The mainstream news media, and the two major party presidential candidate themselves, have largely ignored the issue climate change this election cycle. However, if an interested voter were to take the time to compare their positions, they would find that the candidates hold starkly different views on the issue climate change and climate change policy. I present here the basic difference between the two candidates with regard to climate change and follow with my opinion on what is at stake with this election.
Mr. Trump denies the basic science of human-caused global warming. He wants to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris COP-21 agreement that is intended to reduce global carbon emissions and limit global warming to a level intended to keep human societies stable. He wants to promote coal and other fossil carbon energy sources and does not want to incentivize an orderly transition to a renewable energy economy.
Secretary Clinton, on the other hand, understands that scientific results have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt (i.e., with a statistical certainty of 95 percent) that humans are largely responsible for the observed global warming. Secretary Clinton wants to move the U.S. away from coal and would incentivize renewable energy production. Secretary Clinton has a stated goal for U.S. electricity generation to run on 50 percent renewable energy by the end of her first term. None of this goes nearly far enough to limit global warming to a safe level, but it still presents a stark contrast to the proposed policies of Mr. Trump.
We have precious little time left to limit global warming to 2°C and avoid major destabilization to human society. The Paris COP-21 consensus statement signed by every leader of every nation on earth confirmed last year that we must limit global warming to 2°C and to accomplish this goal we must transition the energy system of the entire planet be to zero net carbon emissions by mid-century (i.e., in just 34 years). The consensus statement also expresses the aspiration, for the sake of island nations, to limit global warming to 1.5°C which would require taking the global energy system to net zero carbon emissions in 13 years. These basic facts underlie the reasoning that prompted Cornell to establish the goal of reaching zero net carbon emissions for the Ithaca campus by 2035.
The decisions we make today with regards to global carbon emissions will affect not only the lives of this generation, but also the lives of generations spanning the next 10,000 years. When CO2 is emitted to the atmosphere, half is taken up by the ocean and land and the remaining half stays in the atmosphere for 10,000 years. There is CO2 in the atmosphere today that was created when the very first forest was cleared by ancient farmers and when the very first internal combustion engine was cranked to life at the beginning of the last century. Previous generations have steadily added CO2 to the atmosphere and the cumulative additions have inexorably brought humanity to a critical decision point. We have a very small amount fossil carbon left to burn before crossing the 2°C warming threshold. We must begin immediately to taper carbon emissions and reach zero emission by mid-century. And then we must remain at net zero emission for all the rest of time if we want to avoid crossing the 2°C warming threshold – it is as simply as that.
Of all the generations that have ever lived on this earth, it is this generation that will make the final decision to cross or not to cross the 2°C warming threshold. And because CO2 stays in the atmosphere for 10,000 years, this generation’s decision will be felt by people for, essentially, all the rest of human existence on earth. This generation will either be celebrated or vilified for the rest of human history depending on what we do with carbon emission over the next 20-30 years. I for one prefer to be celebrated for the rest of human history rather than vilified!
A Trump presidency will substantially delay action on getting us to net zero emissions and we are definitely out of time. We cannot delay our start to renewable energy another 4 or 8 years and still keep global warming below 2°C.
It is certainly not my place to tell anyone how to vote. All I can do is show people the connections and ask them to choose wisely and in accord with what they think is best for the world. Go vote tomorrow — and vote wisely.
Dr. Bruce Monger is an Earth and Atmospherics Sciences professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.