Interestingly and coincidentally, Donald Trump was sworn in as the new US president the same week that two leading US science agencies jointly declared that last year was the hottest year on record. Considering that this is the third consecutive year that soaring temperatures have surpassed the previous year’s record, it may give the new president some food for thought about the possibility of the existence of climate change.
Trump infamously called the phenomenon of climate change a Chinese hoax, tweeting that “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive.” This tweet could have been ignored as just another Trumpesque outburst, intended to score a political point by mixing ignorance with belligerence. It is, however, difficult to let this slide as he assumes office as the leader of one of the countries, with China being the other, of the two biggest polluters on planet earth.
Making things worse in his first hours in charge, the White House website announced that the new president is planning to eliminate Barack Obama’s Climate Action Plan. It was almost an instant declaration of war on any sensible approach to countering climate change.
Among his last-ditch attempts to secure his legacy in the White House, President Obama in tandem with China, formally ratified the Paris climate change agreement back in September of last year. The agreement sets out a global action plan to put the world on track to avoiding dangerous climate change by limiting global warming to well below 2°C, as compared to the temperature level in pre-industrial times. From the outset, joining the agreement was on a voluntary basis, with the expectation of all 194 signatory states ratifying it.
Since December 2015 when a consensus was reached on the treaty, even before the US and China ratified the agreement, it had already been ratified by 73 nations. These nations account for more than 57 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emission, and by doing so met the minimum threshold to activate this agreement.
Among those who adopted the agreement were the European Union, Canada and India. Though by now 124 parties have ratified it, any change in US policy under the new administration would put it under severe risk, potentially nullifying it.
Burning fossil fuels is not the only way to maintain economic development. On the contrary, it is bound to lead to the destruction of humanityYossi Mekelberg
Climate change denials
Those who dismiss the existence of climate change out of hand, or question who is responsible for it and its long term implications, do it out either due to being uniformed or because they have vested economic and political interests in denying it.
Some flatly refute that climate change, or global warming exist at all, while others deny that humans’ behavior is heavily contributing to it. Those who take either of these views put their cognitive dissonance on overdrive. After all, there is a wide consensus within the scientific community that climate change is real and is the result of our daily habits.
The official journal of the US National Academy of Sciences published a survey comprised of 1372 of the leading climate researchers, 92 percent of whom concluded that “greenhouse gases have been responsible for “most” of the “unequivocal” warming of the Earth's average global temperature over the second half of the 20th century.”
Moreover, their scientific research led to an additional broad agreement that human activity is contributing to this change. Unless all these scientists collaborated with China in an elaborated hoax, there must be very convincing and alarming evidence that without global leadership on climate change the world will face some calamitous consequences.
The average global temperature is currently 1.0ºC higher than it was at the pre-industrial level. Scientists regard an increase of 2°C, compared to the temperature at the pre-industrial level, as the threshold that if crossed would potentially result in catastrophic changes in the global eco-system.
According to NASA, climate change results in a rise in sea level and global temperature, in warming oceans, shrinking ice sheets and extreme events such as hurricanes and tornados. Floods, famine, droughts, extinction of species, decreasing crop yields, sea and river defenses are under threat. This in turn might cause human misery and a wide range of political instability, including mass migration and even armed conflicts.
American way of life
The US is not only one of the biggest consumers of fossil fuels, but also one of the biggest producers of them. Any change in the status quo has far reaching political implications on the American way of life. Their love for cars, preferably with excessive engines, and cheap patrol embodies this. Not many politicians would like to interfere with this way of life and potentially pay a price in the ballot box.
Nevertheless, by avoiding to do so it can only be regarded short-sighted, running away from tough decisions with long term consequences. Recent warnings by scientists provide an opportunity for leaders of all walks of life to change the discourse and highlight not only the dangers of climate change, but also the endless opportunity to move to greener more environmentally friendly sources of energy.
Burning fossil fuels is not the only way to maintain economic development. On the contrary, it is bound to lead to the destruction of humanity. The alternative is not to return to the pre-industrial revolution, but to start a new revolution in which human ingenuity is mobilised full steam ahead to develop clean energy and a low carbon infrastructure.
Lord Nicholas Stern from the London School of Economics said this week that “There is no long-term, high carbon, growth story, because destruction of the environment would reverse growth.”
Much of the knowhow required to lead this new revolution exists in the United States, but not only there. Trump’s version of making America great again is through protectionism and isolationism, which will achieve the exact opposite. It is actually the danger posed by climate change that requires global collaboration, a meeting of minds and souls, and the mobilisation of science and resources from all corners of the world to reverse it before it becomes too late.
Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.