The Big Picture: Building a Climate Coalition

This is the 34th installment of The Big Picture, a public symposium on what’s at stake in Trump’s America, co-organized by Public Books and NYU’s Institute for Public Knowledge. Read IPK Director Eric Klinenberg’s introduction here.
Donald J. Trump has given notice of US withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement of December 2015 and made clear that his administration is committed to dismantling the government-based scientific ...

Donald J. Trump has given notice of US withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement of December 2015 and made clear that his administration is committed to dismantling the government-based scientific and policy infrastructure created during the Obama administration to cope with the dangers of climate change. If, as seems likely, these policy shifts help to increase the pace of climate change, the consequences will be dire for the planet, generating sea level rise and widespread drought, as well as intensifying storms such as cyclones and hurricanes.

Trump’s actions retard global attempts to reduce emissions at a crucial time. Prior to the 2016 election, concern about the threat of rapid climate change had become nearly universal around the world; earlier this month, when Syria announced it would ratify the Paris agreement, the United States became the only country in the world to reject the pact. How does contemporary scholarship help us to understand more deeply the impact of the president’s policies? Six points are particularly worth making:


  1. The Paris Agreement was well designed and advantageous to both the United States and the world. It corrected two major flaws of the Kyoto Protocol of 1997. First, it applied universally to all countries, including developing countries, which had been exempted from Kyoto restraints even as they were experiencing more rapid rates of emissions increases (albeit from much lower per capita levels) than the wealthy countries.

    Second, instead of imposing quotas on states through bargaining, as Kyoto did, Paris invited countries to submit their plans for emissions reduction. This plan generated “buy-in” instead of “opt-out.” Because of exemptions, special deals, or refusal to ratify the Kyoto Convention, relatively few major countries were constrained by the 1997 limits. In contrast, almost all states made commitments at Paris. These commitments were often vague, but with sufficient pressure they could be made more specific and verifiable over time. They do not amount to enough—even if fully implemented, estimates are that global temperatures would increase by between 3 and 4 degrees Celsius as compared to the 2 degree maximum target—but at least Paris represented a start. The Paris Agreement would have enabled a US administration committed to reducing climate change to exercise leadership on this issue, without tying its hands about policy measures or pace of change.

  2. Nevertheless, progress in international negotiations will be slow at best, because climate change is a public-goods problem in which nation-states have incentives to be free riders, shifting burdens onto others. This is particularly true of the United States. Even before Trump’s election, there was remarkably little political pressure for strong climate action in the United States. In polls, most people say that they believe in human-induced climate change and favor unspecified actions to limit it. However, when people are asked to pay to reduce climate change, either in surveys or in experimental situations, support for action declines sharply. In none of the five US presidential elections taking place since the Kyoto Protocol of 1997 has climate change been a major issue.

    Indeed, while Obama won two of those elections, candidates who rejected international climate cooperation won the remaining three. Climate change is a long-term problem, difficult to grasp in the short term, that does not engage people’s emotions in the same way as do issues of income, employment, race, gender, abortion, or sexual practices. It seems remote from most citizens’ lives. When Americans are asked how important climate change is to them compared to other issues, in poll after poll it ranks near the bottom. Trump did not create this lack of engagement, but he benefits from it.

  3. The major forces that could lead to low- or zero-emissions energy economies are technological. Solar and wind power prices are falling rapidly, so purely economic incentives to install renewable energy infrastructure instead of an infrastructure built around fossil fuels, especially coal, are increasing. The Trump Administration cannot prevent the coming energy revolution toward low-emissions economies, because the forces driving it are global, deeply embedded in modern science and technology.

    Other governments will support solar and wind power, and they will gain competitively if the United States remains committed to coal and other fossil fuels. With or without effective public policies, renewable energy sources will become economically more attractive, and the resulting increased volume of production will generate technological progress, further reducing costs.

  4. The most important contribution that public policy could make would be to encourage this shift by increasing the market costs of fossil fuels. This goal could be accomplished either through taxes on the carbon content of fuels, or through cap-and-trade programs that limit the volume of permitted emissions. Increasing the price of fossil fuels while solar and wind prices fall could help to accelerate a “benign cycle” of positive feedback, as in other high-technology industries.
  5. Just as Trump cannot prevent the coming energy revolution, he cannot induce other countries to stop their movement toward zero-emissions energy. The United States under Trump is politically so isolated that US withdrawal from Paris is actually reinforcing other states’ commitment to the Paris Agreement—and also the commitment of many states and cities within the United States—rather than leading to an exit cascade.

