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17 November 2016

Climate change risks becoming the forgotten threat of the Trump era

The US president's multiple defects will distract from the greatest danger of all. 

By George Eaton

The US has elected as its next president an intemperate narcissist, who reveres Vladimir Putin and has a history of racism and misogyny. All of this has been widely noted in recent days. But less has been said about Donald Trump’s views on climate change. The president-elect, with impressive originality, regards global warming as a Chinese hoax. “[It] was created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive,” he declared in 2012. Consequently, he has vowed to withdraw America from the recently-signed Paris Agreement and to end funding for UN programmes.

Though climate change represents the greatest threat to the planet, the reaction to Trump’s victory has confirmed that many now regard it as a second-order issue. It is human nature to focus on more immediate and visible dangers. An exception has been provided by shadow business secretary Clive Lewis. In his speech today at the Royal Society of Chemistry, Lewis (who I recently interviewed), warned that Trump’s victory “could mean ‘game over’ for our planet.” He was echoing the words of climate researcher Michael Mann, who said the result “might make it impossible to stabilise planetary warming below dangerous levels.”

The US is theoretically prevented from leaving the Paris Agreement for four years, though Trump is exploring escape routes. His election alone, however, will have deleterious consequences for the environment. It will embolden climate change deniers in the US elsewhere and disincentivise efforts to deliver emissions reductions. 

In the UK, which will today ratify the Paris Agreement (making it the 111th country to do so), Conservatives hope to use Trump’s election to push Theresa May in a less green direction. The Prime Minister is already regarded with suspicion by environmentalists after abolishing the Department of Energy and Climate Change (folding it into Business) and mentioning the issue just once in her conference speech. “Vote blue, don’t go green”, some suggest, is now an apposite slogan. The days when David Cameron hugged huskies and embraced the environmental agenda (albeit temporarily) are now a distant memory. 

After Trump’s triumph, the quiet threat of climate change (even the term itself sounds benign) risks being further relegated. And unlike foolhardy economic policies, the consequences cannot be easily reversed. There isn’t an alternative planet if the experiment goes wrong. 

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