Trump's coming ‘climate moment': and why we should be careful what we wish for…

Electoral democracy has largely failed. It has been captured by big corporates, suborned and crudified (de-deliberationised) by the corporate media, and sidelined by neoliberal globalisation (and the consequent minute-by-minute power of ‘the markets’).

Perhaps the most spectacular ever instance of the failing of electoral democracy has been very recent indeed: it is the election of Donald Trump to (what is still, even now) the most powerful office in the world.

Probably the most dire but predictable global effect of a Trump Presidency is its catastrophic impact on climate-policy and energy-policy. The most senior salient offices in the land are now stuffed full of the most egregious know-nothing climate-deniers. These people will be busy from Day One of the new administration, actively bringing about the deaths of people all over the world (and especially, in the future) from climate-disasters that would otherwise not occur or that would otherwise not be so severe. (This is not hyperbole. My Green colleague Craig Simmons has undertaken calculations such that it is now possible to produce a (very rough) correlation between GHGs emitted and deaths etc. caused.

So what is to be done?

Readers of The Ecologist know a lot of the answer. We need to ‘fight’: at Standing Rock; through the ballotbox; through changing our own lifestyles and building bottom-up alternatives; and much much more.

And we must make the most of the good news that there already is: such as Obama’s ban today on Arctic offshore drilling, which may prove difficult for Trump to reverse. We must seek to ensure that it is. For we know the hard truth: that even if humanity burns only that part of Earth’s fossil fuel reserves that is already accessible, that would be enough to virtually guarantee runaway climate change.

But the point of this piece is to warn you about something that might take the wind out of our sails, something which might risk taking the heart right out of our fight. You heard it here first: sometime in 2017, I suspect that Trump will have a ‘climate moment’. Sometime next year, the American President will probably issue a partial mea culpa, and tell us that he now ‘gets it’ on climate: that human activity is changing our planet’s climate, and not for the better, after all.

And (if and) when this happens, be prepared. Be prepared for a tidal wave of foolishness from the media about how Trump isn’t as bad as we all thought he was. And for a huge collective sigh of relief from across the world – perhaps we still have a chance on climate, after all, if even Trump can ‘get it’.

Be prepared: because this ‘change of heart’ will not be half as good news as it seems. It might not even be good news at all.

To understand why, we need to understand better why Trump will most likely claim at some point in 2017 to ‘get it’ on climate.

Trump on climate: from denialism to agnosticism to…?

The process has actually already begun. Trump has pulled back somewhat from his previous full-on climate-denialism, to a position of ‘agnosticism’ on the issue. Why? Because Trump’s climate-denialism in the election period was partly just a pose, to shore up support among Republicans, and to epater les bourgeois. Now that, incredibly, he has made it all the way to the White House, he can afford to stand back and look more ‘Presidential’, less extreme. A position of studied agnosticism fits the bill nicely.

Meanwhile, as I say, the Administration that he heads is getting stuffed full of climate-deniers. They will be working gung-ho to re-fossilise the U.S. economy, and are thus preparing the ground to harvest the faster destruction of the future of our living planet.

So, why would Trump go further than agnosticism on climate in 2017?

Already, Trump and his aides will be receiving briefings every day from those Government agencies that are well aware of the reality and disastrous consequences of human-triggered dangerous climate change. Foremost among these, perhaps, will be the Pentagon, which has a long record now of being part of the ‘reality-based community’ on climate.

This constant drip-drip of truth into the awesomely thick skulls (and thin skins) of Trump and his team will gradually have its effect. Sooner or later, Trump will most likely decide that the moment is ripe to accept reality.

The PR bonanza awaiting Trump if he accepts the truth on climate

As this moment – literally – of truth approaches, Trump will discuss with his aides the upsides and downsides of joining the reality-based community.

A downside will be that it will annoy some supporters. But that doesn’t matter that much; Trump doesn’t need them much for the next few years, and he will be confident that in any case he can motivate them in other ways with regular extreme tweets, eye-catching speeches to feed the base, and a million other methods.

The biggest upside is that Trump’s acceptance of climate-reality will be a huge story – a story blindsiding most of his critics (unless they have been forearmed by reading the present article, first…). Trump and his publicists will I think be unable to resist its incredible potential for him to sound so reasonable, rowing-back from some of the less tenable aspects of his public persona and stance.

And it could take the wind out of the sails of a remarkable number of his opponents, to hear Trump say, publicly, that climate change is real, partly human-influenced and dangerous.

Be prepared for this. Don’t let the wind be taken out of your sails.

People are so desperately wanting there to be hope for the world. When Trump’s climate moment comes, it will chime all too easily with this desperation. And too many of the intelligentsia will rush with relief toward the conclusion that Trump can be ‘normalised’ after all, and that we aren’t actually on the brink of a sub-fascist, end-game for democracy.

But we still will be. For Trump’s climate moment won’t be the product of a conversion to rationality, science and precaution. It will be the product of a cynical decision by a self-publicist-‘populist’-President to cut some of his losses, in a way that his critics are (as yet) totally not expecting.

