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How Bad Will Trump Be for Climate Policy?

While the new president will be damaging to international coöperation, the harm could be less than some fear.
November 14, 2016

The timing could not have been worse. On Monday of last week diplomats opened the 22nd Conference of the Parties to the Framework Convention on Climate Change in Morocco. The meeting, known as “COP-22,” is the first high-level follow-up of the highly successful meeting a year earlier in Paris. While the Paris Agreement opened a new approach to managing the climate problem, it left a long list of essential tasks undone. COP-22 would help chip away at that list.

Then on Tuesday the American electorate stunned the world by voting for Donald Trump. The news reverberated through COP-22 in Morocco and has inspired hand-wringing about what will happen if America abandons climate policy and many other areas of international politics.

The reality is that a Trump administration could be harmful to the mission of protecting the planet, but not fatal.

The harm will come from bombast and the inability of the United States to be a reliable partner and leader in international diplomacy. The Trump presidency will probably see the United States roll back payments to the climate regime—a treaty organized under the United Nations, hardly a popular organization with libertarian Republicans. The sums are relatively small (about $3 billion initially) but politically essential to demonstrating that the United States is committed to the process. China and many other nations already have payment plans in place.

The new Trump regime will also inflict harm, almost surely, by failing to provide leadership. The Paris Agreement was successful in part because it papered over disagreements and pushed into the future important tasks. Paris worked because it is a “pledge and review” system—it gives countries flexibility to set their own commitments (known as “nationally determined contributions”) but then promises to review those efforts periodically to see what’s working. Pledge and review is highly suited to a problem like this—where many countries want to act but nobody is quite sure what’s best. But this system only works if there are serious reviews, and it is unlikely that a Trump administration will provide the leadership needed to demonstrate good review mechanisms.

I’m not sure any other country will fill these gaps. The European Union might play a bigger role, but the EU’s capacity to lead is hobbled by its own troubles at home—economic stagnation, divisions over immigration, Brexit and its contagions. Norway will play a leadership role, as it always does, but country-wide review of economic policies is not a place where small countries can really be effective in guiding big countries (and big emitters).

China may emerge as the de facto leader in the climate regime not just because it has the world’s largest emissions but also because the pledge and review system particularly suits its interests of wanting to show action while not becoming encumbered with inconvenient international commitments. Over the last few years China has become a lot more vocal about the shape of the international climate regime—partly through its closer relationship with the United States and the bilateral efforts of these two countries to coöperate on climate and energy topics even as the two governments disagree on so much else.

Before declaring that the planet’s climate will be an automatic loser from the Trump presidency it is crucial to keep three things in mind.

First, nobody really knows Trump’s views on climate change—perhaps not even Trump himself. Much has been made of the 2012 claim that climate change is a “hoax” invented by the Chinese to steal American jobs. But that message came from a tweet—hardly the stuff of reasoned policy analysis—and was embedded in the larger narrative that helped Trump win the White House: economic malaise, especially in the rust belt hurt by global competition. Reframe climate policy and the automatic conflict with economic competitiveness will dampen. Indeed, that reframing is exactly how the Clinton candidacy tried to push hard on climate change while also offering a pro-jobs message.

Second, climate diplomacy under Trump could be a lot like that of the George W. Bush administration. One of Bush’s first foreign policy actions was to abandon the Kyoto Protocol—a decision led by Vice President Dick Cheney, who was openly hostile to climate science and policy. Later that year September 11 happened and the Bush foreign policy became consumed with terror. More quietly, however, the Bush team also sought to build a climate policy based on coöperation in smaller groups rather than UN forums and focused on innovation and deployment of new technologies. That approach was the right one—if not fully executed—and a Trump administration will find many allies ready to coöperate in small group settings. Activists should get ready to criticize Trump if his administration fails to act on climate change, but holding out the promise that action will come through global UN forums is a recipe for deadlock with Trump.

I remain worried about the health of the UN process nonetheless. That process is important because a global umbrella is essential for legitimacy, and building an effective system of pledge and review is essential for the long-term effort to deepen coöperation. Don’t look for Trump to love the UN, but if his team does not actively undermine the Paris process, that will be a success. Now, more than ever, the United States civil society needs to engage with other like-minded countries so that the U.S. is involved with the development of the Paris process even if the formal government of the country becomes AWOL. U.S. environmental groups have a huge stake in an effective process, as do globally oriented U.S. firms that will face a much costlier compliance regime in the future if the Paris process fails.

Third, what the U.S. does to the world depends not just on leadership but on how we actually behave at home with policies to control the gases. Here, the impact of Trump will be a lot less than feared. Established policies like the Clean Power Plan will be hard for Trump to reverse unilaterally. Much of what the United States is actually doing on climate change is rooted in state policy and in federal incentives that are extremely popular—such as subsidies for renewable power—and unlikely to change much. Nobody who closely studies U.S. energy markets thinks that Trump’s bold claims of rebuilding the coal industry are serious. At least for the next four years, the trajectory of U.S. emissions is unlikely to wiggle much no matter who sits in the White House.

Trump isn’t great news for serious efforts to address the climate. But his administration may not be as toxic as people think. How this unfolds will depend not just on Trump’s appointees, but on how his opponents here in America and his potential allies abroad respond.

David G. Victor is a professor at the University of California, San Diego, where he co-leads the Deep Decarbonization Initiative and the Laboratory on International Law and Regulation. He is also co-chair of the Brookings Institution’s Initiative on Climate and Energy.

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