Obama’s climate legacy: can it survive President Trump?

In the third of our Obama years trilogy, we ask whether the climate gains of the past eight years can last as the Donald takes power

President Obama and his successor Donald Trump brief the media (Pic: Jesusemen Oni/VOA)


As US president, Barack Obama made some headway with climate policies at home and galvanised a more fundamental shift internationally.

As the clock ticks down to Donald Trump’s inauguration, the big question is how durable those climate gains are.

Trump, with a Republican majority in Congress, is threatening to overturn pretty much everything his predecessor fought for. US membership of the Paris Agreement, the clean power plan and overseas climate aid are on the hit list. Assuming he is able to govern – and the bookmakers give him only a 50-50 chance of completing his term – Trump could do some serious damage.

In the weeks since the election, speculation has gone through waves. Fearful inventories of all the ways Trump could undermine progress were followed by expressions of defiance and determination. Optimists declared the green transition was unstoppable; pessimists watched with mounting gloom as Trump appointed an oil chief and climate sceptics to key cabinet roles.

Obama himself urged the president-elect to seize opportunities in clean energy, in the academic journal Science this week. “This should not be a partisan issue,” he insisted. “It is good business and good economics to lead a technological revolution and define market trends.”

Footnotes and all, Obama’s appeal to reason may be seen as a triumph of hope over experience. What evidence is there that twitter-addict Trump reads anything longer than 140 characters? All this positive, conservative-friendly framing of the climate challenge is futile if it doesn’t penetrate Trump’s inner circle.

Institutional inertia

Just as Obama was thwarted in many of his reforms, Trump will face resistance. Membership of green groups has surged since the election. Attorneys general from 15 states have promised to defend the clean power plan. More than 600 multinationals from Starbucks to DuPont called on the incoming president to uphold the Paris Agreement.

A note of disbelief in his voice whenever he talks about Trump, former White House staffer Pete Ogden says the rules and executive orders Obama made are robust. “I am not prepared to let any of it go. These things were not done capriciously, they were done systematically… according to the law and the science.

“It is just not so easy as to say: we don’t believe in any of that stuff. People who want to roll it back are going to have to make some justification for it. And people who care about this issue are going to hold them to account and resist backsliding.”

Retired Exxon Mobil boss Rex Tillerson will be Trump's top diplomat (Screenshot: C-Span)

Retired Exxon Mobil boss Rex Tillerson will be Trump’s top diplomat (Screenshot: C-Span)

On the world stage, Trump’s casual attitude towards global warming is out of step with the consensus. At November’s UN climate talks in Marrakech, 195 governments reaffirmed their commitment to the Paris pact.

Peer pressure might be enough to keep the US in the deal, on paper at least. Exxon Mobil boss Rex Tillerson, Trump’s choice for the State Department, said at his confirmation hearing the US should “maintain its seat at the table”.

“There is no great appetite in the US at all by people to dismantle what we have done internationally,” says Andrew Light, an ex-state department employee now at the World Resources Institute. “If the Trump team does this, it is going to be clear they are doing it for purely ideological reasons.”

The peloton

More pertinent is the extent to which the US will live up to its promises under a president who appears indifferent at best.

Light and outgoing energy secretary Ernest Moniz believe there is enough momentum in the low carbon economy for the US to meet its 2025 carbon target, regardless of Trump’s actions. But for the Paris deal to meet its overarching goals, countries need to periodically ramp up their ambition. Policy stasis won’t cut it.

If the US slacks off, it could see enthusiasm wane among other big emitters.

UK climate minister Nick Hurd plays down such fears, drawing an analogy with professional cycling, where riders take turns to face headwinds at the front of the pack.

“Think of long distance bicycle races in Olympics – we are seeing the formation of a large peloton,” he says.

“It’s important that major economies are in front but if the reality is the US slips back a bit that’s not the end of the world if the peloton is continuing to press on in broadly same pace.”

Leadership vacuum

Who will take pole position: Beijing, Brussels, Berlin…? China is well placed, says Li Shuo of Greenpeace East Asia, having institutionalised the lessons from its US partnership.

“The US and China have definitely been the most powerful engines [of climate action] over the past few years. Now, you are very likely to have a situation where one engine is powered out and driving in completely the opposite direction…

“From the Chinese side, it is quite safe to predict that they will still be driving this course. The question is to what extent they are politically willing and diplomatically capable of taking up the mantle and filling the big leadership vacuum.”

A test of Beijing’s mettle – and its US ties – comes in June, when it hosts the Clean Energy Ministerial, an annual event where energy chiefs from major economies share tips and challenges. President Obama recorded an opening address for the last such meet, in San Francisco. Will Xi Jinping show similar support?

Another key multilateral to watch is Germany’s G20 in July. Angela Merkel has put climate change on the agenda, calling for “ambitious implementation” of the Paris Agreement. Will she and other leaders pin down the impulsive Trump for a meaningful discussion, or will he distract everyone with a few provocative tweets? Can they continue to defend climate policies at home if the US is not pulling its weight?

With or without the US, the Paris Agreement was never going to *solve* climate change. Rather, it created a basis for cooperation.

Equally, for all his rockstar rise to the White House, Obama’s ethos was always rooted in collective action. The campaign slogan was “Yes we can”. That “we” has more work to do – as he emphasised in an emotional farewell speech last Tuesday.

His closing remarks apply as much to climate action as any of the issues he championed: “I’m asking you to believe – not in my ability to create change, but in yours.”

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