Published 11 November 2016
In a cruel twist of timing, Donald Trump was elected President during the same week that the Paris Climate Agreement came into force, and at the very same time that climate negotiators had assembled in Marrakesh, Morocco, for their annual conference.
As candidate for President, Trump vowed to remove the US from the Paris Agreement. Although certain legalities may provide technical hurdles to an immediate US withdrawal, the de facto reality is that under a Trump administration, the US may as well not be a party to the agreement. Trump is infamously anti-science on climate change, variously describing it as a hoax. Less than a day after the election, Trump advisors announced that a prominent climate skeptic would lead their transition team for the US Environment Protection Agency (EPA), a key tool for implementing President Obama’s executive orders on clean energy. If the Trump administration is true to the sentiments of its campaign, the US Government will take no efforts to reduce national greenhouse gas emissions, and play no constructive role in the international management of this global problem.
Without American leadership, all hope is dashed of capping global temperature rises to within the Paris Agreement benchmarks of 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. As numerous scientists have concluded, early action provides the best likelihood of stabilizing the world’s climate. The commitments ratified through the Paris Agreement were not enough on their own to prevent dangerous climate change, but at least they represented a global common understanding of the problem. We now face a scenario where for four years at least, US inaction will weigh down any sliver of progress. Absence of US engagement with the problem will discourage other countries from making commitments. As a result, the likelihood of runaway temperature increases through the course of this century has increased dramatically.
In the aftermath of the election, professional commentators and armchair psephologists alike pointed to the apparent tectonic-like shifts in voting preferences across the US. These are real, and no doubt important. Yet, if we try to see the election through wider historical and ecological lenses, the demise of the American working class as rusted-on Democrat voters shrinks in significance compared to demises elsewhere that seem to be consequences from the election.
When I think of the rise of President-elect Trump, the fate of the yellow-footed rock wallaby comes to mind. A study published in 2015 that synthesized the results from 131 models concluded that a 2 degrees rise in global temperatures from pre-industrial levels could lead to 5.2% of species on the planet becoming extinct. As suggested above, current political commitment to emission reductions suggest little prospect for meeting a target of 2 degrees. A more likely scenario is for global temperatures to increase by at least 3 degrees, at which point approximately 8% of species are forecast to become extinct.
The yellow-footed rock wallaby is high on the list of species prone to extinction from climate change. This wallaby species currently can be found in semi-arid rocky environments in places like the Flinders Ranges of South Australia. Increased temperatures will alter its habitat, along with the ancillary effects of increased bushfire propensity. At the other end of the country, in north Queensland, the effects of higher temperatures and shifts to rainfall patterns endanger the wet tropical mountainous habitats upon which Lumholtz’s tree kangaroo depends. And of course, beyond these iconic marsupial species, climate change will threaten the survival of frogs, reptiles and invertebrates too numerous to list.
As I watched the election results unfold, the ‘gasp’ moment was when results trickled in from Michigan. In the months before polling day, the state was a taken-for-granted part of the Democrats’ ‘firewall’. But in the last days of the campaign, Candidate Clinton rushed to the state presumably on advice that her support there was soft. By the end of the count, Michigan had moved decisively from the Democrat to the Republican electoral column. All the talk was how this state symbolized the Clinton campaign’s failure to attract working class votes.
Michigan’s fate over the past century has been bound inextricably with the car industry. Detroit rose and more recently fell in line with the prospects of American auto manufacturers. Unemployed auto workers and their families are rightly angry at their collapse of their industrial base. The refrain of ‘Make America Great Again’ seems to hanker for a wishful revival of those prospects, built behind a great new set of tariffs. The solution is seen to rest in a simulacrum of the past, not in a restructured future.
Yet Michigan has other symbolic importance. The unchecked rise of a car-based society over the past century represents, perhaps more than any other symbol, our collective devil-may-care approach to the environmental consequences of human action. The transport sector contributes approximately 15% of greenhouse gas emissions at a global level, and over 30% of American emissions. The creation of the American (and Australian) dream of low-density suburbanized, car-based living only made sense if the resulting pollutants from that lifestyle weren’t taxed. There is no prospect for enclosing those negative environmental externalities within our economic system within Trump’s nostalgic economic program of ‘emissions-as-usual’.
Perhaps when future historians trawl over the effects of the 2016 Presidential campaign, the changing political affinities of the American working class will be a footnote, against the headline effects of how it affected the fate of the planet.
University of Sydney
Photo: Trish Hartmann ‘Follow Yellow-footed Rock Wallaby at Lowry Park Zoo’ Flickrcommons