It was unthinkable, and therefore so few of us prepared for it mentally or emotionally. That dread you feel at Donald Trump’s victory is well-earned for any number of reasons, but the primary one is this: His election spells game over for any kind of habitable planet as we understand it.
I wish this were hyperbole, but physics and chemistry, unlike the average Republican voter, will not bend to wishful thinking.
After the abject shock, after putting aside the fading wish this might all be some bad acid I ate in 2007 that created an ethno-nationalist fever dream, I gamed out what Trump’s victory meant for the quickly vanishing chance to arrest the worst effects of climate change. There is no amount of sufficient fear one can feel.
Let’s begin with what we know.
2016 was a banner year in the unraveling of the earth’s biosphere due to manmade greenhouse gas emissions. According to NASA, global surface temperature and arctic sea ice extant, two key indicators of the planet’s warming, shattered records in the first half of 2016: “The six-month period from January to June was also the planet’s warmest half-year on record.” What’s more, the 2-degree Celsius threshold of warming over pre-industrial levels, which the world agreed was the uppermost limit of acceptable warming, was breached this year for the first time in recorded history, and likely for the first time since human civilization began.
This is extremely frightening, since two degrees has always been more of a political calculation—chosen because the international community deemed it attainable—while climate scientists like James Hansen have long said that 1.5 degrees is the real number we cannot pass, and that we must limit atmospheric CO2 to 350 ppm. We’ve just passed 400 ppm and are still rapidly climbing.
More importantly, the changes we are seeing at just 1 degree Celsius of warming are scary enough. We are melting everything on the planet that can melt, destroying coral reefs that sustain ocean ecosystems and the humans who rely on them, sparking apocalyptic wildfires, fueling superstorms, acidifying the oceans, and causing once-in-a-millennia mega-droughts in arid regions like the Middle East and the Sahel, which are then fueling the refugee crisis that is helping to elect ill-equipped, xenophobic, neophyte tyrants like Trump.
Before Trump’s election, I was of the opinion that despite the Paris Climate Accord and the incremental but hard-fought progress made by the Obama administration and the activists who motivated him, two degrees was basically a fantasy anyway. The idea that the planet would not surpass this mark was a bedtime story wealthy neoliberals told each other to allow themselves the wishful thinking that the underlying foundation of a global system geared toward consuming as much carbon fuel as possible could be easily and happily rejiggered.
Now, that fantasy is as toast as we are.
Let’s move now to what a Generic Republican President elected in 2016 would have done to halt progress on all environmental fronts. Let’s use a reasonable straw man, of sound mind and disposition, like say Ted “American Theocracy” Cruz.
A Cruz administration, like Trump’s, would have abrogated the Paris Climate Accord. This global compact was mostly aspirational anyhow, but without the United States, major carbon emitters like China and India are going to have many fewer incentives to follow through on reductions. A Cruz presidency would have also re-animated the Keystone XL pipeline, canceled all restrictions on energy exploration, opened vast swaths of federal land to drilling and mining, pulled any funding from the Department of Energy viewed as “wasteful spending” on solar and other renewable energy projects, cut funding to even study climate or anything related to climate, increase public hostility toward climate scientists, and used his appointment to the Supreme Court to make sure that the Obama EPA’s Clean Power Plan will die, while also attempting to reverse the Bush-era Supreme Court’s endangerment finding for carbon dioxide. Meaning, the EPA would be on its way to losing its ability to regulate greenhouse gasses at all.
Oh, but don’t worry, a President Cruz would likely have marched in lockstep with Trump’s plan by working to destroy the Environmental Protection Agency or at least undermine it by turning it into a version of a state EPA. What does that mean? Many EPAs in states controlled by Republicans basically transform into Pollution Protection Agencies. Did that water crisis in Flint, Michigan, sound like fun? Hope so, ‘cause it’s coming soon to a water source near you.
A Generic Republican President would also surely have appointed industry shills to prominent positions, but maybe here there is a difference. Trump’s team is simply shocking. His likely choice for EPA will be Myron Ebell, a lackey of fossil fuel interests who’s made his name and living as a professional climate change denier (I had the pleasure of meeting Ebell at the Heartland Institute’s 2009 climate denial conference, a veritable who’s who of people whose grandchildren will hate them). At the Department of Energy, a lobbyist for Koch Industries and Dow Chemical named Mike McKenna will take over, and finally, David Bernhardt, a Republican and extraction industry apparatchik, will lead the transition team for the Department of Interior.
Again, this is horrifying, and again, a President Cruz or Rubio or Christie probably would have done the same. It is extremely important to point out that the entire conservative movement is in the grips of fossil fuel interests and their widespread disinformation campaign. The Republican Party has long been one of the most dangerous institutions on our small planet because it’s doing the bidding of the corporations which have, written into their business plans, and into the valuation of their companies, the formula to bake the planet to ash.
This is where Trump, more so than a Generic Republican President, becomes singularly horrifying. But before I get to that, let me explain the piece I thought I was going to write before I woke up in this bad episode of Black Mirror.
