Photo by Matt A.J., from Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Now that Trump is the President-Elect of the United States, foreigners (and nationals as well) may be wondering how this will impact international climate actions.

Predicting the behavior of a Trump administration, which begins January 20, 2017, is exceedingly challenging. Trump’s trademark is his unpredictability, which he has exhibited in spades.* However, all of the signals suggest that he will not be active in responding to climate change in either the international or the national arenas.** Furthermore, in discussion with the New York Times, Trump made it clear that his knowledge of climate change is rather limited (hints for Trump: what an engineer thought about climate change over four decades ago is irrelevant and eight investigations into the hacked emails at the Climactic Research Unit found no fraud or scientific misconduct). Even more pointedly, he said recently that “Nobody really knows” if climate change is real. So he both is unpredictable in general and knows very little about climate change.

Nevertheless, here are two scenarios of sets of actions that he might attempt, one I call ‘bad’ and the other ‘very bad’, since these actions are counterproductive in addressing climate change. Then I will finish by discussing his likelihood of enacting these policies should he attempt to and potential international responses.

I take it to be most likely that he will pursue some bad actions: (1) effectively–but not officially–pulling out of the Paris Agreement by diverting attempts to cut emissions so that the USA predictably fails to reach its targets and (2) refusing to help finance the Green Climate Fund. The (already ratified) Paris Agreement makes nationally intended climate targets binding, while the Green Climate Fund helps developing countries mitigate and adapt in response to climate change. By diverting attempts to cut emissions, I mean things like he said in his energy policy speech in late September: granting leases for new coal exploration and production and removing rules governing environmental damage like protecting waterways from coal. Most significantly, he can try to prevent the Clean Power Plan from being enacted. [I will not go into the details of the domestic climate policies here. Please comment below and tell me if you are interested; I might write a sister post on that topic if there is interest.]

If he pursues these bad actions, he has significant chance of enacting them. He can both cancel payments to the Green Climate Fund and stop regulations that will help reduce emissions essentially alone when he enters the White House, without the help of Congress.

I take it to be less likely that he will pursue some very bad actions: (3) officially withdrawing from the Paris Agreement or from the UNFCCC entirely, (4) ending the federal use of a social cost of carbon (SCC) when calculating the costs of regulation, and (5) defunding climate research at NASA.

If he pursues these very bad actions, he will have to have more support at both the federal and Congressional levels. Furthermore, official withdrawal from the Paris Agreement would take four years (three years from date of ratification and then one year notice), although withdrawing from the UNFCCC could be accomplished in a year. Although a member of his transition team has suggested leaving UNFCCC, this could raise a major diplomatic row. George HW Bush signed onto the UNFCCC in 1992, which makes it a well-established international instrument.

Removing a SCC means that when policies are considered, the climate effects of emitted carbon on the environment would not be factored in. This could have a major effect on which policies were adopted and could discourage countries from linking with the United States in terms of harmonizing carbon costs.

Photo by Francisco Schmidt, from Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Finally, defunding NASA’s Earth science operations would have major international ramifications for climate science. The data and findings from these operations are essential for a wide range of international (and national) projects on climate change. To illustrate, scientists have highlighted some of scientific value of these operations using the hashtag #ThanksNASA.

I think it relatively unlikely that Trump will officially withdraw from either Paris or the UNFCCC, due to its complexity; the lack of sanctions in staying in and failing to meet the contributions; and the likelihood that it will bring negative attention to him (about 7 in 10 Americans think that the US should stay in the Paris Agreement and some members of the international community would also be unhappy).

It is slightly more likely that he will successfully remove a SCC or defund NASA’s Earth science operations, since his Congressional colleagues are likely to find these amenable actions. However, I do not think either of these will be priorities and will depend on whether his base lobbies him to follow these courses of action.

I conclude with a few potential responses, which are even more tentative, as many countries are themselves unsure of what they will do and are considering their options in response to a range of international effects from Trump’s policies.

One response which could mitigate the damage of a non-US led climate future is if China (or, somewhat less likely, India) steps up to press for international action. There are already signs that this may be the case. One of Obama’s legacies could be helping to move China towards climate action, which it now appears committed to, meaning that the Chinese could end up pushing for stronger action.

Another response which could be very dangerous would be a carbon tariff on US goods. France, Mexico and Canada have suggested that they might impose a border tariff–making it more expensive to send American goods to these countries–should Trump withdraw from the Paris Agreement. With Trump’s populism with respect to trade, a tariff war could result which could severely damage international trade. However, if formulated properly, it could also induce movement towards integrated international action (this is sometimes called the “climate clubs” approach).

By way of conclusion, although I take these to be some of the potential actions Trump would take as President (and the world could take in response), this election cycle has shown that both Trump’s actions and those of his interlocutors are highly surprising. We can hope that Trump addresses climate change in a responsible manner, while preparing for–and pressing him to avoid!–the worst.

Thanks to both Ewan Kingston and Daniel Callies for feedback in preparing this post.


* In the last seven days, (1) he nominated a neurosurgeon without political experience to head housing and urban development, (2) he publicly acknowledged Taiwan’s leader as President, following up with a series of tweets against China, leaving observers unclear as to whether he has changed or will change the policy towards China and Taiwan, and (3) in news closer to those interested in this blog, Ivanka Trump met with Al Gore and also got Al Gore in to see Donald Trump. That Trump would consider meeting Gore is about as unpredictable as it gets, even though it is not clear whether this will mean any shift in policy.

** The primary signals are selecting a prominent climate denier, Scott Pruitt, to lead the EPA and having Myron Ebell, another climate denier, lead the environmental transition team.