Might electing Trump have been better for climate concerns?

I'm still not sure whether having elected Trump over Clinton was a worse option where climate change is concerned. This isn't because I expect Trump to formulate great climate policy. (It's also not because of the potential cooling effects of a global nuclear war that he might trigger). Rather it's primarily accidental byproducts of Trumpian policy and how people are likely to react to his election that I'm thinking of.

The Kyoto Protocol didn't do much ... and I don't expect the Paris Climate Treaty to do much better

From a Clinton administration, I'd expect a continuation of strategies like the Paris Agreement, wherein groups pledge to reduce emissions over a future time period. I don't expect much in the way of similar such agreements from from the Trump administration1. These agreements seem to me to provide a false sense of security while accomplishing little.

The earlier Kyoto Protocol sets binding emission reductions target, but research suggests that countries didn't live up to these targets. Should I expect different from the Paris Treaty? Politicians seem to be afraid to tackle known problems when doing so is politically expedient - e.g. the US financial situation looks much worse than applying generational accounting principles - and emissions seem to me to be a case where the same applies. So far the ~370 coal plants that India is planning to build alone seem to jeopardize the targets. Europe doesn't seem to be doing much better with only Germany, France, and Sweden seeming to be on track in achieving their targets. These targets - even in the seemingly unlikely case they were achieved - appear to represent only a starting point. If it looks unlikely you'll achieve your original goals it would appear even more unlikely you'll meet your stretch goals.

Trump's voters are surprisingly supportive of renewable energy

Take this for example:

In a new survey of 2,000 Trump voters, the majority showed clearer support for climate action than the president-elect: 61% think that the government should require companies to reduce emissions, and 64% think that the budget for environmental protection should either stay the same or increase. While Trump promised to reduce environmental regulations during his campaign, 84% of Trump voters want either the same amount or more regulations on drinking water; 78% want the same amount or more regulations on air pollution. ... In another recent survey of Trump supporters, around three-quarters of voters want to see continued (or more) federal support for renewable energy.

Given the level of polarization in US politics, I suspect that the election of someone like Clinton would have triggered further resistance against any change in environmental regulations. If politicians are able to hear that their constituents support environmental regulations, they may adopt a similar strategy as has happened with the National Institutes of Health. There Trump called for significant cutbacks but the US congress ignored that and is pushing forward with a $2 billion budget increase.

If you listen to Trump's voters it seems likely to me that you could push forth similar policies on environmental issues. There was bipartisan legislation for continued renewable energy tax credits passed in December and Republican-led states are often amongst those most actively using wind and solar power.

Environmental policies originating from Republicans seem less likely to spark backlash

Back in March 2016 the New York Times ran an article on British Columbia's carbon tax concluding as follows:

If the United States embraced a carbon tax as part of a comprehensive overhaul of its tax system, the path would be much easier. That, however, would require Republicans in Washington to recognize that the threat of climate change is not simply a left-wing fantasy. If they do, British Columbia underscores there is a market friendly way to do something about it.

What you see Republicans introducing is a carbon tax proposal looking quite similar to British Columbia's. A later letter also added an interesting comment about how this might mesh well with both enviromentalist and Trumpian ideas:

A carbon tax is considered by many experts to be slam-dunk legal as a classic “indirect tax” for which border adjustment is allowed under international law. It is the best means by which carbon emissions can be curtailed here without sending our key industrial production there.

If voting for Trump was a vote against globalization, such legislation seems to be a way to impose further taxes on international trade without violating international treaties.

It's interesting to hear well-known climate scientists like James Hansen sound fairly enthusiastic about environmental policies introduced by Republicans.

A sense of desperation may cause Democrats (and others) to reassess risks they're willing to take

There are some really interesting parallels between arguments against refugees and against nuclear power though the groups making each type of argument are often different. I've seen a lot of arguments like You’re More Likely to Die Choking Than Be Killed by Foreign Terrorists, Data Show, telling people that they're overreacting against risks from allowing in refugees.

Consider that every risk estimate I looked at found nuclear energy to be a low risk form of power generation - differing only in the number of orders of magnitude it was less risky than fossil fuels. Despite this, political pressure is causing even those states and countries claiming to be at the forefront of the environment movement to shut down their nuclear powerplants based on perceived risk.

Note that in China the Banqiao Dam's failure killed over 150,000 people - a figure in roughly the same range as the combined death toll of the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki whereas Chernobyl, as of 2005 had resulted in fewer than 50 deaths with an estimate that up to 4000 additional people might have their lives shortened due to radiation exposure. Fukishima was estimated to most likely have shortened 130-180 lives. It seems have resulted in Japan replacing its nuclear power primarily by fossil fuels, recently announcing plans to build 45 new coal powerplants.

