It would be fair to say that Trump is not a true believer when it comes to climate change. The new president-elect once tweeted ‘The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive,’ although he later claimed that was a joke. But as climate was never the most prominent issue on the campaign, the future for American energy under President Trump is murky. Here is how the global state of play looks for the next four years.

How stands the Republican Party?

Trump’s remarks are not an outlier in Republican Party thinking. Defeated Republican presidential candidate and prospective Trump cabinet member, Gov. Chris Christie claimed recently that climate change was ‘not a crisis,’ although he did concede that he was not ‘relying on any scientists’ for his ‘feeling’. Current Republican thinking seems to rest, somewhat precariously, upon the climate views of President George W Bush – whether from a disavowal of the Kyoto Protocol or his politicisation of climate science – all of which did much to undermine efforts to tackle global warming.

(It is interesting to contrast W’s stance with that of his dad, Bush 41, and indeed of Reagan administration officials. Recently released memos disclose a very different approach to climate change. The confidential documents reveal a White House concerned by the ‘profound consequences’ of climate change, and call for ‘US leadership,’ declaring that the country ‘cannot wait’ until all scientific questions are resolved before taking action).

Trump digs coal

At the Republican convention in Cleveland, amongst the various banners, there were enough placards stating ‘Trump Digs Coal,’ to suggest a Trump victory would herald a fundamental shift in US energy and climate change policy. It is worth noting though that President Obama too indulged in a pro-coal stance pre his own election, albeit wrapped in the necessity of Carbon Capture & Storage:

‘This is America. We figured out how to put a man on the moon in 10 years. You can’t tell me we can’t figure out how to burn coal that we mine right here in the United States of America and make it work.’

Perhaps not too surprising from a Senator who hailed from a major coal state. However, despite Obama’s clean coal rhetoric and entreaties, Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) remains broadly unaffordable. Trump’s warm embrace of coal owes little to CCS and everything to winning the US ‘rust belt’. That being said, so did Obama’s epiphany.

US climate leadership

Both before and during the Paris Climate Change talks, the US cemented its position as the leading member of the High Ambition Coalition. The pre-Paris announcement that the US and China had brokered a bilateral agreement ratcheted up the Paris ambition. The common approach post-Paris, including a co-ordinated Sino-American ratification on 3 September, did much to confound observers and maintained momentum. The Paris Accord became law on 4 November 2016.

Flush from success abroad, President Obama’s endeavours to reduce emissions at home ran foul of the US Supreme Court, when in an unprecedented decision, the court ruled against his Clean Power Plan. I wrote on the issue back in February 2016, and indulged in a spot of crystal ball gazing:

‘If Congress remains in the hands of the Republican Party, and the Presidency too falls to the Republicans, and the incoming Republican President nominates a Republican-leaning Supreme Court Justice to replace the late Antonin Scalia the prospects for the Clean Power Plan do not look rosy.’

Well, here we are.

US Secretary of State John Kerry is in Marrakech today. It is unlikely that he will be greeted by quite the same fanfare that would otherwise have heralded his entrance.

Trump and Paris

Donald Trump does not like the Paris Accord. Back in May, he said that he would ‘cancel’ it, declaring the accord ‘bad for US business’ allowing ‘foreign bureaucrats control over how much energy we use’. Confronted by the challenge of cancellation, Trump then spoke of ‘withdrawal’ and later still of ‘renegotiation’. Whilst the method of a Trump administration’s disengagement may not be clear, the direction of travel certainly is.

What next for Trump and climate change?

Withdrawal from the Paris Accord should take four years, according to its drafters. However, if the US simply decided to ditch its commitments either in terms of emissions (to cut CO2 emissions by 26-28 % compared with 2005 levels by 2025) or funding (to provide the $2.5bn it still owes to the Green Climate Fund), it is difficult to see what anyone could do about it. The Accord is now international law, but there is no mechanism for prosecuting or punishing those who fail to live up to their Nationally Determined Commitments (NDCs).

The US could expedite its departure by withdrawing from the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change itself, a procedure that would take only a single year (and would in the by-going bring about the US’s exit from Paris). Trump is no fan of the UN of the UNFCCC (despite the fact that it was ratified under Bush 41). He is on record as stating that he would withdraw all funding from the UNFCCC and redirect the monies to infrastructure projects.

The fact that President Obama ratified the Paris accord without recourse to a vote in Congress actually empowers President Trump to act by ‘executive agreement’. Although Republican lawmakers are currently fighting a rear-guard action over their exclusion from the ratification process – seventeen senators recently wrote to John Kerry on this very point – the precedent has been set, and there is little doubt that President Trump will utilise it.

Further, now the future of Obama’s Clean Power Plan rests in the hands of President Trump and his appointee to the Supreme Court, its implementation all but certain to be arrested.

Will we always have Paris?

The US is the second biggest emitter of carbon in the world. It is the globe’s most significant economy. If a Trump administration disavows Obama’s climate change commitments and fails to release funds to the Green Climate Fund, the world will struggle to meet the Paris targets (bearing in mind that even under Obama’s leadership the globe is already off course by of 1oC).

The loss of American leadership would be keenly felt. It is debatable whether Paris could have been realised without the US.

Finally in a globally competitive world, were America to absent itself from the climate accord, and so reduce or avoid the additional costs that accrue from implementation, it is unlikely that other such powers would stand idly by. In such a climate there is every possibility that climate ambition will be sacrificed just to keep skin in the game.

That is not to say that other states would abandon Paris. There are after all 107 signatures on the Paris Accord. They do, of course, collectively account for only a fraction of emissions. (Only 10 nations – if you include the EU as a single entity – account for three-quarters of global emissions, the US alone weighing in at 16%). There are other drivers of decarbonisation, not least air quality which so troubles China and India, but there is little doubt that the loss of concerted action – a global approach – and the trust which underpins it would have a marked impact upon the globe’s attempts to wrestle with the challenge.

The Donald is a business man

The green industries championed by President Obama and others are worth billions to the US economy.  Last year the US invested $44.1bn in renewables. Trump’s victory threw global markets into turmoil, with renewable companies amongst the most affected: Vestas Wind Systems lost almost 20% of its value in the days following Trump’s success. Is Trump ready to abandon this sector of the economy, worth so much? Perhaps the question is, does it draw upon a constituency necessary to Trump and his ambitions? Does the industry fall in a blue state or a red state?

Obama’s gas bridge – utilising unconventional hydrocarbons released by fracking – has reduced significantly carbon emissions although it still a prolongation of the fossil fuel use. At the beginning of his presidency the opportunities afforded by fracking – both the emission reduction and also, perhaps more importantly, the foundation upon which to build a global climate leadership – were but a distant prospect. Events and opportunities, sensibly managed, granted to President Obama an extraordinary opportunity.  Will President Trump be so blessed? Could this be the moment when Carbon Capture & Storage comes into its own? Or is that just clutching at climate change straws?

If The Donald can see a business case, then perhaps there are prospects for green energies. Exactly how they sit alongside traditional fossil fuel extraction and the industries that depend upon them remains to be seen. We shall find out in 65 days.

The last word

From a different era, here is George H W Bush on global warming:

‘The United States will continue its efforts to improve our understanding of climate change – to seek hard data, accurate models, and new ways to improve the science – and determine how best to meet these tremendous challenges.’


Ian Duncan is an MEP and a member of the European Parliaments’s Environment, Public Health and Food Committee. He is the European Parliament rapporteur on the Emissions Trading Scheme, the EU’s flagship policy to tackle climate change.