Trump 2.0: The climate cannot survive another Trump term
This op-ed is part of a series exploring what a second term would look like for either President Biden or former President Trump.
Back in the home stretch of the 2020 presidential election, I stated that a second Trump term would be “game over for the climate.” That hasn’t changed in the years since. In fact, it’s become even more true.
We are three years further down the carbon emissions highway, and the devastating consequences of the 1C (1.8F) warming we have already caused are now apparent in the form of unprecedented dangerous, damaging and deadly extreme weather events. As yet, we have not taken the exit ramp needed to avoid a far worse planetary warming of 1.5C (3F).
Yes, real progress has been made during the Biden era, with “staggering” green energy growth nearly on track to reach the needed reductions in carbon emissions in the power generation sector. But power generation is only a slice of the carbon emissions pie, responsible for about one-fifth of total carbon emissions. The rest comes from transportation, industry, agriculture and buildings. And collectively, we are not meeting the targets, including a 50 percent reduction in worldwide carbon emissions by 2030 and zero emissions by 2050, required to limit warming to 1.5C/3F.
There is, once again, some good news. The COP26 international climate summit of 2021 in Glasgow yielded enough progress to limit warming below 2C (3.6F) if all pledges are met and met on time.
Promises are nice. But they must be kept. And they have not been as yet.
What is needed for further progress? For one, developing countries must also agree to ramp down emissions — a last-minute holdout by India was an obstacle to a more aggressive agreement at COP26. But diplomacy and leadership by the U.S. is required to make that happen.
Consider what happened during the Obama era. Stymied by Republicans in Congress, President Obama nonetheless used his executive authority to promote incentives for renewable energy and tighter emissions restrictions on polluters, bringing China to the table and achieving a bilateral agreement that set the stage for the successful Paris summit. China ended up exceeding its commitments and began decommissioning coal-fired power plants.
But that all came to an abrupt halt with Trump. When he was elected, he turned over the reins of our government to fossil fuel interests and promised — and eventually made good on — a unilateral pullout from the Paris climate agreement. That signaled to other countries, like China and India, that the U.S. was no longer willing to keep up its end of the bargain, and in turn, they slacked off in their own efforts.
It is clear that the U.S. must lead — and that when we do, other nations join us.
What does leadership mean here? As the world’s largest cumulative carbon polluter, an average effort won’t cut it. We have an obligation to achieve something closer to 60 percent reductions in emissions by 2030. The climate provisions of the Inflation Reduction Act, if fully implemented — and not blocked by GOP-stacked courts — get us only partly there (around 40 percent). We will need further climate legislation — and a president and Congress willing to pass it.
Leadership also means helping out other nations that have had a far lesser role in creating the climate crisis and are already suffering the consequences. While the 2022 COP27 summit in Sharm El-Sheikh was disappointing from the standpoint of decarbonization, it did pave the way for progress at COP28 next month in Dubai by establishing a historic loss and damage fund.
Critical to getting countries like India to do more is getting industrial nations, like the U.S., to provide funding and assistance to poorer nations to help them both deal with the devastating consequences they are already experiencing and to encourage them to leapfrog past fossil fuels to clean energy as they seek economic development. That’s what the “loss and damage” agreement does, and it could lead to a greater willingness by India and other developing countries to ramp up their own commitments to decarbonization.
All of this progress is in jeopardy, however, if Trump wins the presidency again, particularly if Republicans hold or, worse, expand their control of Congress. Congressional Republicans have already indicated their intent to eliminate loss and damage funds. And this speaks to an even larger problem. While we have seen renewed leadership on climate by the Biden administration, other nations are wary of what a second Trump presidency could portend, particularly on climate where they fear he will refuse to honor our commitments to the rest of the world and derail four years of progress on climate.
The GOP has threatened to weaponize a potential second Trump term against domestic climate action. In the event they also keep the House of Representatives and retake the U.S. Senate, they will fast-track the most climate-averse policy agenda in the history of our nation to be signed into law by Trump.
Republicans have already written a climate plan for a prospective second Trump term with the innocuous title “Project 2025.” This radical plan would block efforts underway to scale up renewable energy and create a clean energy grid. It would defund climate programs at the Environmental Protection Agency and clean energy efforts at the Department of Energy. It would also bar other states from adopting California’s clean energy policies and put the fossil fuel industry fox in the environmental henhouse by turning over regulation of polluters to Republican state legislatures.
So, we are truly at a “fragile moment.” Global climate action lies on a knife edge, hinging upon American leadership that is threatened by a prospective Trump second term and a radicalized GOP intent on undermining climate progress both here and abroad.
It is not an overstatement to say, one year out, that we face an American election unlike any other. It will determine not only the course of the American experiment but the path that civilization collectively follows. On the left is democracy and environmental stewardship. On the right is fascism and planetary devastation. Choose wisely.
Michael E. Mann is presidential distinguished professor and director of the Center for Science, Sustainability and the Media at The University of Pennsylvania. He is author of the new book “Our Fragile Moment: How Lessons from Earth’s Past Can Help Us Survive the Climate Crisis.