the greatest concerns is what other key countries, including China, India and Brazil, will do when the U.S. reneges on the Paris agreement,” said Robert Stavins, professor of environmental economics at Harvard University. If the vacuum of American leadership and support in climate policy is not filled, the risk is that the entire Paris agreement, the culmination of long and arduous multilateral negotiations, will unravel.

The flow-on effects of global warming are well documented. Pre-existing socio-political tensions are aggravated, resource supply and accessibility become more scarce, an unprecedented refugee crisis emerges, and humanitarian aid requirements proliferate. In other words, global issues with which the international system and nation-states already inadequately struggle are further exacerbated. A recent documentary titled ‘The Age of Consequences’ highlighted the way climate change acts as a “threat multiplier” and represents a genuine national security concern – not just for the United States, but defense departments and personnel across the globe.

It remains to be seen whether Trump’s executive order will overcome legal challenges, likely to mount as they have in relation to other Trump executive orders, most infamously his immigration ban. A coalition of US states are already lining up to take on the order in court.

One can only hope for the success of such legal challenge. Whilst the politics surrounding climate change is largely unclear, the science is not. In light of the evidence, the current course of climate policy inadequacy, (in)action and regression is recklessness of the highest order and consequence.

Lucas Hafey