Donald Trump’s presidential victory on November 8 came as a shock to many, and has alarmed scientists, NGOs and governments around the world. As we write in Nature today, the global environmental community is particularly concerned by Trump’s anti-climate and broader anti-environmental stance during his presidential campaign.
Trump’s more extreme campaign statements may not eventuate. But there will most likely be substantive changes in how the United States engages with the world on environmental, and many other, issues.
Yet the environmental movement must not wallow in despair at the prospect of President Trump. It must instead actively look for opportunities under a post-Obama administration.
What if the US leaves international treaties?
The United States has provided important, albeit intermittent, leadership for the global environmental movement since the 1970s. Yet President-elect Trump campaigned on a strong anti-environmental platform.
Certainly, given the consistency of his campaign promises on the issue, the next US president may actively withdraw his nation from the Paris Agreement on climate change.
In an indication of this, Myron Ebell, the head of the transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is a known, vocal climate change denier, and Scott Pruitt, the nominated head of the EPA, has actively opposed Obama’s policies to reduce US greenhouse gas emissions.
However, the environmental movement should not see reduced US support for multilateral environmental treaties such as the Paris Agreement as all doom and gloom. This would also provide other powerful nations like China with an opportunity to provide greater leadership.
China is already a signatory to more than 50 international environmental treaties, including the Paris Agreement and the Convention on Biological Diversity, which has never been ratified by the US. Domestically, China has implemented numerous policies in support of its international environmental commitments. This includes setting up the world’s largest carbon trading market.
Critics will argue that China’s environmental commitments and policies, both domestically and internationally, have many shortcomings. But China has shown much greater initiative on challenges like climate change in recent years.
Provided that a critical mass of other countries stand together with China, the global environmental agenda can continue to strengthen in spite of weakened US support.
For example, Indonesia, Australia and many other countries have indicated that they will press ahead with the Paris Agreement together with China, regardless of what President Trump does in the coming years.
It isn’t just about national governments either. A less environmentally minded Trump administration is an opportunity to strengthen initiatives that are independent of the US federal government. Examples include environmental commitments by subnational units of government, cities, and companies, as well as community groups.
In fact, reduced US federal government support for global environmental treaties may create the space for greater experimentation, innovation and learning by actors at levels other than national government. A sign of a greater role by non-US government actors under Trump is the surge in donations to environmental NGOs following the election result.
Beyond the US
Trump was elected on a campaign promise of trade protectionism unseen since the second world war. But protectionism could also present an opening to strengthen environmental safeguards.
Global commerce facilitated by international trade poses many threats to biodiversity. So trade protectionism could be used to support environmental protection. For example, nations could take action against importing products that threaten key ecosystems or species.
At present, such restrictions are determined by consumers and companies making choices along the supply chain. National legislation could be much stronger.
But strong protectionism also presents great uncertainties and risks. Today’s global conservation and environmental movement was established in the space provided by the US-led global security and economic order after the second world war.
If a Trump administration does shift the US away from this leadership role, the global power relationships could change radically. The environmental movement will need to be proactive and adapt quickly.
For example, a post-US-led world order may allow alternatives to the US-style capitalist form of social organisation to become more influential. Alternative models, based on goals that include the environment and wellbeing, may have more space to establish themselves. Examples include the Genuine Progress Indicator and Gross National Happiness.
The next four years will be challenging. Environmentalists will need to be vociferous in raising concerns with the US government.
The uncertainties of a Trump presidency call for a proactive and flexible approach that can cope with the risks and seize the opportunities. President Trump represents an opportunity to strengthen the environmental movement, not just for the next four years, but for the years after that too.