Regardless of what the upcoming winter has to offer (not much so far), a complete reversal of climate change policy in the U.S is likely the most influential event of the season and seasons to come. The administration-elect, as of Nov. 8th, 2016, has promised repeatedly to “cancel” the Paris Climate Accord, the landmark deal ratified by 109 nations (193 signatories) and effective Nov. 4th, 2016.
As a short introduction, the Paris Climate Accord’s goal is to cut human carbon emissions by 40% of 1990 levels by 2030, total carbon neutrality by the end of the 21st century, and a long-term warming of no more than about 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 Celsius). While it is certain that eventually humans will move past fossil fuels if society continues to exist (they are a non-renewable resource), the scientific consensus draws a small window for this goal to be achieved. The main concern is that a series of positive feedback loops will be initiated during any extended period above that temperature (vast methane reserves in arctic permafrost melting, sharply warming the atmosphere, causing more warming, etc.)
The current drama is perhaps the most significant thus far in the pursuit to limit climate change. Economist (not scientist) Myron Ebell, recently appointed Director of E.P.A., is one of the most prominent voices against climate change. However, while those set to take executive power in January promise to remove the U.S. from the Accord, the reality is that it will not be simple, for several reasons:
- Pulling out risks fraying already tenuous relationships with Europe, China, and the rest of the world. Despite campaign rhetoric, the majority of powerful forces do not condone this sort of situation escalating.
- Fossil fuels, particularly coal, are becoming less and less economically attractive compared to renewables. The coal industry has not shrunk because of environmental regulations, it’s shrunk because its no longer economically attractive in the age of fracking and gas extraction. This is unlikely to change, and while the administration-elect showers support for both industries, ultimately coal will continue to be phased out. Moreover, solar is becoming increasingly affordable, especially to homeowners and businesses with recent lease to own solar projects.
- Pulling the U.S. out of the Accord will be difficult. At a minimum it could take a year, but that would require pulling out of a 1992 parent treaty and all but destroy America’s credibility. More likely, it would take four.
- The majority of Americans (64% in latest Gallup Poll) are worried about climate change. Leaders in the legislative branch of government recognize that denying the issue may further increase resentment among voters.
It is very much possible that the U.S. could remain part of the treaty, and simply do nothing to curb emissions. This may be the most likely scenario, but as we’ve seen the past year, unpredictability is the new black.
Perhaps the biggest fear is that China and India, the two other largest carbon emitters, will follow suit and also refuse to curb emissions. However, China has already sharply criticized the Trump team and stated its intention to fulfill its carbon reduction obligation. David Sandalow of Columbia University explains:
“If the U.S. withdraws from the Paris Agreement, that would create a strategic opportunity for China. It would gain credibility globally by sticking with its climate plans even as the U.S. withdraws, helping the Chinese government advance its objectives on a range of topics.”
Scientists project that a temperature rise of 4 degrees celsius is probable by the end of the 21st century if no action is taken to curb emissions. Skiing would become economically, and maybe even physically, infeasible in this scenario in all but the highest, coldest resorts. This, however, would be the least of our concerns by then.