If Trump accepts the human influence on climate, whither climate-policy?

A key question, in order to become clear on why Trump’s climate moment (that I’m here foreseeing) will not in truth be good news, is this: what will be the real-world consequences, the policy-consequences, of Trump’s ‘moment of truth’ vis-a-vis climate? Here’s my guess as to the rough outline of how little difference it will make, how few consequences it will have in the most obvious places and respects:

  • It will not significantly affect the behaviour of the climate-denying numpties now getting ready to take the reins of the U.S. Federal Government. They will continue to eviscerate regulations, to back big business, and to burn fossil fuels like (in a sadly-telling phrase) there’s no tomorrow. It will not result in the scaling back of Trump’s horrific ‘infrastructure-building’ programme, which will continue to spill roads and bridges and airports across the U.S.A. And so forth.
  • It will not ensure either that the U.S. does not pull out of the Paris Agreement; there are plenty of reasons for someone like Trump to continue to hate that Agreement (which is by its nature internationalist), even if he admits the reality of the reason for it. And even if the U.S. does remain within that Agreement, Trump’s own climate-change will not ensure that the U.S. does not in effect gut, delay or bog down the implementation of the Agreement (which was already – is – incredibly weak and problematic to begin with).

What actual difference then will Trump’s climate conversion make to policy? Here is where things get complicated, and maybe even worse: One piece of actual good news: it will give Trump the excuse he may already have been looking for to help some parts at least of the U.S. renewable energy sector. Why not embrace green-tech when it’s profitable (while going hell for leather for coal, oil, gas, tracings etc., simultaneously)? Even here, though, enormous care is needed: Trump could easily, for example, embrace large scale agro-fuels in the name of ‘green energy’: with calamitous consequence.

As I already warned above; a bad effect will be the risk that it encourages complacency (as Paris itself, arguably, already does, unjustifiably). There is a terrible danger that a Trump who ‘gets it’ on climate will suddenly seem not worth the trouble of endlessly fiercely opposing; and that the last-ditch struggle to stop climate-catastrophe will start taking a back-seat in the minds of too many climate activists (including, possibly, you, dear reader: which is why I want to forewarn you).

And here’s the really bad news. Here’s where it gets really scary. There are significant elements of the Right that favour a sort of ‘survivalist’ strategy vis a vis threats such as climate: they aren’t interested in the altruism and enlightened self-interest of climate-change-mitigation, but they are interested in ‘adaptation’. Adaptation is indeed necessary, because we are already, tragically, ‘committed’ to some pretty serious harmful climate-change just by virtue of how much we have polluted our atmosphere with GHGs already; but an adaptationist stance alone looks pretty ugly, and capable of making things worse, in the round. Adaptation, consisting of things like building ever higher ‘hard’ flood defences and hardening one’s heart against climate refugees is hardly… heart-warming, as a response to climate-reality. One can imagine Trump adopting a pretty terrifying narrowly adaptionist climate-policy.

The scariest possibility of all, by far, is that a climate ‘wake-up call’ for Trump could take him in the same direction that a number of influential voices on the hard Right (including, notably, Newt Gingrich) have already moved in: that of climate-engineering or ‘geo-engineering‘. The idea of a kind of total planetary management of climate fits well with the hubris, techno-utopianism and refusal to change course of many on the Right: in fact, they sound exactly like Trump… Why alter ‘the American way of life’, if we (who, exactly?) can just put mirrors in space to cool the Earth down a little? The extreme moral hazard of climate-engineering, of course, is that it provides the perfect seeming-excuse for not bothering to rein in our GHG emissions.

Paris, climate-engineering – and the hard Right…

Lest all this seem a remote possibility to you, I want you to notice something that very few people have noticed yet: that the Paris Agreement made climate-engineering mainstream. Worse than that: it committed us to it. The Paris figures don’t add up without desperate, utterly untried, utterly reckless vast-scale technological gambles, later this century.

Why not – Trump’s advisers will whisper – speed the process up a little? What bolder idea for Trump than to ‘wake up’ to the reality of human-influenced climate change – and propose that we tackle it in the biggest way imaginable: by allegedly ‘taking charge’ of the Earth’s climate, and finding a ‘solution’ that will let us keep the petrol flowing (and keep the oceans dying, and keep the atmosphere moving into uncharted waters, and so forth) indefinitely? I can see Trump, for example, providing a huge Government funded prize for the most successful (sic) plan to geo-engineer the future. Take it a step further: it’s not that hard to imagine a Hollywood-ification of climate disaster(s) in which Trump’s narrative becomes that of: America ‘saves the world’, by high-tech, ultra-reckless gambles such as mirrors in space, ‘seeding the oceans’, GM-monoculture fuels and forests…

That’s why I say: be careful what you wish for. When Trump’s climate moment comes, we need to be ready to push back. Otherwise, he might ‘lead’ us out of the frying pan of climate-denialism, into the fire (literally) of what would actually be an out-of-control tech-mad future, in which climate reality became an excuse for allowing the world’s biggest polluter (and its military) in effect to take ownership of the atmosphere itself.