Climate Change 2017: Challenge and Opportunity

Donald Trump’s Achilles Heel

Casting doubt on science
“Nobody really knows if climate change is real,” president-elect Donald Trump declared in an interview with Chris Wallace for Fox News, Sunday, December 11, 2016.

With this declaration, Mr. Trump not only raised the specter of uncertainty about climate science, he also threw cold water on the Marrakech Agreement, an historically unprecedented commitment of 190 nations at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) to rein in planetary warming. The so-called (COP 22) agreement has generated widespread excitement among climate change activists.  Not only does it demonstrate that implementation of the Paris Agreement (COP 21), promulgated a year earlier in December 2015, is well on its way, it also showed that a coalition of diverse nations with different economies, social systems, and environmental interests could unite in a spirit of cooperation to keep the earth’s temperature below 2 degrees Celsius, or preferably even below 1.5 degrees.

Creating uncertainty and skepticism about science is, of course, a strategy straight out of the tobacco industry’s playbook.  In the 1950s and 60s, to undermine efforts to get people to give up cigarettes and keep tobacco profits rolling in, tobacco companies spread uncertainty about the health effects of smoking, particularly in respect to lung cancer and heart disease.  In similar fashion, Mr. Trump and his supporters by casting doubt on the reality of climate change undermine faith in scientific reports showing that the earth’s atmosphere is changing in measurable and deeply troubling ways:  i.e., warming temperatures, sea levels rising, glacial melting, growing acidification of oceans, prolonged droughts, degrading of wild life habitat.

Given both the evidence and the scientific consensus about it, why does Mr. Trump persist in questioning the integrity of science and what are the consequences, for him as president-elect and for America as a world leader in the climate change movement?

Motive for climate change denial
Bill McKibben, founder of, describes “Trumpism” in blunt terms: “One man is preparing to bet the future of the planet in a long-shot wager against physics.” (The Washington Post, 19 Nov. 2016).  Mr. Trump is gambling with the sustainability of what Pope Francis has termed, “Our Common Home”(Pope Francis, Encyclical Letter, On Care For Our Common Home,  Laudato SI’). ”  He is using as collateral precious resources that he does not own and that are not his to put at risk, namely, the well-being, ultimately, even the survival, of all forms of life on earth.

While it is not really possible to know why Mr. Trump chooses to maintain this skeptical stance, it is clear that he frequently changes his mind and likes to hedge his bets. It may be that he, himself, is ambivalent.  Much is being made in the press, for example, of the fact that early in December, Mr. Trump and his daughter, Ivanka, met with Al Gore at the Trump Tower and, conversed in a friendly manner about the dangers of unchecked global warming.  Yet, only a few weeks later with the appointment of Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency, Mr. Trump was authorizing an outspoken adversary of the EPA, a man, who in his position as attorney general of Oklahoma, had sued the agency multiple times and is currently involved with 27 states in a legal battle to overturn President Obama’s clean energy power policy (The Guardian Weekly16.12.16 5).

Aiming more directly at undermining the science on climate-related research, the president-elect has entertained the possibility of cutting federal funding on climate-related satellite research conducted by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) that records from space changes over time on land forms, coastal areas, and Arctic ice masses.

Consequences for American leadership
Clearly, sowing distrust in the science-based reality of climate change has dire consequences for the hopes of the global community to take effective action.   While the United States cannot withdraw immediately from the United Nations (COP 21) and (COP 22), the 109 nations that have signed these agreements have looked to the U.S. for leadership in the Paris and Marrakech conferences.  News that the U.S. president-elect might close down support, whether financial or moral, for the Paris Agreement has cast a shadow over the negotiations in Marrakech, sullied American’s reputation, and isolated our nation from the global community.  But it will not halt the momentum for action created in Marrakech.  In his farewell address as Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki Moon, in strong cadences proclaimed that the Paris Agreement “is unstoppable.”  The signatories, he said, (with the possible exception now of the U.S.), recognize that, without concerted action to suppress fossil fuel emissions, the future of the world will be “tragic.”

Trump and America the Losers
If the U.S. withdraws from the (UNFCC) conference, the participating nations will look elsewhere for leadership.  This is already beginning.  In a celebration, December 9, for Amy Goodman’s Radio Program, Democracy Now, Noam Chomsky (Professor of Linguistics, Emeritus, MIT) reported that America’s allies from Peru to Australia to Japan were turning to China for leadership, not only to address the transition to clean energy, but also to join its trading and financial institutions, such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and the Asian Infrastructure Development Bank as alternatives to the World Bank and the TPP. (Noam Chomsky, “The Threats We Now Face Are the Most Severe in Human History”, Amy Goodman, 09 December 16,

This brief review of the president-elect’s climate change gamble makes it clear that, far from Making America Great Again, Mr. Trump is Making America a Rogue Nation.  More than that, climate change is Mr. Trump’s Achilles Heel.  Continuing to deny climate science is a losing posture.  It will be bad for the reputation of the U.S.; it will be bad for business opportunities which are opening up in the area of clean energy.  The president-elect craves above all to be seen as a “Winner.”  But if he really wants to win, he has to get in step with the path of history.  Clinging to the position that climate change is a Chinese hoax will make Mr. Trump a “Loser” as President, and America, a loser as a leader in the community of nations.

Alice Day

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