Donald Trump will be the 45th president of the United States of America. In the event that he actually keeps his campaign promises, he is sure to make history as the political figure in the twenty first century that snuffed out any glimmer of hope in the fight against global climate change. Trump’s denial that CO2 emissions cause global warming has startled the scientific community and part of the United States administration.
- Monday, 14 November 2016
For this reason that we need to shine a light on an issue that concerns not only ourselves but also the planet that we will leave our children and grandchildren. In order to understand how grave the problem of global warming already is and our chances of keeping our planet habitable, it is key to beginning with hard facts. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) continue to issue regular updates of what Oxfam and National Geographic consider “the greatest disaster of our time”, one capable of producing wars, famines and social inequality. Basing our analysis on solid facts, therefore, is crucial. According to NASA’s analysis, in the last 650,000 years there have been seven cycles of advance and retreat of ice on a planetary level. The latest glaciation “concluded abruptly 7,000 years ago”, an event that NASA explains “marked the beginning of human civilization”. From here we can begin to mention the connected effects of significant climate change. Sea levels have risen by around 17 centimetres in the last century. According to NASA, the last ten years represent a milestone in this process: the percentage increase on an annual basis has almost doubled compared with the previous 90 years. Is this the effect of the melting of the polar ice caps? According to the US Federal agency “all of the scientific evidence points unequivocally to this conclusion.”
Temperatures on a global scale are increasing. Why? Due to CO2 emissions, explains NASA. The anomalies can be seen in the graph above. Every increase in temperature leads to problems for the people that inhabit this planet. To understand how serious the problem really is there’s no need to rely on Leonardo DiCaprio, who in recent weeks released his documentary Before the Flood, because the American administration has already acknowledged its responsibility for the effects of the last century of industrialization.
According to the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE), a joint project involving NASA and the German Aerospace Centre, between 2002 and 2006 the ice caps covering Greenland reduced by a significant volume. How much exactly? By between 150 and 250 km 2 per year. The lowest estimate is 150 km 2 of ice that exists no more and which has not been replaced by new ice. Put simply, the ice has disappeared. In the Antarctic the phenomenon is similar. Over a similar timeframe to that of Greenland – between 2002 and 2005 – over 152 km 2 of ice was lost each year. As NASA explains, “even in this case it represents an unstoppable phenomenon”. In the graph below, viewable also on the NASA website (http://climate.nasa.gov/vital-signs/land- ice/), we can see the transformation of the polar ice caps. This data has been updated on a monthly basis so what you see is a true picture of the current state of our planet’s ice mass.
The phenomenon does not concern just the poles, however, as GRACE project scientists also point out that the process cannot be traced solely to natural shifts in the earth’s axis. Emissions of CO2 have been and continue to be the culprit and not the suspect in this process that is contributing also to a progressive acidification of the oceans. According to US federal agency the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), “there has never been in the history of humanity such a high level of acidification of the oceans”. An example is the islands of Hawaii. In the graph below we can see the data collected by NOAA. Since the industrial revolution the level of acidification of the oceans has increased by 30%. But what is the cause of this process? CO2 emissions and absorption of CO2 by the oceans. According to the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) the total quantity of CO2 absorbed by the oceans’ surfaces is around 2 billion tonnes each year. Such an enormous quantity more than explains the trends clearly visible on NOAA’s graph for Hawaii.
Those who think that the problem is of less importance for Europe might want to check NASA and the Italian National Research Council’s analyses of snow and glaciers. In particular the former agency published on its website two images of the Matterhorn, the epic mountain located between Italy and Switzerland: one photograph taken on 16 August 1960, the other on August 18 2005, ten years ago. The results can be seen below. This example is not just a one off. The latest update of the survey of Italian glaciers published last year by the Italian parliamentary climate group Globe Italia, shows that in the last 26 years, between 1981 and 2015, the glaciers of the central Alps lost 2000 billion litres of water. To make a comparison, this is the equivalent of 800 thousand Olympic swimming pools or four times the volume of Lake Trasimeno.
Then we come to the new American president Donald Trump. Less than one year has passed since the COP21 climate conference in December 2015 that led to the signature of the Paris Agreements. At the end of two weeks of work that represented the final straight after a decade of efforts came the adoption of what the European Commission celebrated as “the first universal and legally binding agreement about the global climate”. In substance the 195 signatory nations made a long-term commitment to limit the average increase in global temperature to “well below” 2°C compared with preindustrial levels. This was part of a far-reaching programme that places as its cornerstone the shared necessity to reduce every single country’s emissions, although conceding a limited tolerance for developing countries. The agreement came into force on 4 November, after 92 countries ratified the respective projects, a figure that exceeded the required minimum of at least 55 nations responsible for 55% of emissions, as agreed in Paris in 2015.
