By Philip Hainbach. Australian German Climate and Energy College
When US citizens vote they will be having a say in the ecological fate of our planet.
It is therefore concerning that this presidential election has barely focussed on climate change, especially given that the candidates’ positions could not be more different.
Trump’s “expensive hoax”
Donald Trump runs his campaign in denial of overwhelming scientific evidence, dismissing climate change as an “expensive hoax invented by China”. Although he denies ever saying this, it is easy to find evidence to the contrary in the internet, especially in Trump’s tweet history and transcripts of TV interviews.
Trump’s campaign webpage does not include any particular heading or policy reference to environmental or climate change issues. However, we can start to understand Trump’s position on climate policy by looking to his campaign speeches.
In his single major speech on energy policy in North Dakota, Trump announced plans to dismantle the COP21 Paris Climate Agreement. An agreement that is celebrated globally for its success in building internationally hard to achieve consensus on cutting greenhouse gas emissions. In force since 4 November 2016, the Paris Agreement is heralded as a global climate policy success, a milestone in the long road to climate sustainability.
In this light, Trump’s position is concerning. Could a President Trump withdraw unilaterally from international agreements without approval by the Senate or Congress?
Views of legal scholars on this issue differ somewhat. The Paris Climate Deal is considered to be a non-binding political agreement. It did not require Senate or Congress approval to enter into force. As a result, it seems unlikely that these bodies would need to be consulted for the US to withdraw. Regardless, the political signal sent by Trump’s statement could have rippled effects to other nations.
Trump also announced his intention to repeal President Obama’s Clean Power Plan. This Plan aims to cut carbon emissions from existing power plants 30% by 2030. Trump claims that “this Obama-Clinton directive will shut down most, if not all, coal-powered electricity plants in America”.
This offers some insight into Trump’s likely energy policy plans: to maintain focus on fossil fuels with no “unwarranted restrictions on new drilling technologies” such as fracking. In short, Trump’s campaign is based on classic republican pro-business ideology and opposes environmental-friendly regulation that may harm US industry.
Clinton’s “urgent threat”
In contrast, Hillary Clinton mentions “climate change” and “protecting animals and wildlife” as two major concerns on her webpage.
She defines climate change as an “urgent threat” to “our economy, our national security and our children’s health and futures”.
Her different approach to the topic is clear in her response to ScienceDebate, where she plainly stated that “when it comes to climate change, the science is crystal clear … [it is] … a defining challenge of our time and its impacts are already being felt at home and around the world.”
In contrast to Trump’s campaign, Clinton’s campaign includes a comprehensive package of policies aimed at curbing climate change.
Clinton proposes to generate sufficient renewable energy to power every American home from clean sources with 500 million solar panels installed by the end of her first term. She promises to cut energy waste through efficiency gains in the US manufacturing sector. She plans to reduce American oil consumption by one third. She also wants to cut methane emissions across the whole economy; reduce carbon dioxide emissions 80% by 2050; and cut wasteful tax subsidies for oil and gas companies. She has said that she will prioritise investments into clean energy infrastructure, innovation, manufacturing and workforce development.
Party divides persist
The very different positions adopted by Clinton and Trump do not come as a surprise. Research from the Pew Research Center shows that Trump supporters are by far much less concerned about climate change than Clinton supporters. Only 15% of Trump supporters said to care a great deal about the issue of global climate change compared to 56% of Clinton supporters.
The political reality is that to win an election candidates need to be sensitive to and willing to respond to the beliefs of its support base.
Another central issue in most elections is employment through job protection and job creation. Both candidates have therefore linked their climate and energy policy stances to the promise of jobs. The simple difference is that Trump wants to protect jobs in the existing coal paradigm, within mines and power plants; whereas Clinton wants to create new high-skilled jobs in transitioning to a cleaner energy world.
Whether Clinton’s push for ambitious climate policies is a reflection of her true environmentalism or rather an attempt to attract left-leaning voters from the former ‘Bernie Sanders’ camp remains unclear. Sanders, successfully campaigned on a strong ecological platform with an aggressive position against all fracking and nuclear power in the US. This may have set a new baseline for Democratic environmental values in this election.
We might need to look to China for leadership
Climate change does not respect borders. It is not an internal US matter. It is a global collective action problem requiring worldwide cooperation to develop global mitigation strategies. While Trump denies the existence of climate change, glaciers continue to melt, sea levels continue to rise and extreme weather patterns such as severe thunderstorms and heat waves become more frequent.
Addressing global warming is not possible without the US, the world’s second biggest emitter of greenhouse gases. Even Clinton’s promised 80% emissions cut by 2050 is insufficient if we are to win this global battle.
Perhaps it’s therefore time to do what was unthinkable a couple of years ago: looking to China for leadership in fighting global climate change.