Let’s get a few things out of the way. Climate change is real, and it’s our fault. Human civilization directly causes ten billion tons of carbon dioxide to enter the atmosphere every single year. Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has risen by more than 40 percent. Basic chemistry and physics tell us that CO2 is a greenhouse gas, and that higher levels of greenhouse gases will lead to warmer temperatures. In fact, 2016 was the warmest year ever recorded. It broke the record set by 2015, which in turn broke the previous record set by 2014.
There’s no more need to argue these facts. And for a while, we had a government that didn’t. President Barack Obama repeatedly articulated the reality and the stakes of our impending climate crisis. Although more comprehensive efforts to regulate emissions were thwarted by Congress, Obama still managed to make progress. Recognizing that climate change is a global problem, he successfully negotiated a bilateral agreement to reduce emissions with China, as well as the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement signed by 192 countries. Domestically, the Obama administration proposed the Clean Power Plan as a way to meet these international commitments.
Certainly, this effort was far from perfect. A truly appropriate response to climate change would involve a system of carbon pricing and a full-scale economic mobilization towards greener sources of energy. But the Clean Power Plan was a start that addressed some of the most potent sources of carbon pollution. It showed that we knew there was a problem.
On the other hand, the current occupant of the White House has previously dismissed climate change as a Chinese hoax. He has brought a whole team of climate deniers with him. Consequently, it should come as no surprise that President Donald Trump issued an executive order to immediately begin rolling back the Clean Power Plan. Indeed, we were treated to the shameful image of our leaders applauding as they publicly declared their disregard for science, the truth and the future.
The opponents of the Clean Power Plan have repeatedly appealed to its detrimental effects on the coal industry. They are correct that many coal mining towns are mired in an extended economic downturn. Trump, however, is lying to them. He ignores long-term factors such as increasing automation and the decreasing economic competitiveness of coal in order to promise that prosperity will return to troubled communities.
In fact, we’ve seen the same thing over and over again. Trump identifies a problem that exists, and follows it up with policies that exacerbate the issue. The failed American Health Care Act would have slashed Medicaid benefits in coal communities, and his current budget proposes the elimination of the Appalachian Regional Commission. It’s easy to strip bare his professed sympathy for coal workers for what it is. Eliminating the Clean Power Plan won’t help workers; the real benefits will accrue to wealthy coal executives and corporations.
Coal, after all, cannot be the energy source of 21st century America. It is an outdated fuel that fills our air with pollutants and sends us careening toward a warmer planet. Furthermore, if we continue to use coal, we will necessarily be unable to meet the emissions goals set forth under the Obama administration. With the United States reneging on its own commitments, why should other signatories to the Paris Agreement abide by theirs? Trump’s “America First” policy threatens to dismantle the best framework we have for combating global climate.
Furthermore, at the same time that we destroy the possibility of international cooperation, we are conceding the future of manufacturing and energy to other nations. If the United States continues to rely on fossil fuels, we will miss out on the opportunities of a green energy revolution. China isn’t making the same mistake. This year, Beijing announced a $360 billion dollar investment in renewable energy that will create 13 million jobs. We should take notice. Solar and wind power are both rapidly growing industries that could revitalize rural America.
Trump, however, has a notorious hatred of wind power. In the past, he has heavily opposed off-shore windmills in order to preserve the view from his properties, even claiming that wind power “personally offends” him. The oldest person ever to assume the presidency has not grown wise with age; his thoughts give no concern to posterity. Ironically, Trump’s short-sighted worldview nearly guarantees that his beloved oceanfront property of Mar-A-Lago will someday succumb to rising sea levels.
I think that the environmental aspect of the Trump presidency might be his most defining legacy. True, there are several other strong contenders at this early stage, including his empowerment of white nationalism, his attacks on constitutional norms and his ongoing ties to Russia. We don’t know how any of these stories will end, and these near-term controversies will continue to dominate headlines over the next few years. Yet the climate change narrative is terrifyingly predictable. Emissions will rise. The Earth will warm. Life will get harder.
My fear, then, is that the election of Donald Trump may be seen as the final blow against efforts to restrain climate change to a manageable level. You can call climate change “fake news,” but that will not stop it from continuing to happen. Furthermore, none of this is reversible. Our political system has an affinity to punting issues down the road, but climate change won’t wait for us. Day after day, emissions will increase as we do nothing. Four years from now, it may be too late.
This imminent threat to our planet comes from a sad, disgraceful combination of willful ignorance and greed. Powerful people, like Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (the former CEO of ExxonMobil), have looked the other way for decades. Politicians have turned a matter of science into a partisan issue. And far too many Americans have allowed themselves to be fooled. If the United States is committed to doing nothing, we are on a glide-path to a level of warming that will cause global suffering and endanger modern civilization. This is an emergency. We need to treat it like one.
Kevin Kowalewski is a senior in the College of Arts & Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Democracy Now appears every other Thursday this semester.