What does President Trump mean for fighting climate change?
A Canadian perspective on how the new administration may and may not shake things up
It is now time to address the elephant in the room: how will the new U.S. government affect the progress we’ve been making on energy efficiency and its role in combating climate change? Of course on Friday we received a big hint when the White House eliminated climate change references on its website and vowed to cut Obama’s Climate Action Plan. There are many other concerns when it comes to the potential for altering our world under the Trump administration, trade and foreign policy topping the list. But CEEA will have more of an inside perspective by April when our next CEEA Business Forum takes place — our keynote speaker is Kateri Callahan, president of the Alliance to Save Energy. By then we should have some sort of idea of how things are taking shape on the climate change front.
In the meantime I’d like to examine the trends we are seeing in the face of many unknowns.
Trend 1: Canada will continue to fight climate change and support energy efficiency
Over the past year the Trudeau government signed the Paris Agreement on climate change and agreed to invest in clean transportation, renewables and infrastructure. In addition it established a commitment to a carbon pricing plan whereby all Canadian jurisdictions must price carbon pollution by the end of 2018. The provinces can choose between a carbon levy and a carbon-trading system. It is a plan that keeps in mind the independence of the provinces and their different situations, but it is a plan that only works with the cooperation of the provinces and territories. It is fantastic that the federal government is engaged on this, but sub- national governments are critical and not all of them agree on the approach to take. This layered playing field is also something we may see in the U.S sub- national governments.
Trend 2: The Canadian-U.S. relationship is undergoing a recalibration
The new approach on the climate change file was a direct result of the Canadian federal election. It opened up a positive, new relationship between 24 Sussex and the White House. The Obama administration had a strong reputation for its work on climate and strengthening and harmonizing energy efficiency standards, making it easier for cross border trade. The Trump-Trudeau relationship is uncertain although the Trudeau government is quickly adapting to the new world order with strategic appointments and a cabinet shuffle in an effort to establish an effective, open dialogue with the new White House. A positive, astute and analytical approach must be taken with Canada’s largest trading partner, and it seems everything is being done to try and ensure that. As former U.S. Ambassador Heyman told the Globe, building new relationships is key: “It is not a complex thing to understand but it is a set of facts,” he said. “The fact that two thirds of U.S. states – Republican and Democrat alike, their number one export market is Canada.”
Trend 3: Massachusetts and California should continue to be green leaders
This of course is debatable but I believe states like Massachusetts and California will continue with their aggressive moves to cut carbon emissions and improve energy efficiency. Recently 530 New England companies including, 57 from Massachusetts, came together to press Trump to combat climate change and commit to the Paris Agreement. While Obama continued an effort started by George W. Bush to strengthen national energy efficiency standards, the states do have the power to set strong policies to cut greenhouse gas emissions, and this will be more important than ever in the face of Trump potentially unwinding the good that has already been done at the national level.
Trend 4: Saving the environment is a real concern for younger demographics
CEEA has always spoken about how energy efficiency is the most efficient fuel and that it saves money. During the Harper government this was a key selling point since climate change and the environment were not necessarily their policy priorities. To them pocket-book politics resonated with their voters, not the environment. But times have changed. Around the world we’re seeing the effects of climate change and younger people, particularly millennials, are concerned about the environment. CEEA has been conducting research on millennials along with IESO and we will have more to report on this when we release our research later this year.
Trend 5: Assumptions are difficult to make
Yes Trump is a wild card. But one of the reasons he is now president of the U.S.A is the result of middle-class malaise and the rise of social inequality. This is also something that has created uncertainty world-wide, not just in America. Brexit and Trump’s win may just be the beginning of political upsets with upcoming French and German elections. With this back drop it is feared the fight against climate change and the Paris Agreement will be set back by Trump. While he is a climate change sceptic, he also told The New York Times he would keep an open mind: “I have a very open mind. And I’m going to study a lot of the things that happened on it and we’re going to look at it very carefully.” This was likely window dressing for the Times’ editorial board. U.S. Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson admitted during his confirmation hearing “the risk of climate change does exist and the consequences of it could be serious enough that action should be taken.” So Tillerson doesn’t deny climate change, but he denies being able to figure out what to do, saying “the increase in the greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere are having an effect, our ability to predict that effect is very limited.”
Obama wisely made the assumption that Trump will wind things back, so in the last days of his administration he transferred US$500 million to the Green Climate Fund established under the Paris Agreement. The U.S. still owes US$2 billion, but Trump is expected to stop any further payments. Trump’s transition team sent requested a list from the Department of Energy for the people who attended the Interagency Working Group on the Social Cost of Carbon meetings. It would be nice to think they want to find out more about the social cost of CO2, but economists expect it’s the beginning of an attempt to change some math and alter the outcomes of economic models on the cost of carbon. The Washington Post has a great wrap up of this scenario.
So things do not look great for climate change in the U.S. from the national perspective, but the states may still be able to move ahead. Luckily we do know that Canada, and most of our provinces, are committed to cutting emissions and that energy efficiency will continue to be one of the key instruments used to make that happen. We also cannot forget that 126 of the 197 parties to the Paris Agreement have ratified it. We are in this together and there are many like-minded countries prepared to make a difference and cut emissions.
Posted January 24, 2017
Elizabeth McDonald is president of CEEA