Germany's gotten a lot of good PR for their Energiewende program which adds solar and wind power to their grid, but praise seems at least somewhat undeserved. The country shutdown their nuclear reactors in the wake of Fukishima, replacing them not just with any coal but some of the highest emission intensity coal around - lignite. As a result, the emission intensity of the German power grid is about ten times that of France's. (The attitude towards nuclear energy in Europe seems to be mixed at best).

In the US there seems to be greater resistance to refugees amongst Republicans, while Democrats are more resistant to nuclear power. So far liberal states like California and New York have been shutting down nuclear plants, an action likely to boost their carbon footprint:

Consider this bit of counterfactual history. Environmental Progress, an advocacy group that aggressively supports the deployment of nuclear energy to combat climate change, estimated what California’s power sector would look like had the opposition from antinuclear forces — including Governor Brown — not undone the state’s deployment of nuclear energy, starting in the 1970s.

The power from San Onofre and the Rancho Seco nuclear generation station near Sacramento, both now shuttered, added to that from the never-built Sundesert nuclear plant in the Mojave Desert and three planned-but-not-built units at Diablo Canyon on the state’s central coast, would add a total of 77,000 gigawatt-hours of zero-carbon power to California’s supply. Only 27 percent of the power produced in California would come from fossil sources, other things remaining equal, as opposed to 66 percent today. And carbon emissions from power generation would be only 40 percent of what they are today.

... Unfortunately, it doesn’t look as if America’s governors and state legislators will take the lesson to heart. California is on track to shutter Diablo Canyon, its last remaining nuclear power plant. And in New York, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo just announced an agreement to close the Indian Point nuclear plant. When that happens, the state will lose almost a quarter of its zero-carbon power.

Might Trump's election be enough to get them to begin to reassess this?

Cutbacks in US federal spending might trigger more action elsewhere

I suspect that it's in part a reaction to Trump's victory that some US cities are investigating investing more heavily in electric vehicles. California's also pushing forward with vehicle pollution regulations.

Some of Trump's actions in other areas have sparked spending by various other countries - the US has no global monopoly on renewable energy research or spending. Will Trump's election spark a greater amount of funding than he's able to take away?

Renewables may already at cost parity (or better) with fossil fuels in certain areas

The cost curve seems to have started to flip in some areas, leaving renewables either no more expensive or even cheaper than the alternatives. Consider this:

The cost of solar generation has fallen more than 60 percent since 2009 and could drop another 40 to 60 percent by 2025, making solar the cheapest form of energy almost everywhere in the world. The cost of lithium-ion battery storage — key to both solar power and electric cars — has fallen below $350 per kilowatt-hour, down by more than two-thirds since 2010, and could fall below $100 per kWh within a decade.

To quote a recent UN Environment / Bloomberg New Energy Fund report:

after the dramatic cost reductions of the past few years, unsubsidised wind and solar can provide the lowest cost new electrical power in an increasing number of countries, even in the developing world – sometimes by a factor of two

This does gloss over the reliability issues somewhat, but the more solar and wind installed the better the economies of scale become. There may already be a large enough portion of the planet in which renewables provide the lowest cost energy to subsidize further research to continue to improve efficiency.

There's a need to buy time ... and environmentalists may be the primary ones blocking it

There's an interesting element to a lot of environmental regulation that doesn't get enough attention:

There is a serious structural problem when it’s easier to obtain agency approvals to destroy a wetland than it is to obtain approvals to restore that same wetland. But unfortunately, that’s the upside-down reality we live in today.

... Federal environmental laws were passed with good intentions, but unfortunately many of them have resulted in many unintended consequences that impede environmental progress. This is not to suggest we should jettison them, but they do require modernization to bring about more common sense and better results.

By and large it seems to be that the announced plans for "aggressive" rollback of environmental regulations by the EPA are bad - more a destructive slash-and-burn than a careful pruning of regulations - but they may have some unexpected benefits by cracking open the door to new options.

I still like this headline: Does Russ George deserve a Nobel Prize or a prison sentence?2, which looks at a plan for iron fertilization of the ocean. Iron fertilization works on the notion that plankton growth is restricted by the amount of certain scarce nutrients, and that supplying needed iron will stimulate plankton blooms, thus both sequestering CO2 and increasing the food sources available to fish.

