The 2016 Presidential Election and Climate Change: Where Do We Go From Here?

By Jeremiah Pariag, Sustainability Analyst

Two short weeks ago, it looked like Hillary Clinton would undoubtedly win the 2016 Presidential election and issues including equality, immigration, and climate action would be at the forefront of the American political agenda until 2020. The pollsters were wrong. Last night, Donald Trump won the American Presidency and with it, he will drastically shift the priorities of the American government from that of the Obama administration.

In the eight years leading up to the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, climate change was a major priority of the American government. President Barack Obama prioritized the nation’s efforts against climate change, and made it clear that the science behind it was accurate and sound. Despite this, the strong right wing of the American political system has consistently and will likely continue to deny climate change while citing fringe news sources and lobbyists. With the GOP having control of the Senate and the House, and the highest office in the land being held by an individual who has called climate change a “hoax”, the next four years of environmental development is bleak. So what can we expect from a Trump Presidency in regards to climate change?


The Potential Rally of the Coal Industry
Despite several controversies, President-elect Trump focused his message on one main priority – jobs. While Clinton campaigned based on large-scale social advances, Trump travelled to small counties with the promise that he would bring back factory jobs, such as those in the coal industry. This, combined with his vow to lessen the perceived impact of immigrants on local job markets, provided reason enough for Americans to give him the Presidency.

Despite the dwindling of the coal industry and the emphasis on renewables over the last several years, a GOP-run House, Senate, and White House – which has no perceived obligation to protect the planet against climate change or the willingness to accept climate science – could mean that a Romney-like focus on coal and clean coal could emerge. Coal has been a contentious eco-political issue for years, and has been a consistent point of disagreement between Democrats and Republicans.
During the 2012 election, the idea of “clean coal” became one of the biggest campaign issues. “Clean coal” is often a term used to describe any approach that would mitigate the overall emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses during the burning of coal. The term is mainly used to describe carbon capture and storage (CCS). Though some studies provide promising results for clean coal, the practices, processes, and methods are largely theoretical at this point and heavily scrutinized. It is difficult to foresee if any problematic issues will arise if clean coal processes start being used, and because the process is so undeveloped, there is no guarantee that long-term investments in clean coal will yield any benefits.


A Lack of Global Cohesion
Throughout the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump consistently spoke negatively about globalism and advised citizens that an America-first perspective was the best way to move the country forward. This, combined with the GOP’s longstanding position of environmental unimportance and climate-denying could lead the United States to renege on the global commitments made by President Obama and could result in a lacking participation of the country in current and future global agreements.

Four short days before the election, the Paris Agreement became effective which aimed to move the world towards progressiveness regarding climate change. Now, the position of the United States in this agreement looks uncertain at best. On the optimistic side, the Paris Agreement makes it difficult to withdraw for four years, meaning that it seems as though the position of the US is solidified until 2020; however, there is still a great level of uncertainty as to whether or not Trump will attempt a withdrawal. Having said that, the Paris Agreement is only one step towards a greener future, and other international agreements are necessary for further change.

The US is one of the largest producers of greenhouse gas emissions in the world; however, as mentioned earlier, with no moral obligation to combat climate change, the unwillingness to accept scientific data, and an institutional movement away from globalism, the future position of the country remains unclear. If there is any hope for America to make progressive global environmental action over the next four years, there needs to be fundamental change in the Senate, House, and the Oval Office; but, the environmental track record of the GOP suggests that little change, if any, will be seen between now and 2020.


Where do we go from here?
It’s hard to say. Going into this election, the priority for American voters was the economy, leading to climate change and the energy sector taking a backseat in the minds of voters. This is especially unfortunate considering the global impact that the United States has on climate change and the generation of emissions. With the GOP in full control, shifting priorities in the energy sector, and the potential withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Agreement, it is hard for any green-minded individual to be hopeful for the near-future. Only time will tell how this election will affect climate change; but for now, the uncertainty alone is enough to convince even the most optimistic environmentalists to brace themselves for at least the next four years.

Jeremiah is an Environmental Management Consultant at Hardy Stevenson and Associates Limited in Toronto. He holds a Master’s in Environment and Sustainability and a Bachelor’s in Political Science from Western University — as well a Professional Certificate in Energy Innovation and Emerging Technologies from Stanford University.