    Nevertheless, because of the size of the US economy, Trump’s policies could slow down the process, with serious negative consequences for the response to climate change. Adverse US policies would reduce incentives for entrepreneurs to develop clean energy, both in the United States and, insofar as US policy reduces global fossil fuel costs, also worldwide. Lower prices for fossil fuels could delay or weaken a benign cycle of increased production volume and lower costs for zero-emissions technologies.

  6. Trump’s policies promise only short-run economic benefits. They may boost oil and gas production in the United States. They may give a temporary reprieve to the coal industry, but they will not halt its steady decline due to its air pollution effects and its progressive cost disadvantages relative to natural gas and solar or wind power. In the long run, Trump’s policies are likely to be bad for the American economy, because they reject the coming energy revolution, which will occur with or without American leadership. Countries will have to rebuild almost their entire energy infrastructures, generating enormous investment, innovation, and jobs. American policies that reject zero-emissions energy innovation could put the United States “behind the curve” in a new industrial revolution analogous to those built on steam power in the 19th century or the internal combustion engine in the 20th.

History is rarely linear. On the contrary, movement in one direction often generates pressures for change in a quite different direction. Trump’s proposals for protectionism and immigration restrictions appealed to many voters in a period of great economic inequality and rapid social change. Trump’s most committed supporters may never realize that they have been hoodwinked, but when his policies on issues such as healthcare and taxes either cannot be adopted, or are tried and fail, many Americans who voted for him will be ready for new movements focused on the interests of middle- and working-class Americans. Both his current unpopularity and the November 2018 elections in New Jersey and Virginia provide reasons for optimism in this regard.

Leaders of successful movements along these lines will need to understand what went wrong in 2016. Their policies must appeal to working-class people in Ohio and Michigan as well as to identity-oriented professionals in New York and San Francisco. They will need, therefore, to face up to the economic damage imposed on the American working class by rapid globalization. They will need to uphold principles of racial equality, diversity, and openness, while affirming both the rule of law and the principle that citizens in a democracy have responsibilities as well as rights. Most of all, they will need to develop positive emotional appeals on issues about which people care deeply.


5,000 Years of Climate Fiction

By Wai Chee Dimock

These social movements are unlikely to put climate change at the center of their appeals. As I have noted, climate change is a diffuse and long-term problem, which, for various reasons, does not generate high levels of emotional resonance in the United States. Since Trump’s inauguration we have seen several issues ignite popular passions, including race, immigration, and questions of abortion rights. We have not seen that level of energy on issues of climate change. The Women’s March of January 21, 2017, centered on issues of abortion and gender rights, drew three times as many participants as the climate march, also in Washington, in late April; worldwide, women’s marches drew an estimated 2.6 million people. I infer that at least in the near future climate change is not going to be the principal vehicle for social mobilization on behalf of democratization and social justice in the US.

Nevertheless, proposals for effective climate change policies focused on increasing the prices of fossil fuels can play a part in necessary coalition-building activities. In making these policies compatible with movements of democratization and social justice, social movement leaders must ensure that their costs do not fall unfairly on the core of the American electorate: its middle and working classes. One possible approach would be a fossil fuel tax that was revenue-neutral, with revenues refunded to families on a per capita basis. This tax-and-refund proposal would be the inverse, in a way, of the Alaska oil profit dividend allocated to each family resident in the state. Such a proposal could actually reduce inequality while encouraging movement toward a zero-emissions economy.

Climate change policy will not drive the next great social movement for democracy: that role will be taken by issues that generate more emotional involvement. Yet, to have staying power, a social movement for democracy will need to promote a number of progressive policies, around which its leadership can build a large coalition. A program for effective action to limit climate change in ways that do not worsen economic inequality will be a necessary element in constructing such a coalition. icon

Featured image: Tropical Cyclone Investigation on the International Space Station (Hurricane Jimena, August 30, 2015). Photograph by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center / Flickr