Iron fertilization is a plan that, as the article above notes, violates international laws and various UN conventions. It does seem a great illustration of the notion mentioned earlier that it may be easier to get legal approval to destroy the environment than to try to restore it. For example, the Gulf of Mexico dead zone is due in large part to the effects of human activity. That seems to continue relatively unimpeded whereas George's plan draws opposition despite having a reasonable likelihood of increasing concentrations of ocean life and removing CO2 from the atmosphere. There's even a reasonable case that George's strategy would largely be adding to the oceans what natural processes would have already provided in the absence of human activity. i.e. An increase in CO2 levels seems to have led to a significant increase in land-based plant-life and thus decreased the amount of nutrient-carrying dust entering into the oceans.

George did one experiment in the north Pacific off the coast of British Columbia, which seems to have really positive results as far as the salmon run was concerned:

The largest run of Pink salmon occurred between 12 and 20 months after the HSRC’s iron seeding. According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the 2013 pink salmon harvest was the second most valuable on record. In the northeast Pacific, the Speaker reports that salmon catches have surged from 50 million to 226 million. In BC’s Fraser River, catches shot past the average 25 million to an unprecedented 72 million.

The salmon run of 2016 seems to have returned only about 10% of what it was in 2013, leaving a very odd coincidence seemingly the best alternate explanation to George's plan having successfully increased aquatic life for that year, seemingly making a good case for its continuation as a matter of necessity.

There are also studies of the impact of volcanoes - e.g. that 2010 Iceland-based volcano's eruption causing the ocean to absorb hundreds of millions of tonnes of CO2 - or icebergs (which in part exist due to climate change) forming trails of CO2-absorbing plankton as they melt and release embedded dust.

Trump's election seems to have the virtue of probably increasing the odds that such a plan could be carried out, and it seems to me that it's bordering on criminal not to be at least increasingly exploring this option. It's also something that you could carry out on a planetary scale for significantly less than, e.g., GreenPeace takes to operate. It's not dependent on massive government funding like many projects would require - and could take place across the planet for a cost significantly less than the budget of just one environmental organization. Greenpeace brought in about $400 million USD in 2014 whereas George did his experiment in the North Atlantic with a budget on the order of $1 million USD. The primary obstacle to pursing such a strategy would seem to be getting governments and environmentalists out of the way.

I've also been hearing a lot more in the news lately regarding solar geo-engineering - something which I doubt would be the case had Trump not been elected. As with iron fertilization there are risks - you can find them outlined here:

As David Keith who's involved in researching solar geoengineering himself pointed out in a piece entitled Fear of solar geoengineering is healthy – but don't distort our research, there are good reasons to be cautious of geoengineering but also reports from places like the IPCC suggesting that solar geoengineering is likely to reduce global warming's effects. He also notes that the US National Academy of Science and the UK's Royal Society support such research. It seems to me that this may not be something to widely deploy at this time, but that it's also worth further exploration.

Another way to buy time ... an economic slowdown

This article isn't written as a defense of Trump - in fact I think he's predictably proving to be a bad president. One of the likely effects of bad economic policies would seem to be a decrease in emissions caused by an economic slowdown. It's an effect we've probably seen before - e.g. Economy, Not Natural Gas, Cut U.S. Emissions:

From 2007 to 2009, when emissions decreased by nearly 10 percent, the data revealed that 53 percent of that drop resulted simply from consumers (and manufacturers) buying less stuff — make less stuff, and you use less energy. Meanwhile, only 17 percent of the decline in emissions was a result of replacing coal with natural gas.


To try to sum this up, I suspect a Clinton presidency would have resulted in more climate treaties like the one reached in Paris. I'm quite cynical about the likelihood of future politicians living up to such agreements when there may be significant political incentives to defect from them.

Those who voted for Trump actually seem fairly supportive of environmental policies, providing an incentive for Republican politicians to introduce environmental legislation that, if introduced by Democrats would be more likely to spark opposition given the level of political polarization.

The reaction to Trump also seems likely to cause others to reassess things. I suspect it's helped spark certain investments from US cities and may have helped push along state level changes in California likely to reduce emissions. Other Trump policy changes sparked further investment from other countries and we might likewise see more funding for environmental policies from such countries in the future as an attempt to compensate for any changes Trump makes. Nuclear power tend to attract more opposition from Democrats than Republicans and I wonder if fear of Trump might spark reassessment here. Similarly, Trump being in power might both increase support for geoengineering policies that seem to me to be needed and also make them more feasible to accomplish by cutting regulations which impede these projects from progressing.

The legacy of prior investment in renewable energy research seems to already have lead to renewables being the lowest-cost source for power in certain locations. This alone may be enough to subsidize research to further reduce costs although I expect numerous governments to continue to contribute.

This isn't a scientific case, though I don't think it contradicts current science. This also isn't a defense of Trump, but more some thoughts on how others are likely to react and what impact those reactions seem likely to have.