Two years ago, in the wake of the 2016 election, we wrote that if the newly elected president executed his misguided ideas on climate and energy policy, not only would it be disastrous for climate, it would actually undermine Trump’s ability to achieve his own primary goals. Regrettably, our predictions are coming to pass.
Trump’s policies have left us careening down the CO2 highway—a road that leads to a climate hotter than humans have ever experienced, and one filled with unnatural disasters. We’ve been afforded a stark preview of that future in recent years. But we have choices. There’s an exit ramp just ahead that can help us avoid the worst outcomes.
The world’s nations agreed in Paris in 2015 to take this exit, aimed at keeping global temperature rise from exceeding 2°C (3.6°F), and each country determined the emissions cuts it pledged to put us on that path. The Trump administration has erected a roadblock on that exit ramp, announcing its intent to withdraw from the agreement. It has ignored all the signposts and warnings. (And it has been dishonest about the terms of that agreement, falsely contending that other countries imposed our emissions reductions on us, and were not doing their part.)
It is essential that we exit now, because the longer we speed headlong down the CO2 highway, the more abrupt the turn we’ll need to make to exit. So there is great urgency in taking the actions necessary to safely execute the turn—that is, reducing carbon emissions through a rapid transition to a clean energy economy. We have clear guidance as to what is required. If we are to avoid ever more dangerous interference with our global climate, we must halve global CO2 emissions by 2030 and achieve net zero CO2 emissions by 2050, according to a recent special report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Unfortunately, the policies of the Trump administration impede that goal, accelerating us ever faster down this dangerous road.
Through both words and deeds, this administration has done everything it can to dismantle climate protections. Donald Trump says he wants “great climate,” but is rolling back methane rules, weakening efficiency standards on new cars and trucks, working to deregulate coal by repealing the Clean Power Plan, and opening up much of America’s coastline to offshore oil drilling as part of its effort to maximize U.S. fossil fuel-extraction.
And just last week, the Trump administration engaged in a blatant attempt to bury the reality of how global warming is affecting our lives now, pushing up the release of the congressionally-mandated National Climate Assessment report to Black Friday when few would presumably be paying attention. Fortunately, the effort to suppress the report appears to have backfired. The spectacle of Trump trying to bury a critical climate report produced under the imprimatur of his own administration may have ended up garnering even more media attention than it otherwise would have (one of us—Michael Mann—alone did two interviews for CNN, two for MSNBC, three for the BBC, and another for NPR.)
A key message of this report is that climate change is already having serious economic consequences, including damage to our health, infrastructure, water supplies, and agriculture. It reveals that we stand to lose much more as extreme weather, sea-level rise, and other impacts result in enormous human and economic costs. When asked about the devastating economic impacts projected by this report, the president simply said, “I don’t believe it.” This is certainly not the first time Trump and members of his cabinet have denied climate science though the facts are clear that burning fossil fuels is driving warming.
Donald Trump and the fossil fuel special interests that he represents prefer to talk about the supposed cost of action, as if acting to avert climate catastrophe would damage the economy. But the truth is that the cost of inaction now far outweighs the cost of action. This fact was laid bare in this new report. But Trump’s policies are worse than inaction—they are action in the wrong direction. They are keeping us speeding down the CO2 highway, preventing us from taking any of the exits that would reduce the risk of catastrophe.
While the impacts of climate change are a drag on our economy, clean energy, the key solution to the climate challenge, is the engine that can fuel economic growth. Jobs in solar and wind energy are growing rapidly, here and around the world. The clean energy revolution is well under way. Whether we will join that revolution or cling to the energy of the past, as Trump advocates, is something the American people will ultimately determine.
While we are already experiencing the impacts of climate change now, there is still time to avoid the worst, if we act decisively to transition our energy system off fossil fuels. Some have asked what it will take to move Americans to demand action on climate from our government. We have certainly had a fire lit under us—unprecedented fires—along with unprecedented hurricanes, droughts, coastal flooding, and other climate-related woes. Will we finally demand that our leaders listen to their own scientific agencies and move us rapidly toward the clean energy future that can save us, and our children, from climate catastrophe? Now is our moment.
Michael E. Mann is Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric Science at Pennsylvania State University. His most recent book, with Tom Toles, is The Madhouse Effect : How Climate Change Denial Is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics, and Driving Us Crazy (Columbia University Press, 2016).
Susan J. Hassol is the Director of Climate Communication LLC. She authored (Un)Natural Disasters: Communicating Linkages Between Extreme Events and Climate Change in the World Meteorological Organization Bulletin and delivered ClimateTalk: Science and Solutions at TEDx.
The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own.
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