Trumping the Paris climate deal

Most people said that Donald Trump could not get the Republican nomination for President. He did. Most people thought he would never be elected President. He was. Most people expected him to tone down his rhetoric and become more like a conventional politician after he was elected. Apart maybe from his acceptance speech, he has shown little sign of doing this.

President Trump will try to do many of the things candidate Trump promised. Not everything: he is no longer encouraging people to lock Hillary Clinton up, now that she no longer poses a threat to his plans, for example. His attacks on her during the campaign arguably served their purpose, but hounding her further would be a distraction.

And not everything he pledged to do will come to fruition. Already, his plans to roll back President Obama’s healthcare package have foundered in Congress. Although, in typical fashion, he lashed out at the House Democrats for failing to break ranks and provide any support, the real reason for the defeat was the opposition of a minority of Republican congressmen (interestingly, a mix of those who thought we was going too far and some hardliners who thought we wasn’t being radical enough).

This early major defeat nicely illustrates the limits of the powers enjoyed by someone who is often described as the most powerful man in the world. The checks and balances in the Constitution can lead to temporary shutdown of government services when the executive and legislative branches fail to agree on a budget, but they also moderate the actions of a radical president.

Often, this is because the President is not from the party that has a majority in either (or both) the House or Senate. Currently, the Republicans have a majority in both the House of Representative and Senate, and President Trump was their candidate. The truth, though, is that Trump is not really a Republican. Nevertheless, many of his policies are much more attractive to Republican than Democrat voters, and focussing on these will bring him more success with the legislature than did his first attempt to implement controversial changes to healthcare insurance.

A key message in his campaign – and one that clearly establishes him as a maverick in the normally-consensual world of global politics – is an intention to reverse President Obama’s commitment to measures intended to mitigate climate change. The Donald’s personal beliefs on the issue are not exactly crystal clear. Having at one stage described climate change as a scam cooked up by the Chinese, he has more recently acknowledged that burning fossil fuels has an impact, although in his view not as severe as the IPCC suggests.

In this, he is expressing a point of view shared by many who are sceptical of the party line that catastrophe awaits unless we take drastic action. These sceptics are often labelled as ‘deniers’ but the term ‘lukewarmer’ is a more accurate one. In keeping with his style, his public statements are often less measured and coherent, but this quote from a late 2015 radio interview, while he was still seeking the Republican nomination, perhaps gives some insight into his real view: “I’m not a believer in man-made global warming. It could be warming, and it’s going to start to cool at some point. And you know, in the early, in the 1920s, people talked about global cooling…They thought the Earth was cooling. Now, it’s global warming…But the problem we have, and if you look at our energy costs, and all of the things that we’re doing to solve a problem that I don’t think in any major fashion exists.”

But whatever the sometimes confusing rhetoric, President Trump has this week made his first step in the area. On the same day as Theresa May fired the starting gun for Brexit negotiations, we read that Trump signs order undoing Obama climate change policies. The Energy Independence Executive Order suspends a number of measures and is intended to support fossil fuels. To many, this means boosting domestic coal production and use, in part to fulfil campaign pledges made in depressed mining states. In reality, if he keeps his word to ‘reverse government intrusion’ then it will be shale gas producers that will benefit more than coal miners. Voters in Virginia may not be so pro-Trump by the 2020 elections.

A key Obama policy now rescinded is the Clean Power Plan, so freeing states from the obligation to cut emissions. At the same time, the Environmental Protection Agency, the primary government department making and enforcing rules on carbon dioxide emissions, is having its budget cut by one third and will now be headed by Scott Pruitt, an avowed climate sceptic.

Although it sounds simple, signing an Executive Order doesn’t change things overnight. Not only is there tremendous inertia in the EPA and the whole machinery of government, but the battle over the Clean Power Plan will be fought out in the courts over years to come. Indeed, it has been delayed by legal actions since its introduction. The new Executive Order guarantees that the impasse will continue but, more importantly, it gives a very clear signal about the direction this administration will take.

The EU, China and India have already pledged their continuing commitment to the Paris agreement even if, as looks increasingly certain, America drops out as soon as it legally can. But the agreement is effectively toothless, since signatories have pledged to make pledges rather than being held to account centrally. For the world’s two major emerging economies, the pledges simply mean continuing to foster economic growth while their emissions rise to a plateau in a decade or so. The EU, on the other hand, takes the whole thing very seriously, but even then Germany’s increasing difficulties in achieving its energiewende are putting sustained emissions cuts in doubt.

Meanwhile, the reality in the US may be rather different from the disaster envisaged by the environmentalist lobby, as argued in BBC piece shortly after the election – Trump: the best thing ever for climate change? When the country stayed outside the Kyoto Protocol, very significant emissions cuts were made as natural gas began to displace coal. As argued in this piece, the fear of American rejection of the agreement actually spurred other countries to ratify it in record time (although cynics might think this was because it in fact made no fixed obligations necessary). Another argument is that fulfilling the new president’s pledges to invest in infrastructure and job creation could mean that more money was spent on energy efficiency measures such as insulation, which would benefit everyone, whatever their views on climate change. Beyond that, economics dictate that domestic gas will continue to displace coal for electricity generation so emissions will continue to fall for the foreseeable future.

So, while American CO2 emissions continue to decline driven almost entirely by economics, Europe will continue to spend large amounts of money on increasingly ineffective measures to cut emissions, in the absence of technological breakthroughs. The main effect of President Trump’s action may be to spark some serious thought on this side of the Pond about future energy policy by any policymakers willing to take their heads out of the sand.

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