A year in office

What has one year of Donald Trump’s presidency done for the fight against climate change?
Photo by White House / Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

January 20th 2018 marked the one-year anniversary of Donald Trump’s inauguration as the 45th president of the United States. He was already known for his opposition to climate change after tweeting in 2012 that “the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”

In January 2017, within moments of Trump’s inauguration, the official White House website deleted nearly all mentions of climate change. This became a continuing trend throughout the year, with several government agencies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), changing their web content about climate change either by replacing the phrase with words like “sustainability” or “resiliency” or removing the webpages entirely. By rejecting the term “climate change” in official governmental channels so early on in his presidency, Trump made very clear his intentions to undermine U.S. climate policy progress over the coming years.

New faces in Washington

Two known climate-change denialists have been appointed to important political positions under the Trump administration. Former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson was confirmed as secretary of state in February. Under the leadership of Tillerson, the company continued its long record of funding climate denial. And then in March, Scott Pruitt was confirmed as the head of the EPA, a notable climate change denialist with close relationships to oil and gas companies.

Controversy in North America

The pipelines for Alberta’s oil sands and the North Dakota shale oil fields dominated headlines in 2017. Former President Obama had previously rejected the project in late 2015, but a permit for the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline was granted in March, connecting refineries in Texas to Alberta’s oil sands, some of the most carbon-heavy fuels in the world. In addition, the Dakota Access Pipeline is planned to connect North Dakota’s shale oil fields with pipeline networks in Illinois and would run through Native American community land.

In May, President Trump’s proposed 2018 budget, ‘A New Foundation for American Greatness’, was sent to Congress, calling for massive cuts to scientific research and many environmental programs. The Environmental Protection Agency received the steepest budget cut at 31%. Most of the reductions were concentrated in programmes that study pollution and environmental toxins, and write and enforce rules to protect public health.

On the global stage

With June came the announcement that President Trump would withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Climate Accord in 2020. There are 194 other nations who have signed up to the 2015 global agreement for environmental action to combat Earth’s rising temperatures. As part of the accord, the U.S. had agreed to cut its emissions between 26 and 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, which had particular resonance given that it is Earth’s second-largest polluting country.

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Another major policy change came when the EPA announced in October that Scott Pruitt had signed a measure to repeal the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan. The plan aimed to curb greenhouse gas emissions from power plants by pushing states to move away from coal in favour of sources of electricity that produce fewer carbon emissions.

By the end of 2017, President Trump announced that the U.S. would no longer regard climate change by name as a national security threat, in contrast to 2015 when it was described under the Obama administration as “an urgent and growing threat to our national security”. The Trump administration made clear with this statement that it no longer acknowledges the exacerbating factor that climate change can play in conflict situations and the threat it poses to coastal communities and their livelihoods. Notably, in Trump’s State Of The Union Address on January 30th, 2018, there was no mention of climate change, reflecting further how the issue has been demoted in priority since Trump’s presidency began.  

Urgent climate action and the year 2020

President Trump has indeed remained resolute in his disdain for the concept of climate change and the science behind it. However, his presidency also comes at a particularly time-sensitive moment in the fight against climate change. According to a 2017 report, the year 2020 is critically important when it comes to climate change. Should emissions continue to rise beyond 2020, or even remain level, the temperature goals set in Paris become almost impossible to attain.

On June 28 2017, in an open letter, six prominent scientists and diplomats, including former UN climate chief Christiana Figueres and physicist Stefan Rahmstorf, also emphasised that the world has approximately three years before the worst effects of climate change take hold. These effects include frequent flooding and unpredictable weather events which could devastate life on the coasts, where a large majority of people live. If emissions can be permanently lowered by 2020, global temperatures will likely avoid reaching an irreversible threshold.

With this crucial time period upon us now, the U.S. will have to rely heavily on its cities, states, companies, civil society organisations, and citizens to make sure that the US stays on track with its climate commitments. With the U.S. midterm elections for seats in the House of Representatives and Senate coming in November 2018, for the sake of the U.S. environment and the world’s fight against climate change, the results will need to show more climate-sympathetic politicians winning seats to counteract the country’s current lack of climate-leadership at the top.

Isobel Edwards

Isobel has a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Science and a master’s degree in Emerging Economies and Inclusive Development with a focus on gender from King’s College London. She has worked in various areas of international development including cooperation and development for the EU in China, peacebuilding and statebuilding for the OECD and in environmental affairs for the UN, both in Paris. She now works in Geneva mainly on UN affairs relating to peacebuilding and the prevention of violent conflict, the human impacts of climate change and food and sustainability.
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