Donald Trump has just promised to “cancel the Paris climate agreement“, end US funding for United Nations climate change programmes, and roll back the “stupid” Obama administration regulations to cut power plant emissions.
The Republican presidential candidate has often defied party orthodoxy on major issues, shocking conservatives with his off-the-cuff remarks. But his scripted speech last week to an oil industry meeting directly echoed the party’s line on climate change and energy.
Trump trails Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic rival for the White House, in fundraising, and his speech was a clear sign that he seeks to capitalise on financial support from the powerful fossil fuel industry. His call to roll back industry regulations also deepens his appeal to voters in oil, gas and coal-producing states.
“Obama has done everything he can to get in the way of American energy, for whatever reason,” Trump said, in an attack sure to be a centrepiece of his campaign. “If ‘crooked’ Hillary Clinton is in charge, things will get much worse, believe me.”
Yet a Trump presidency poses an existential threat qualitatively different from past Republican candidates who have doubted climate change. It could set in motion a wave of political and economic crises, creating global turmoil that would fatally disrupt efforts to tackle this issue in the US and abroad.
Alarmed by the possibility of a Trump victory in November, international negotiators are urgently working to finalise the UN Paris agreement, in the hope that it can become legally binding before President Obama leaves office. Yet even if the gambit is successful, a Trump victory could cripple international progress in other ways.
To meet the aggressive targets set at Paris, countries will have to substantially ratchet up efforts to end reliance on fossil fuels over the next few years. At the very moment when the world needs American leadership on this, Trump’s incoherence on climate and energy policy and his outright disgust for global collaboration would have a severe chilling effect on progress.
In past comments, he has said he is “not a believer in man-made global warming“, declaring that climate change is a “total hoax” and “bullshit“, “created by and for the Chinese” to hurt US manufacturing. On energy policy, he has appeared befuddled when asked about specifics, even fumbling the name of the Environmental Protection Agency, which he has promised to abolish.
The broader disruption of a Trump presidency would do even greater damage, weakening efforts to create a sense of urgency over climate change. Trump’s candidacy has brought public discourse in the US to its ugliest level, as he trades in trash talk and outrageous insults, spreading falsehood and innuendo, fomenting bigotry and prejudice.
He has threatened the censure of critics in the media, even condoning violence against protesters, calling them “thugs” and “criminals”. His success emboldens far right and ultra-nationalist movements in the US and across Europe, risking further destabilisation.
At home, Trump’s promise to ban Muslims from entering the US, to erect a wall at the Mexican border, and to deport millions of immigrants will provoke widespread protest and civil unrest.
Abroad, Trump’s bravado and reckless unpredictability, his vow to renegotiate trade deals and to walk away from security alliances will generate deep tensions with China, Russia and Europe, risking financial collapse and military conflict.
In the midst of such dysfunction and upheaval, the glimmer of hope offered by the historic climate change pact agreed to in Paris last year may forever fade. The stakes riding on a US presidential election have never been higher.