On Tuesday, there was a ballot initiative in Washington state to impose the nation’s first carbon tax. The plan, known as Initiative 732, was what mainstream economists and scientists like Hansen have long desired to combat climate change: a simple, transparent, steadily rising tax on fossil fuels with the revenue used to rebate low-income families, cut the state sales tax, and cut taxes to manufacturers. Amazingly, 732 was doomed not because of fossil fuel interests, but because the environmental left went to war with itself.
David Roberts, one of the best climate writers around, recaps the story in all its wonky particulars here. But basically, a faction of climate change advocates viewed the dispensation of the carbon tax revenue unfavorably. They wanted more revenue spent on communities of color, public housing, labor, and tax incentives for climate-friendly businesses, among other things (though it’s important to note this group never actually came up with a workable plan). So this alliance helped smother 732. Major environmental groups did not endorse it, little money was spent championing it, and a bitter rift opened among climate activists.
Suffice it to say, I watched this unfold with a great deal of dismay. Washington had the chance to sink a shot from half-court—actually get a workable carbon tax that ultimately made the tax code less regressive—and its own team was guilty of goal-tending. The climate column I was going to write would have focused on the need to not make the perfect the enemy of the good. The intrusion of interest group politics into every facet of our thinking has proven to be greatly misguided, especially when it comes to the lightning fast work we need to do to stop what’s happening to the planet. The entire world needs to change its energy, transportation, and food systems to emit zero greenhouse gasses, and we need to do it yesterday.
Climate change is going to disrupt everything, and the solutions to it will sometimes not be fair, and they will sometimes not be just. Certainly the goal of policy should be to aid the people who will be hit the hardest, but there is an element of Utopian scheming to what happened to 732. It’s as if some people decided that if we can’t somehow simultaneously make amends for a history of colonialism, racism, misogyny, transphobia, etc. in our carbon policy, why bother!
At least, those are a couple paragraphs that I would have written prior to what happened on Nov. 8. Now, 732 is as moot a point as what kind of vegan snacks Bill Clinton wanted stocked in the White House fridge.
The only point being, there is massive, contentious conversation that needs to happen about how we address, mitigate, and adapt to this environmental emergency. But with Generic Republicans now in total control of our government, this is not going to happen. Furthermore, the party is not led by a Generic Republican. It’s led by Trump.
In Philip Roth’s counterfactual novel The Plot Against America, Charles Lindbergh is elected president instead of Franklin Roosevelt, and America embarks upon a policy of anti-semitic repression leading up to World War II. The climate equivalent of that counterfactual just happened to us. At the worst possible time, we’ve elected the worst possible person to put in charge of the issue that will define all of us to future generations.
Trump’s entire dismissive attitude toward climate change is only a harbinger of what’s to come. His base of angry white voters has already been so propagandized to disbelieve the reality of what’s happening that the ice sheets will literally melt, inundate cities in Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, and other Trump-locked states, and they will still be cawing that “climate changes all the time! The science is still out!”
However, Trump’s ability to stir this base to a fever pitch, to incite them to a rage about non-existent issues, will make it increasingly difficult to pass any legislation, propose any policy, make any kind of progress. Climate change will become a permanent cultural issue like abortion, where the two sides view each other from hermetically sealed bubbles, and any chance to turn the tide will be lost.
Worse, right now the climate movement needs all the energy, commitment, money, and resources that the entirety of political left can spare to expand a still-niche movement into the mainstream. One thing I learned during the Bush presidency was that passion, protest, and subversion are finite resources, and barring catastrophe, climate activists will have their work cut out simply getting into the news cycle during the first reality TV presidency. Trump is a match in a tinderbox of racial animosity and sexism. Certainly there’s no damn time for Yale students to protest buildings named after Woodrow Wilson when living white supremacists will try to follow Trump’s coattails and influence policy (or, for that matter, there’s no time to worry about Chief Wahoo, to name something that concerned me last week).
Given what he’s said in his campaign, Trump will surely challenge America’s democratic institutions and rule of law. The Republican Party, an institution of craven greed and sycophantic hangers-on, will abet him at every turn as long as he doesn’t challenge the donor class. There will be so much to push back against. The series of disasters and challenges to constitutional norms that lie ahead are going to sap an enormous amount of time and attention from the confrontation on climate that must occur.
Because it’s simple: Following the election of 2016, even if Bill McKibben himself was elected in 2020, we are almost certainly headed to a 3 degrees global temperature rise, and more likely 4 degrees by 2100. At those temperatures, the disruptions will be so severe that it’s difficult to see how civilization carries on in anything resembling its current form. Six degrees, an extinction-level scenario, is not off the table.
Yes, this is grim. And I only point out how grim it is because at some point you will be needed. Rebecca Solnit calls it “hope in the dark,” a commitment to act in the face of an overwhelming and unknowable future. What happened on Tuesday just altered the course of human history in ways we cannot yet fathom, and ways that we definitely can.
Now we have to begin again. We fight to change it back.