Donald Trump has had a busy couple of days in office. He has pushed through a huge number of executive orders in a very small space of time, and almost all of them have been met with some sort of controversy. One of his earliest executive orders has mostly been forgotten about, amid the international political hurricane of Trump’s more recent escapades, but it sets a worrying precedent for the Trump administrations views on climate change.
20 January 2017 was an understandably busy news day, as President Trump was sworn into office. But one of the more surprising stories to appear regarded the White House website: within hours of his appointment, the White House web pages on climate change had disappeared, among others. Shortly afterwards, the newly appointed President validated the fears held by many, initiating a gag order on several governmental agencies, notably the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department for Health and Human Services (HHS). The order not only prevented these agencies from publishing information in almost any format without it being screened by government officials first, it placed the same limits on the employees of those agencies. This effectively stops the publication of information and facts that disagree with the Trump administration’s views, and gives the Trump administration a worrying amount of censorship power over climate change and public health issues.
Donald Trump has made his feelings on climate change, and climate science in general, felt in the past. In 2012, he called the concept of climate change a hoax created by the Chinese to inhibit American industry. This statement was as ridiculous at the time as it is now; the evidence for climate change, as well as the evidence that it is largely, if not entirely, caused by human activity, is overwhelming. But even so, after his election win, Trump appointed Myron Ebell, an outspoken opponent of climate change, to head his EPA transition team. Since then, in addition to the gag order and the removal of the White House climate change web page, Ebell’s transition team has also stated that they will remove a large amount of data and information from the EPA website, making it unavailable to the public.
The Trump administrations anti-science and anti-climate views are not only backwards and worrying, they could not have come at a worse time. Climate change has been heralded by many as one of the greatest challenges humanity has faced, and we stand at a critical juncture. Last year, 194 countries came together to sign the Paris Agreement, the successor to the Kyoto Protocol. It is a legally binding agreement to prevent the global temperature from increasing more than 2oC from pre-industrial levels, with the ambitious secondary aim of preventing global temperature from rising more than 1.5oC. These numbers might not seem like much, but the climate warming 1.5oC would equate to a roughly 1.5m increase in global sea level, devastating coastal regions. And that’s the good outcome; if we reach the 2oC scenario, sea levels could rise more than 2.7m.
The US, under the Obama administration, signed onto the Paris Agreement, pledging to do their part to combat climate change. But Myron Ebell has other ideas. He recently stated that it would be a matter of days before Trump pulls out of the Agreement by executive order, and with Trump’s fondness of them, he might be right. This could be catastrophic; the United States is a massive contributor to greenhouse emissions, and needs to be involved in the global effort to prevent climate disaster if we have any hope of effectively combating it.
To rub salt in the wound, it appears that President Trump is not as ignorant of the impacts of climate change as he wants us to believe. On numerous occasions, his Irish luxury golf course has asked for planning permission to build several meter-high coastal walls, to prevent damage from sea level rise and increasingly intense storms, both impacts of climate change. At the very least, then, the people he employs to manage his estate understand the threats we face, and it’s therefore hard to believe that he is ignorant.
But there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Rex Tillerson, Trump’s Secretary of State has acknowledged the existence of climate change in a recent interview – a surprising step in the right direction, as Rex Tillerson is a former chief executive of oil giant ExxonMobil. Tillerson also believes that the US should stay part of the Paris Agreement, if only for political purposes. President Trump has previously stated in regards to another issue that he would leave some decisions to his cabinet; we’ll just have to hope that, in this regard, he will listen to his Secretary of State. Trump himself appears to be warming to the idea of climate change, admitting in an interview during his electoral campaign that there might be a link between humans and a changing climate, though he appeared sceptical.
So it would appear that the US is trying to throw another road block in the way of a sustainable future. There are outs, however: the gag order on the EPA will expire, and a powerful member of Trump’s cabinet acknowledges the problem, and is pushing for the US to be involved in the potential solution. And if everything works out, a recent study found that we can meet the 2oC scenario within the specified 100 years, preventing catastrophic damage to the environment. All we need is for half of the world’s energy to come from renewable sources by 2070. It’s too early to tell if that goal is too ambitious, but we can say that it would be a damn sight easier if Trump and the USA were on board.