Last night Donald Trump became the president elect of the United States.
While the first female candidate from a major party for the U.S. presidency won the popular vote, she lost the electoral college. This was, by all accounts, a stunning political upset by the ‘blue-collar billionaire’, a candidate that very few serious political commentators thought had a chance of actually winning. Pundits and political analysts—most academics included—predicted that Hillary Clinton was going to win the presidency last night, with some putting her chances of winning as high as 90% just two short days ago.
So, what happened, and what does this mean? In particular, what implications does Trump’s win have for the one truly global issue that was largely ignored by both major candidates on the campaign trail: climate change?
A tale of two revolts
In retrospect, last night’s result really should not have been that surprising given the UK Brexit vote to leave the European Union in June. From the exit polls a picture has emerged that Trump voters seem to have much in common with June’s Brexit voters. They are largely without a college degree (67%), rural (63%), male (53%), white (58%), and over 45 years old (53%).
Many people were similarly stunned in June with the Brexit results, and the xenophobic and isolationist fears that emerged from that experience. Hate-fuelled political discourse has been particularly striking through both campaigns. This includes people crying ‘Lock her [Clinton] up’ at rallies, ‘Kill Obama’, or ‘Get out of my country’. When American political commentator Van Jones made an emotional appeal on CNN as the results came in, it was this culture he was struggling with explaining to his children, this expression of anger and vitriol that has manifested as outright racism, misogyny and aggression. Jones’ description of what was happening as ‘whitelash’ against a changing country last night went viral, and for good reason, but needs to be supplemented with a broader account of these voter’s fears: one that encompasses anger over stagnating economies, inequality and frustration at political corruption.
Analysts have recently linked the Brexit and now Trump results to a larger international trend towards de-globalization and a deep desire for change. “Anger at incumbent governments is now widely seen as a boon to rightwing populists such as Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, and some of the leaders of the Brexit campaign” argues Ruchir Sharma. In a similar vein Glenn Greenwald writes in the Intercept about how this anger is manifesting a the ballot box:
“…human beings are not going to follow and obey the exact people they most blame for their suffering. They’re going to do exactly the opposite: purposely defy them and try to impose punishment in retaliation. Their instruments for retaliation are Brexit and Trump. Those are their agents, dispatched on a mission of destruction: aimed at a system and culture they regard — not without reason — as rife with corruption and, above all else, contempt for them and their welfare.”
Far more can be written on the drivers of last night’s result, and no doubt will be. Voters were driven, for good or ill, by frustration at the changing social, political and economic times we live in. In their anger American voters have imbued this new administration with immense power from control of the Senate and House. They will act on far more than the key flashpoints of jobs and immigration that dominated the campaign. One of the challenging elements of Trump’s run for office has been that his policy positions have ranged from non-existent to incomprehensible. We really don’t know which policies his administration will actually implement and the president elect’s campaign was woefully short on the details of policy proposals. To date, there have been promises to build a wall to keep out Mexican immigrants, to expel Muslims, to tear up free trade agreements and prevent companies from shipping jobs overseas.
America’s Fossil Fuels First
One area notable for its absence in the Clinton and Trump debates was climate change. This is problematic, because global temperatures continue to break records annually and the most recent scientific research is predicting warming between 4.78 and 7.36 degrees by 2100. This is far greater than the 1.5 degree aim of the Paris Agreement which came into force last week. While scientists warn of catastrophic climate change, policymakers in some countries, most notably in Europe, are working at decarbonizing their respective economies. In practice, decarbonizing requires investment in electrified transport infrastructure run on renewable power sources (wind, solar, hydro, geothermal, tidal). New infrastructure also needs to be built to upgrade power grids and systems so that people can heat their homes, power their offices and produce goods and services without contributing to ecosystem collapse. Tackling climate change also requires slowing down and phasing out fossil fuel extraction, which provides us with fuels that don’t account for their full costs to society. Outside the energy sector (as New Zealanders well know) agriculture and food policy also plays a crucial role in addressing greenhouse gas emissions.
What happens in the US matters worldwide. The U.S. alone accounts for more than 16% of global CO2 emissions. The country has one of the highest per capita emissions profiles in the world and GHGs are higher in America than they were in 1990. We often forget that renewables industries can be dismantled as quickly as they have developed. The USA, New Zealand, Canada and Spain and many other states actually generated more electricity from renewable sources in 1960 than they did in 2014. Policy attention can and has shifted historically to promoting new pipelines, new fossil fuel developments and rolling back sustainability initiatives. So the new green industrial development that has started to flourish in recent years is incredibly fragile.
Based on his statements so far, a Trump presidency is extraordinarily troubling for the climate. He has called climate change a hoax, and announced his intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement that came into force just last week. At the domestic level, he has promised to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and announced that climate sceptic Myron Ebell will lead the EPA transition team. Part of his ‘America First Energy Plan’ is to “unleash America’s $50 trillion in untapped shale, oil, and natural gas reserves, plus hundreds of years in clean coal reserves”. Markets reacted accordingly to his win: oil and gas stocks soared after the presidential results were announced, just as renewables stocks slumped. The 1200km Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta to Alaska cancelled by President Obama is also back on the table now, with proponent TransCanada Ltd. planning meetings with the new Trump administration. Donald Trump also invested more than a million dollars in Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline that has provoked widespread protests from indigenous people and their allies across North America (and in New Zealand).
Mitigating climate change, to the extent that we can, and adapting to the challenges we will increasingly face requires a politics that is diametrically opposed to what we witnessed last night. It entails a politics of co-operation, of evidence, and of empathy for our fellow travellers on this rock hurtling through space. There is hope in some quarters that a Trump presidency’s anticipated slash and burn approach to government may provoke a progressive phoenix to rise from the institutional ashes, but I remain sceptical of this. Time is not on our side with respect to climate change, with its accompanying natural disasters, droughts, climate refugees, and the range of other impacts. Despite his concession speech, much of what Donald Trump has promised to do is dismantle the pieces of the global climate regime that have been set up over the past three decades. And that is truly frightening.
I cannot end on that, because history has taught us that there is much that can be done at multiple levels to gum up the works of a new regime, however problematic. So I will leave you with a quote from American historian Howard Zinn urging people to continue to advocate for changes that can improve the human condition, and to not lose hope despite setbacks.
“To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”
Julie MacArthur is a lecturer in environmental politics and public policy in Politics and International Relations at the University of Auckland.
Photo credit: Dominick Reuter—AFP/Getty Images