Alexandra Cheung interviews Professor Joanna Haigh, Climate Change and the Environment Co-Director at the Grantham Institute, on how the new United States administration’s policies could affect global research and action on climate change and the environment.
Q. What do we know about what US environmental policy may look like under the incoming Trump administration?
A. At this stage all we have to go on are the statements that various member of the administration have made about their plans. Trump himself seems to have gone back on his earlier declaration that the whole climate change issue was invented by the Chinese to scupper the US economy. But he’s still stated that there’s much to be investigated on climate change, suggesting that he’s not at all convinced.
Trump initially promised that the US would withdraw from the United Nations’ landmark Paris Agreement on climate change, under which all countries have agreed to limit their greenhouse gas into the future, but the incoming Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, has now indicated that he believes the US should remain part of the Agreement.
This seems to be a shift towards a ‘lukewarmist’ approach whereby former climate change deniers now acknowledge the existence of global warming, and that human activity might be contributing to it, but downplay the magnitude and emphasise uncertainties.
Trump has furthermore suggested that he will rescind various elements of environmental legislation like the Obama Clean Power Plan (which sets out to cut carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector), and he would probably approve a new 1,900 km oil pipeline which crosses native American reservations. But of course none of that is written in black and white, we’ll have to wait and see.
Q. Technically speaking, could the US pull out of the Paris Agreement?
A. Trump’s position on the Paris Agreement remains unclear, but if he were to go ahead with withdrawing he would face some legal barriers. It seems that it would take four years for any nation to fully pull out of the Paris Agreement. But merely being part of the agreement isn’t the same as actually doing anything to honour your commitments. The US could still go along to all the meetings but essentially do nothing.
Strangely it seems that Trump could pull out of the United Nation Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which is the body that convened the Paris Agreement, in just one year. That would have a far greater impact on how the US is viewed internationally. This might be less likely, however as it could invite a lot of diplomatic action from the other countries
Q. Could other countries compensate by increasing their own emissions cuts?
A. The US is currently responsible for about a fifth of global carbon dioxide emissions, so any complacency on its part would make it much harder for the rest of us to reach global climate targets. At the moment is doesn’t seem that many countries are on track to meet their existing commitments, so hoping that they might do extra is perhaps wishful thinking.
However there are signs that things might go faster as the cost of energy from renewable technologies like solar panels drops, and more and more of our energy comes from sources like wind, and tidal power. We might be able to do better than we planned. But generally speaking, it will already be difficult for countries to meet their own commitments, so expecting them to take on the United States’ as well is a little optimistic.
Q. What could be the effect of withdrawing funding for climate science from federal research institutes like Nasa?
A. The US has made major contributions to climate science over past 40 years and is at forefront of many areas in climate research. Losing this input would be a big hit to the field as a whole. Having said that, there’s good research going on in another countries across the world, which might go some way towards making up for this potential loss.
“So many businesses are beginning to understand that climate change is the biggest risk to the continuity, and their coming together on this issue is a landmark occasion.”
A trickier challenge would be to fill the gap the US would leave in terms of data collection. US scientists, particularly through their satellite projects, supply the global research community with wonderful data on global environmental parameters such as temperature, humidity, concentrations of various gases, cloud cover and wind, which are absolutely fundamental to both weather prediction and understanding climate.
Associated with that is curation of data collated in the past. There are big archives of data, used by scientists across the world for climate change and environmental research. If these data stores were withdrawn that would deliver a huge blow to international research. I’ve heard rumours that people are already carrying out ‘guerrilla archiving’, that is to say transferring large amounts of data onto independent servers.
If there is a scaling back of climate change research in the US it’s possible that the UK and European Union could take on some extra research, but in order to do that they would require extra resources. We can’t do more without more investment. And certainly in UK there has been no suggestion that there will be more funding for science going ahead so I think that’s probably unlikely.
Q. The new US administration’s stance on climate change seems to be a cause for concern, but could it bring about any positive outcomes?
A. If the US drags its feet it might provide a boost to other countries to think they can do more on climate change. After the Kyoto climate change accord was adopted in 1997, both Canada and the US withdrew. But there was a subsequent surge of activity, led by emerging economies, which resulted in a lot more action than might otherwise have been anticipated.
Additionally, the US might leave behind a gap in the market in terms of developing low-carbon technologies and that might spur other countries to take advantage of this opportunity. So many businesses are beginning to understand that climate change is the biggest risk to the continuity, and their coming together on this issue is a landmark occasion. There is also an opportunity for the military wings of governments to work together to prevent climate change impacting so disproportionately on people from war-torn regions.
Source: Grantham Institute and Imperial College London. Article text provided under an Attribution-NonCommercial-Share Alike Creative Commons license.