Let’s say Donald Trump wins the election in 2020. There’s no doubt some climate advocates will try to put an optimistic spin on it—just like they did when he first won in 2016. Renewable energy is getting cheaper all the time, they’ll argue. Investors are moving rapidly away from fossil fuels. The European Union and China are stepping up to solve the emergency. And so are U.S. states and cities. Young people are becoming a political force to be reckoned with.
All of this was true four years ago, and will continue to be accurate if Trump begins a second term. But none of it will change a horrifying reality: a re-elected and emboldened Trump would likely destroy the world’s best-case outcome on climate change, and potentially send us hurtling towards a worst-case scenario. His second term could result in global temperatures roaring past 1.5 degrees Celsius, the danger line identified in the devastating United Nations climate report from 2018, beyond which forests, croplands, freshwater sources and other natural systems that support human life could be irreversibly transformed. We would also likely surpass 2 degrees, the target the world’s nations agreed to in 2015 at Paris, raising the odds of catastrophic tipping points like the melting of all Arctic sea ice.
Trump's reelection dramatically increases these risks not only because of the massive additional emissions his fossil fuel-boosting policies could cause—potentially as much as 3.1 gigatons by 2035, which is over four times the entire annual carbon footprint of Canada. A second Trump term could also mean that one by one, countries drop out of the Paris agreement, possibly causing it to unravel completely. In this scenario, keeping temperature rise below 2 degrees would be extremely difficult. “I would say it would make [achieving] it impossible,” said Noah Sachs, a University of Richmond environmental law professor who described in a paper last year what Paris self-destructing could look like. “If Paris fell apart, we would blow right by that target.”
That would mean that virtually all the planet’s coral reefs will bleach a sickly white. The world will lose more than 155,000 square miles of coastal wetlands and drylands. The number of people unable to access reliable drinking water could double. Hundreds of millions won’t have enough nutritious food to eat.
And Trump, who turns 74 this June, likely won’t even be around to see it happen.
The world is on the cusp of climate disaster
Global temperature rise above 2 degrees wouldn't mean the imminent collapse of civilization. Nor would it mean the world should give up on cutting emissions. We’re already facing monumental disasters like the Australian bushfires, and the impacts of climate change will get exponentially more destructive and harder to survive with each increase in global temperature. This will make it worth fighting for carbon reductions, no matter how warm the planet gets.
But above the 2 degrees goal that countries signed up for in the Paris agreement, damage could come at a scale that’s hard to fathom. In a 1.5 degrees scenario the probability of an ice-free Arctic summer is 3 percent in a given year. At 2 degrees that rises to 16 percent. And at 3 degrees it’s 63 percent. Sea-level rise at that scale means cities such as Miami, Osaka, Alexandria and Shanghai could effectively cease to exist. Meanwhile, there could be disasters like 97 percent of wildfire-sensitive regions in Mediterranean Europe burning every single summer. The chance of the American West going up in flames could increase by 400 percent.
The Rhodium Group, a New York-based research firm, calculated in December that for humankind to keep warming below 2 degrees, we need to reduce emissions a colossal one-third from current levels by 2030. They identified five crucial things that could get us globally on track toward closing that gap: the European Union adopting a Green New Deal, Brazil halting its destruction of the Amazon Rainforest, China’s economic growth and the emissions it produces slowing to a more sustainable rate, and demand for electricity in India growing only moderately and being met mainly by renewables. The fifth one is Trump losing in 2020.
Trump has already done a significant amount of damage
A re-elected Trump would keep dismantling environmental rules—he's slashed 95 in total so far—that limit fossil fuel companies or other polluters of the atmosphere. And he would make the damage much harder to reverse by continuing to stack the courts with conservative judges who tend to rule on the side of greenhouse gas-spewing corporations.
There already aren’t many years left to reduce emissions on the scale necessary to avoid further devastation. Trump's second term would at the very least be more wasted time. If the U.S. is to have any hope of meeting the 1.5 degrees goal, its emissions need to be reduced 40 or 50 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. But the Trump administration has wiped out Barack Obama–era emissions standards for cars and trucks, allowed oil and gas producers to release all the methane they want and engaged in many other acts of climate destruction. This would leave only six years to close a massive gap after the end of a second Trump term, after which U.S. emissions cuts might only hit 12 to 19 percent, according to the Rhodium group. And that estimate is based only on existing Trump rollbacks.
“If he were elected for an additional four years, it’s very likely that the administration would do more to further erode the progress that the Obama administration made,” said Kate Larsen, a director with Rhodium who leads the group’s international climate and energy research.
The increase in U.S. emissions would be a major global setback, given how rapidly the world’s carbon footprint needs to shrink over the next decade. So would the lack of leadership needed to help other countries meet their national goals.
“If the Trump administration continues its current policies, the multi-gigaton emissions gap that the world will have to close will be much harder,” Larsen said of keeping global temperature rise below 2 degrees. “Without the U.S. there, it’s hard to see how that would happen.”
