Trump as Opportunity: The Galvanising Effect of Climate Change Urgency

Donald Trump lives with the delusion that climate change is a ‘hoax’ – and he wants to impose that delusion on all of us. The world literally cannot afford four years of this madness.

On almost every other issue, the shifts to the right of the past four decades could, theoretically, be undone. They have caused tremendous damage, but a more enlightened future generation could turn it all around.

With climate change, that is not the case. The next four years, the years of the Trump presidency, are absolutely crucial for securing a safe future. A certain amount of damaging global warming appears to now be ‘locked in,’ but if we are to avoid the most devastating impacts, by limiting warming to below 2 degrees Celsius, global emissions must peak by 2020 and begin to fall drastically thereafter.

The existing policy architecture is not adequate to save the world from dangerous levels of warming. The Paris Agreement was intended to only set a broad global framework for emissions reduction, which would have to be improved upon with more ambitious targets in the years ahead. Yet Trump, adhering to the bizarre notion that the idea of climate change is a Chinese conspiracy, plans to renege even on those very modest first steps.

While Trump has back-flipped on an astonishing number of his election commitments, his commitment to undoing the small progress of the Obama administration on climate change appears steadfast. Though he now claims to have an “open mind” on the subject (and efforts should be made to hold him accountable to that claim), the Trump administration-in-waiting is reportedly seeking the fastest pathways to withdraw from Paris commitments. Perhaps more shocking – Trump has announced plans to cut all funding for NASA’s earth monitoring science programs, which provide the world with some of the most accurate figures on our changing climate.


The Opportunity

There are two ways that the wider world can respond to this disaster. On the one hand, we could throw our hands up in the air and defer all responsibility: the richest, most polluting country in the world refuses to take any moral leadership, so why should we take the lead? Yet, on the other hand, the possibility remains that precisely when confronted with such selfishness and stupidity, perhaps the world will push forward with a new sense of moral and political purpose.

Call me a naïve optimist, but I like to think that the latter is more likely, at this stage in history. The scale of this threat, combined with the fact that we have an ever-closing window in which to act to prevent catastrophic climate change is frightening. It is also tremendously politically galvanising. To paraphrase Naomi Klein – Trump changes everything.

Trump’s concerted attacks on science are likely to ignite the passions of the scientific community, causing more outspoken critique of the administration than would have been the case, had the Obama-Clinton status quo continued. And this is absolutely necessary – while the general public may agree with the reality and seriousness of the climate threat, very few, in my experience, are aware of just how short the time frame is within which we must act. An activated scientific community may address that knowledge deficit.

More broadly, the lack of action from the state on the climate may result in this being a period of tremendous activism on other planes. Direct action tactics to prevent all new fossil fuels projects are now injected with a new urgency. Faced with a negligent state, the people must step up to their historical responsibilities – perhaps taking inspiration from the courageous efforts of Indigenous people fighting against the Dakota Access Pipeline.

For those with the means to do so, the global political events may also prompt greater action at the community level. Community-based renewable energy projects are perhaps the best example of this.

Perhaps a more powerful front is divestment. Increasingly, the world is governed more by finance than by governments. As such, concerted campaigns to pressure financial institutions to divest from all fossil fuels and invest in renewable energy could potentially usher in even more rapid change than would be possible under a centre-left government.

With Hillary, we would have become complacent about a climate change regime that would have been woefully inadequate. Trump, with his blatant disregard for the fate of the human race, may just trigger the profound change that we truly need. This time, it’s Revolution or bust.


The Risk

Moving forward on these and other fronts, we should be acutely aware of the risks involved. Since 9/11, and no doubt before, successive US governments have set in place the machinery of a police state, bulking up the power of the police and the military and establishing pervasive surveillance networks. Trump can and almost certainly will put that machinery into operation. Welcome to full-blown fascism.

The truly risky moment comes when a nascent fascist regime starts to fail. When Trump is unable to deliver on his promises – when the economy flounders as a result of rising inequality, misplaced protectionism and general ineptitude – he will need someone to blame. If we can learn anything from the history of the far-right it is that they will, under pressure, identify a vulnerable group to target and single out as the obstacle to the nation’s progress.

The very real risk is that Trump both inspires widespread protest from the left and then singles the left out as the sole reason for his short-comings. If the public were to go along with this rhetoric, the result would be disastrous: mass violence and imprisonment, military control of protest movements and so on.

Preventing this from happening requires that whatever movement that emerges should have widespread public legitimacy. Protest must be impeccably peaceful and build through dialogue and love. It will require an openness that the Left has lacked in recent years: a capacity to listen to those who we disagree with (even Hilary’s ‘basket of deplorables’) and to persuade them of the need for change.

If the earnestness of the movement and the necessity of its goals is understood, then, when the inevitable assault of civil liberties comes, it will not be possible for it to be perceived as legitimate. It will be perceived for the horror that it is.


Feature Image: Modified version of ‘Donald Trump’ by Gage Skidmore,

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