What the Future Looks Like with a Climate Change Denier in the White House

Short answer: It looks bad. But what's the long answer?

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Nov 10 2016, 8:50pm

This guy is going to be the president. Photo by Mark Lyons/Getty Images

This guy is going to be the president. Photo by Mark Lyons/Getty Images

Like nearly all Republicans, President-Elect Donald Trump has no interest in fighting climate change. He has floated the idea of abolishing the Environmental Protection Agency; a fellow climate change denier is running his EPA transition team. Trump has suggested that an actual fracker—oil and gas kingpin Harold Hamm—will be in his cabinet. He has vowed to withdraw the US from the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement. And at some point in his first 100 days, he plans to pull funding for anything related to climate change.

For climate activist and author Bill McKibben, the Trump administration looks like it will be, at best, "a completely wasted four years, on an Earth where we do not have any presidential terms to waste." But since the issue is "driven by physics, more than politics in the end," activism can't slow down, McKibben told me.

Even if the new president were Looten Plunder, arch nemesis of Captain Planet, environmentalists would be pushing him to enact reforms, even if he just cackled maniacally in their faces. McKibben said even the "slow incrementalism" of a Hillary Clinton administration would have been an obstacle, and the job of activists would have been to "push her to do much more, and fast." By contrast, Trump's policy proposals give climate activists essentially nothing to work with.

So if Trump simply refuses to even acknowledge that the world is getting hotter because of human activity, what will the next four years of environmentalist politics look like?

According to Tom Steyer, the Silicon Valley billionaire hedge fund manager and environmentalist noted for spending more money than any other donor this election, that's the question everyone will be asking this month in Marrakech, Morocco. That's where Paris Agreement signatory countries are scheduled to carry on negotiating new ways to combat climate change this month during their first international meeting. But Steyer is already pessimistic. "I have no idea how you proceed when the most powerful nation in the [world] has decided they don't believe in science," he told me.

Steyer's organization, NextGen Climate, focused on get-out-the-vote efforts and preaching environmentalism during the campaign. His message, he feels, worked on voters—but maybe only voters in his own backyard. California as a whole, along with several towns, passed some environmentalist initiatives, including taxes on plastic bags. But sadly for Steyer, the country as a whole was not energized around climate issues.

"This was a political failure," Steyer told me. "No question about it."

His side's bruising defeat has left him with no choice than to start from square one: "Get the information. Think it through. Come up with a plan. And then execute it. And that's what we're in the process of doing," he told me.

Steyer waved away pessimism about the environment on the whole, however. "The technology is already winning, and it's only gonna win by more going forth," he said.

On fine-grained questions of energy policy, Trump—as he is on a lot of issues—is pretty vague. At a Pennsylvania rally in August, Trump said he hates wind power because it kills birds and said he loves solar but dismissed it as too expensive.

What Trump really loves is coal, which is the single biggest polluter in the US, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

But Trump—lest we ever forget for a second—thinks of himself as a dealmaker, and while he expressed doubts about solar power's return on investment in his Pennsylvania speech, solar generating stations become a better and better bargain every day. "The price of solar panels has fallen 80 percent in the last eight years," McKibben said, "so it's a very different equation than it has been in the past." He added that the next president will be the "first president to take office in a world where renewable energy is cheap."

Steyer was even more optimistic. "It's not a question of whether we win. We're gonna win," he said. "The question is how much damage is gonna be done beforehand."

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