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What does the Trump administration mean for climate change efforts?

climate change policy

On November 4, 2016, the historic Paris Agreement on climate change policy (#OurAccord) became international law. "Humanity will look back on November 4, 2016, as the day that countries of the world shut the door on inevitable climate disaster," said UN climate chief Patricia Espinosa and Moroccan Foreign Minister Salaheddine Mezouar in a joint statement that day.

Four days later, on November 8, Donald Trump was elected President of the United States. And overnight, the set of policies required to fulfill the promises of the Paris Accord were under threat.

Here's what we know. President Trump has called human-caused climate change a hoax. He has vowed to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency "in almost every form." Trump has attacked Obama's Clean Power Plan as "a war on coal." And, perhaps most significantly, he has promised to renege on the U.S. pledge under the Paris Agreement, which commits more than 190 countries to reduce their emissions of planet-warming carbon dioxide pollution.

And so now, we wait.

However, as recently reported by ClimateWire, "For every conservative who dreams about ripping up the Paris Agreement, there's a company executive who wants to stay in." Shortly after the election, hundreds of U.S. businesses urged Trump to uphold the Paris climate deal. More than 360 companies and investors--from DuPont, eBay, and Nike to Unilever, Levi Strauss & Co., and Hilton--made their plea in an open letter to the incoming and outgoing administrations and members of Congress. (The signatories have since grown to over 700.)

And many companies are walking the walk. In a recent press release, Google announced it will reach 100% renewable energy and carbon neutrality in 2017. Iron Mountain signed a 15-year wind power purchase agreement that will supply 30% of its North American electricity needs with renewable energy. And here in Boston, MIT, Boston Medical Center, and Post Office Square Redevelopment Corporation have formed an alliance to buy electricity from a large new solar power installation, adding carbon-free energy to the grid and demonstrating a partnership model for other organizations in climate-change mitigation efforts.

Jason Jay at MIT Sloan

"At the organizational level, there are fantastic opportunities for companies to invest in renewable energy in a net-present-value positive way," says MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer and Executive Director of the MIT Sloan Sustainability Initiative Jason Jay. "All of these efforts can help people see the value in supporting a move to a low carbon future and the importance of maintaining the momentum of the Paris Agreement."

MIT Sloan Professor John Sterman agrees that efforts of the business community are critically important and highly laudable. However, he also cautions against assuming the marketplace will somehow naturally bridge the gap between policy and action. "A number of people argue that the U.S. will continue to cut its emissions and fulfill our commitment under the Paris Accord because green energy is getting cheaper and businesses will increasingly choose it on economic grounds. That's partially true. But policy matters. Fossil fuels remain heavily subsidized, delaying the transition to clean energy. Abandoning the Clean Power Plan, weakening the CAFÉ standards, and failing to put a price on CO2 so people pay the full, true cost of their energy use will delay the emissions reductions we need and hurt our economy."

John Sterman

Sterman points to an analysis by Climate Interactive, a scientific think tank, of which he is a member, that provides climate change analysis and simulation models to governments around the world. The analysis concluded that President Trump’s policies will make it extremely difficult, at best, for the U.S. to meet its commitment under the Paris agreement (a cut of 26-28% from 2005 levels by 2025). Back in December, The New York Times used data from Climate Interactive to create its digital story, "How Trump Can Influence Climate Change," exploring what actions were intended to deliver upon the Paris pledge of the U.S., what actions could be lost under the new administration, and where the U.S. fits globally.

Does U.S. action matter? The U.S. is the second-largest greenhouse gas emitter, behind China. If we do not fulfill our pledge, the world may not be able to slow the increase in global temperatures. With Mr. Trump in the Oval Office and Republican majorities in both houses," says Sterman, "there is little hope that the Clean Power Plan will survive in the Supreme Court or for federal action to meet the U.S. commitment under the Paris accord. Worse, if the U.S. won't fulfill its pledge, why should developing nations, like India, cut their emissions?"

While most Republicans want to see Obama's climate policies dismantled, people of both parties increasingly argue for stronger action. Leading Reagan-Bush-era conservatives, including former Secretaries of State James Baker and (MIT alumnus) George Schultz, call for a border-adjusted, revenue-neutral carbon tax as a replacement for the EPA's Clean Power Plan. The revenue-neutral "carbon fee and dividend" proposal has been popular among economists for years and embraced by some leading climate scientists and advocacy groups. President Trump's Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, has also stated his support for a carbon tax. However, as recently reported in The Washington Post, "There's also the question of whether the current White House is up for big, wonky crossover ideas," even though a large majority of people in the US, including more than 60% of Trump voters, "Support Taxing and/or Regulating the Pollution that Causes Global Warming."


The terrain ahead

As we wait to see to what degree President Trump leaves the environment in the lurch, many want to know what the next move should be for citizens, organizations, and communities. What's readily apparent: it's not going to be an easy road.

"We can do it: it's technically possible to avoid the worst risks of climate change and build a safer, sustainable world," Sterman says. "It's affordable. It's getting cheaper every day. But we are in a race to cut emissions before the damage is irreversible. We weren't moving fast enough even before the election, and now there's a stiff headwind in our faces," says Sterman. "We have to put our heads down and work harder, professionally, personally, and politically."

"In the face of that uncertainty, it's all the more important to express and act on support for #OurAccord at individual, relational, and organizational levels," adds Jay. "Despite what's happening here politically, the world is certainly moving forward, as John can attest from his work at COP22 in Morocco," referring to the most recent climate change conference, where the details of the Paris Agreement started to take shape. "At the individual level, we can all work toward a healthy, vibrant, low-carbon lifestyle. At the relational level, we must build our skills in going beyond the choir and having conversations about climate change and sustainability with people who don't agree with us."

Conducting difficult and often-polarizing conversations on topics like climate change is the thrust of Jay's new book, coauthored with Gabriel Grant and currently available for pre-order, entitled Breaking Through Gridlock: The Power of Conversation in a Polarized World. Jay and Sterman also point to Climate Interactive's climate change simulation software, C-ROADS, as an excellent tool for understanding the long-term effects of climate change and demonstrating those effects in relational settings, especially among groups that may straddle different sides of the aisle. "Research shows that showing people research doesn't work," Sterman says. "So we created the World Climate Simulation, where a group of people play the roles of UN climate negotiators working to create an agreement to limit global warming, then use our C-ROADS climate policy simulation to discover whether their proposals would work. World Climate enables people to learn for themselves – not only about the science, but to understand and empathize with people from other nations," says Sterman. Sterman demonstrated the award-winning C-ROADS software in a recent MIT Sloan Executive Education webinar, and the software is freely available for download. (You can access both here.)

View the video below to hear John Sterman and Jason Jay discuss how you can contribute your ideas on how to fight climate change. They also encourage you to share your ideas on social media using #OurAccord. Sterman and Jay teach in the three-day program, Strategies for Sustainable Business, offered next month (March 22–24, 2017) at MIT Sloan Executive Education.

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