Weighing heavily on the effective chances to respect the agenda is the behaviour of China and the United States, the world’s two giant energy consumers, which are in first and second place respectively in terms of emissions. Historically these two countries have been reluctant to curb their own development plans by redefining their energy mix with a greener approach. In reality, already at the end of October some positive indicators had emerged from the International Energy Agency (IEA). In its latest report the IEA underlined how, on a global level, the total electric capacity from renewable sources exceeded that produced by coal fired power stations. A good start but still far too little to start celebrating. The wind in the sails of the green fight back can also be traced to the results of Barack Obama’s Clear Power Plan: CO2 emissions at a 25 year historic low; a cut of a third in the use of coal compared with 2007. The results are quantifiable not only in the level of particle pollution but also in the example provided for the more reluctant countries.
The headiness that followed the ratification of the Agreement lasted just four days, until the election of Donald Trump in the American presidential elections. No one or almost no one had taken into account the Trump variable, the victory of whom on 9 November was considered by many to have been as likely as the reconstruction of the Berlin Wall 27 years after its fall. Now while the defeat of Hillary Clinton has been consigned to history, the open hole in the ozone layer above our heads is hanging like the sword of Damocles in the hands of the White House’s new tenant. “Climate change is a concept invented by the Chinese to prevent the American economy from being competitive,” thundered Donald Trump from his podium during the electoral campaign, stiff lipped, eyes squinting and hand raised with thumb and forefinger pressed together as he tried to reassure his followers. Going by what he said and his official website there are clear promises to the electors, beginning with the intention of withdrawing from the Paris agreement. There follows the intention to block “all payments” from the US in support of the United Nations global warming programmes, the closure of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the cancellation of the limitations on the production of fossil energy and finally the dusting off of the plans for the mega oil pipeline Keystone XL, a project rejected by Obama in 2015. Standing alongside Trump in the definition of a new energy plan for America will be Myron Ebell, global climate change denier, financed by the coal lobby and considered by environmentalists around the world as a “climate criminal”. So, what will be the alternative? More drilling and obviously a “return to coal”, perhaps injecting a substantial dose of adrenalin to central Wyoming, coal producing region par excellence, which over the last eight years has been experiencing a kind of production coma. The citizens of the state are ready. From Cheyenne to Sheridan voters have made their feelings clear and around here people believe in Trump and his election promises.
In spite of the tone and content of the programme devised at number 725, 5th Avenue in New York, the site of Trump Tower and the citadel of those advising the new president, it is worrying that millions of US citizens have effectively swallowed (and voted for) an energy policy that is so antiquated that it seems revolutionary. At the end of the day, however, the return to the coal age and the dodging of the climate change obligations, promised by the incoming president of the United States of America, seem technically unfeasible, at least during a first mandate. Having legally entered into force and become legally binding for the signatory countries, the Paris Agreement would not allow Washington to withdraw rapidly. Three years at least are required to use article 28 of the climate agreement to backtrack from the planned obligations, then a further year would be required to implement the decision. That would mean 2020, a year in which Trump and his staff will be busy with the race for re-election. Nonetheless, Trump has two other ways to achieve the same result: firstly by withdrawing over 12 months from the 1992 United Nations Convention on Climate Change, an umbrella to which the Paris agreement belongs or by steamrollering forward and simply ignoring the commitments made by Obama, limiting action to a redefinition of US environment and energy policy. This would create a very serious precedent and would risk trashing the progress achieved so far to counter climate change on a global level.
The outcome of the American election has triggered protests in many quarters. Since Wednesday in the United States the sun has been rising and setting over a forest of placards brandished by those who are not willing to surrender to the idea of being represented by Trump. “Trump is toxic” can be read in many banners and placards in Houston, New York, Washington and Los Angeles in a clear reference to Trump’s policies concerning the environment. During the election campaign these could be interpreted as just the wild provocations of a particularly over the top candidate, but they now may actually end up being implemented. Such an eventuality has drawn comments from Jennifer Morgan and Bunny McDiarmid from Greenpeace, who express the position of a large number of supporters of the fight against climate change and not only environmentalists. A joint declaration issued on the website of Greenpeace International reads “defeating the climate catastrophe has become very difficult but not impossible. President Donald Trump could be the most infamous and lethal threat to the global climate.”
In recent weeks before the presidential vote a number of companies tried to focus the attention of the US electorate on the effects for the environment of a Trump presidency. One of these was Patagonia, founded in 1973 by Yvon Chouinard with offices in Ventura, California, while authoritative magazine Outside wrote about the dangers of the game Trump is playing with CO2. On one hand he tried to pick up the votes in those middle of nowhere constituencies that to would like to fully exploit their natural resources in order to kick-start their own economies. On the other he avoided any reference to environmental policy on a global scale, passing off climate change as nonsense on a number of occasions.
In spite of Trump’s denial, the problem of CO2 emissions remains and it is a global issue. A worrying signal of what Americans can hope for in the future comes from the fact that PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, one of Trump’s main supporters in Silicon Valley, does not believe that global warming is a priority. Considering his friendship with Elon Musk, his former partner in Paypal and the founder of Tesla Motors and a champion of renewable energy, Americans might have expected a more enlightened approach from Thiel, who is on record as claiming that “those talking about climate change are pseudo scientists”. Allowing such an attitude to become mainstream is perhaps the greatest mistake we could make also in the name of those who will inherit the planet from us.