The Road Ahead in Saving the Climate

December 12, 2016

By Hunter Cutting

The result of the U.S. national elections and the follow-on impact in the fight against climate change is extremely clear and unambiguous. The U.S. federal government has effectively tapped out of the climate fight for at least four years. While it is unlikely that a Trump-led Republican regime will be able to roll back the progress made to date, we can be sure the regime will block any work through Congress and the administration.

At the global level other countries will now have to step up. There is nothing fair about this, but there it is. However, we have been here before. Countries around the world came together and successfully rallied against the Bush administration at the UNFCCC negotiations in Bali, where a lead negotiator for a developing country famously told the U.S. “lead, follow, or get out of the way.” While Trump can do his worst and announce his informal intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, the recent global ratification of the treaty (including by the U.S.) means he cannot formally withdraw the U.S. for 4 years — when a successor can revive U.S. participation.

Domestically, the fight now turns to the states and to the private sector, including the financial community that will heavily steer the direction of investment going forward. We are going to have to ask our state leaders to step up, particularly in our champion states, and there can be no excuses about what other states are, or are not, doing. Similarly, we are going to have to demand that businesses step up. No company can be considered a good corporate citizen unless its carbon footprint is rapidly shrinking.

One of the realities in facing four years of U.S. federal stonewalling is that the emergency of our situation is now more acute than ever. Four years of inaction will cost us dearly as the carbon budget is rapidly depleted and the deadline for reaching zero emissions looms closer. Due to the historic drop in the cost of renewable energy, market forces alone will likely deliver the emissions reductions promised by the Obama administration regardless of what Trump does. However, those reductions were already clearly insufficient and there will be no Clinton administration to drive them down further. Worse, the utility sector that has been a hostile collaborator in the federal clean power plan will now likely move in an attempt to make large investments in natural gas-fired power infrastructure, which would amount to throwing good money after bad.

Thus, the battle to accelerate the transition to renewable energy will shift to the states, which is where energy policy is set in the U.S. But there the playing field will be much more favorable.

Despite being elected president, Trump is out of step with a large majority of Americans when it comes to fighting climate change and turning to clean energy. Clean energy is wildly popular, even in Republican states, and a solid majority of Americans support taking action on carbon pollution.

One key disconnect to overcome is the lack of urgency among many Americans to immediately address climate change. Ironically, a Trump presidency committed to stonewalling on climate change will likely fuel popular support for action at the state and local level.

In addition, our work to call out the impacts of climate change seen in extreme weather, drought, wildfires and more will only become more important, particularly at the state and local level. The cost of delay is already upon us, and we do ourselves a disservice if we do not find a way to put a spotlight on that.

Exit polling from this election documents quite clearly that a large share of Trump voters were simply voting against the status quo. They were not voting for Trump. They were voting for change. The hunger for change was so strong it overrode serious negative views about Trump found in a large majority of voters surveyed as they exited the polls.

It is important to remember that there is nothing more status quo than the fossil fuel industry and the political corruption it furthers. In contrast, clean energy is a poster child for a different and better future.

Clean energy happens to be the cheapest road forward, regardless of the threat of climate change — a point we cannot fail to make as many working class Americans look for help. Renewable energy and electric vehicles are already dramatically transforming the energy and transportation industries, driving a massive wave of job creation unseen in other economic sectors. As costs plummet further the trend will only grow. Against this backdrop, the hunger for change offers a major lever for our movement in our battle against the fossil fuel industry interests attempting to block clean energy at the state and local level.

We have the levers. But building a movement strong enough to push on those levers will require uniting with and supporting the other progressive causes and communities rallying to lead our country back into the light. The bridges are there. The vulnerable and the marginalized are the most exposed to the impacts of climate change. And the transition to renewable energy can be driven so that no one is left behind. The fight to save the climate has to be knit into the progressive fight for the soul of country.

Saving the climate and reaping the power of renewable energy is a vision that can help power our movement as we go back to work. We will get no help from the Republican Congress or the Trump presidency in this effort. But the economics of the ongoing revolution in the energy sector will fuel our fight. And a large majority of Americans stand on our side. Those are considerable assets. Capitalizing upon them is the work ahead.Φ

Hunter Cutting is a veteran political director who develops communications strategy for Climate Nexus. Prior to joining Climate Nexus, Hunter built the energy and climate division of Resource Media, helped to launch and lead We Interrupt This Message, a national media strategy center dedicated to social justice, and led NGO communications in milestone climate change events such as the UNFCCC meeting in Bali and the release of the Nobel-prize winning IPCC Fourth Assessment Report.

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