The election of Donald Trump will have lasting repercussions. And as a member of a generation that will have to deal with the fallout of Trump’s policies for a lifetime, I think it’s important to stress just how consequential these next four years will be, especially as it relates to climate change and social justice.
Indeed, every day wasted in the fight to rein in greenhouse gas emissions locks in future warming, and with it, more human suffering and more expensive and risky actions to address the impacts.
As it stands, we are looking at an average global temperature increase of around 3 degrees Celsius, even with the recent actions taken in Paris. For perspective, climate scientists say we need to stay below 2-degrees warming to stave off catastrophic climate change.
The prejudiced, extremist policies of the Trump Republicans will worsen this problem measurably. Aside from putting Scott Pruitt as head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)—a man who has made a career out of attacking EPA policies, including on climate change regulations—the Trump Republicans are currently moving forward on many actions that will set us back on addressing climate change, including:
- Clearing the way for construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, the Keystone XL Pipeline, and potentially other large fossil-fuel infrastructure. These will not only transport some of the most polluting, carbon-intensive, habitat-decimating fossil fuels, but have also resulted in human rights violations and will lock in fossil-fuel infrastructure for several decades.
- Opening up public lands to coal mining, reviving mountaintop removal mining, and dumping coal waste into streams. Coal is the dirtiest of the fossil fuels, and results in arguably the most habitat destruction and cost to human well-being.
- Easing regulations on methane emissions. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas (about 25 times more potent than CO2) emitted from fracking, livestock production, and landfills.
- Dismantling fuel economy standards set to double fuel efficiency in our cars and trucks.
- Scuttling the Clean Power Plan, which—if it survived a court challenge—would cut carbon emissions by 32 percent from electricity production.
- Pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement. Although there is already talk of other nations going ahead with emissions reductions without us, the fact remains that the United States still produces the lion’s share of per capita emissions. Without bold action by the U.S. it’s unlikely global average temperatures will stay below catastrophic levels.
Unmitigated climate change will almost certainly swell the ranks of an already elevated number of refugees. Increased droughts in some areas and flooding in others will devastate crops, leading to increased food prices and famine.
Sea-level rise, wildfires, and loss of drinking water supplies will force people from the coasts and dry areas to inland cities in more temperate regions, stressing political systems to a point we haven’t seen before.
As government systems fail in developing countries, refugees will look to the developed world for assistance. Given the unethical response we’ve seen thus far from most European countries, Australia, and of course now the United States in taking in refugees, it is hard to believe that as resources become scarce that developed nations will have a change of heart.
This may sound like science fiction, but we are already seeing runaway impacts with just 1 degree of warming. Moreover, if the Pentagon claims this threatens our national security and business leaders are worried about their bottom lines, perhaps this is an issue we should take seriously.
Indeed, analysts now believe that climate-induced drought served as a precipitating factor in the Syrian civil war. As farmers suffered from one of the worst droughts in living memory (which climate scientists assert was exacerbated by climate change), they moved to cities in search of assistance. The Assad government ignored their citizens’ interests, and thus, along with many other Arab nations, the Syrian people rose up to demand better governance. We have all seen the disturbing photos and videos of the brutal war crimes the Assad regime committed, and the humanitarian disaster that is the refugee crisis. As climate destabilization continues, and fresh water becomes scarce, it’s hard to imagine a future in which this is not repeated.
But although developing nations will be hit hardest, countries like the United States are not immune. Not only will we have a moral obligation to take in many more refugees, but the poorest and most disenfranchised in our society will be hit hardest. We have already seen heatwaves hit cities that disproportionately impact low income communities located in urban heat islands–many residents of which lack air conditioning–sending thousands to the emergency room or even the morgue. The humanitarian disaster of Hurricane Katrina is a perfect example of how climate injustice occurs.
Indigenous peoples in the U.S. are especially at risk, as their lands, livelihoods, and cultures will all be impacted by a changing climate. Sea-level rise is already forcing Alaska Native communities from their homes. And as ecosystems shift, culturally-important species are moving out of indigenous lands.
So, clearly, we must take action. However, we must also remember that action has to be equitable. In the process of restructuring our economy, we must ensure that fossil fuel industry workers are provided the training and education needed to enter a clean energy, tech-intensive economy.
Is there room for optimism? I would argue (cautiously) yes. The solar industry now employs more people than the coal, oil, and gas industries combined. Not to mention the growing number of people employed in wind energy and making homes and businesses more energy efficient. The economics are stacked against coal companies. But that doesn’t mean the fight is over.
We must hold our elected officials accountable. The Women’s March on Washington, protests against President Trump’s Muslim travel ban, and the surge in participation in congressional town hall meetings are encouraging signs. The second People’s Climate March on Washington on April 29th is another great opportunity to make our voices heard.
But this movement requires more than political action on the national level. We must work locally to make an equitable transition to a clean energy economy and ensure that our communities are resilient to the impacts of climate change.
This is not just a moral call to solve an impending humanitarian crisis, but an opportunity to provide new economic prospects for people out of work. Moreover, this is an opportunity to transcend cynical Washington politics and hopefully start to heal our post-election wounds. But we will only be successful if we work to address environmental, economic, and social justice issues simultaneously. This is neither a conservative issue nor a liberal issue; This is an ethical issue, and we ought to start treating it as such.
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