Trump will send the fossil fuel industry into overdrive
Insofar as Trump has any kind of coherent or consistent ideology guiding his presidency, it’s to do as many favors as possible for the fossil fuel companies who have unprecedented access to his administration. Some observers refer to this as Trump’s “energy dominance” agenda.
“It really emphasizes maximizing U.S. production of oil and gas, maximizing exports of oil and gas and petroleum products,” said David Goldwyn, a former special envoy to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “It means rolling back, or revising, or rescinding regulations, which they perceive as putting costs or time delays on fossil energy production.”
Goldwyn and his colleague Andrea Clabough described the gifts oil and gas companies could receive from a reelected Trump in a paper this January for the Atlantic Council. These gifts include legislation handicapping the ability of states and tribal authorities to oppose fossil fuel projects, doubling down on efforts to open Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, and a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission dominated by Republicans, meaning even less environmental oversight of new oil pipelines or liquefied natural gas terminals. Granting the fossil fuel industry’s wildest wish list is an ongoing project—last week, the administration finalized a policy giving energy companies mining access to 5 million acres of previously federally protected wilderness.
Trump is also locking in the damage further by appointing conservative judges favorable to these rollbacks. These include Brett Kavanaugh, a longtime opponent of climate regulations. Trump’s administration has already appointed 50 federal appeals judges, compared to the 55 Obama appointed during his entire eight-year presidency, a trend that will continue in Trump’s second term as long as Republicans maintain control of the Senate. If those judges make rulings limiting the government's power to fight climate change, future administrations—Democratic or Republican—could have a difficult time reversing the onslaught of climate-destroying regulations during the dwindling years we have left to hit 1.5 or 2 degrees.
“In that respect, the outcome of the election is highly determinative of the future course of [climate and energy] regulation,” Goldwyn explained.
Trump will block the government from fighting climate change
Even with Trump and his fossil fuel executive allies vandalizing the atmosphere until 2024, Goldwyn said the best-case climate scenario of 1.5 degrees is not out of reach. “Regardless of who wins the U.S. election, the investment in technology that will both reduce the cost and increase the volume of greenhouse gas reduction… I think will continue and intensify,” he argued. “That push is going to continue from private companies, from the innovation space in the United States, from our universities, as well as from the Europeans and from China.”
Others aren’t convinced. Though it’s now cheaper to install solar panels or wind turbines than building new coal or natural gas plants in many parts of the world, a trend many analysts expect to continue, technology alone may not be sufficient to solve an emergency. Experts say we need to halt leasing public land to fossil fuel companies, completely change the way we design and build cities, bring in strict laws for protecting carbon-sequestering forests and radically reform the agricultural system. These and other crucial steps require decisions by elected officials and the federal government.
Climate advocates contacted by the Washington Post last year had other suggestions: Federal leaders could expand tax credits for buyers of electric vehicles. Pass a ban on food waste. Give financial aid to farmers for more sustainable crop-growing. More strictly regulate factory farms. Price carbon emissions. Pass a Green New Deal. Even a Democratic president might have trouble doing these things, given the structural barriers in Congress, but Trump won’t even try.
“You hear this view that it really doesn’t matter what governments do—that climate change will be solved by people seeking profit and by looking for profitable opportunities to reduce emissions,” said Sachs from the University of Richmond. “I’m not so optimistic.”
Trump could trigger an international catastrophe
Trump already badly damaged the international effort to fight climate change by announcing withdrawal from the Paris Agreement in 2017—a move especially insulting to the rest of the world because the accords were designed to satisfy U.S. demands. For example, Obama pushed for Paris to be voluntary so he could sign on without approval from the Republican-dominated Senate. But four more years of U.S. absence could be a deathblow. “I predict a scenario of dysfunction and dissension and probably a breakdown of the treaty,” Sachs said.
The agreement as it stands is insufficient. Plans submitted by countries would ideally only limit temperature rise to 2.7 degrees. In theory, countries are supposed to keep increasing their ambition, submitting ever more transformative plans that reduce the odds of climate impacts becoming cataclysmic. But big emitters are already failing to do so, and with Trump reelected countries like China or India might give up on meeting their already more modest goals. This could set off a chain reaction where other big emitters like Australia withdraw, sending the process into disarray and potentially killing Paris altogether. “Such outcomes would be disastrous and threaten the habitability of many parts of the planet,” Sachs writes.
We are already seeing a version of this play out in Brazil, where deforestation of the Amazon rainforest was actually declining in the mid-2000s, but is now accelerating under the far-right presidency of Jair Bolsonaro. “He is largely feeling like he is not beholden to a U.S. president or the international community,” Larsen from the Rhodium Group said. “The signal that a Trump reelection would send about America’s willingness to rejoin the international community on emissions is going to be very important.”
That’s an understatement. If Trump wins in November, the climate is screwed.
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Geoff Dembicki is the author of Are We Screwed? How a New Generation Is Fighting to Survive Climate Change. Follow him on Twitter.