The Road Ahead: Global Warming

Optimism and hope are not the same thing, and there are some reasons to be hopeful that progress on climate will continue, even during a Trump administration.

The 2016 election has come and gone. President-elect Trump, members of Congress, governors and state legislators are now waking up to the fact that they are running the country and are planning their transition to power.

There is no better time to take a step back and take stock of where we are as a country on the issues that will shape our future. Over the coming weeks, Frontier Group analysts will be providing their view of the road ahead on the issues on which they work.

The election of Donald J. Trump to the presidency is a disaster for the climate. The United States – which had moved gradually over the course of the Obama administration from obstructionism to leadership in international efforts to address global warming – has now voted for a man that has promised to disrupt those efforts. Key federal climate and clean energy policies will be put in immediate danger. Some, such as David Roberts at Vox, have argued that Trump’s election virtually guarantees that the world will miss the target of preventing global warming of greater than 2 degrees Celsius and, therefore, usher in a reality of dangerous climate disruption from which there will be no return.

It would be a mistake, however, to give up on the fight against global warming, not only because, as Roberts argues, every incremental reduction in temperature rise remains important, even above the 2 degree threshold, but also because a scan of the field reveals opportunities for progress that might not be immediately apparent.

Here are seven reasons why now is not the time to throw in the towel:

State Power – America’s recent period of climate progress began not under President Obama but under George W. Bush. America’s emissions of greenhouse gases peaked in 2007 and had been roughly stable for several years before that, due in part to clean energy leadership at the state level.

States have tremendous power over day-to-day energy policy decision-making. In a 2009 report I co-authored with partners at Frontier Group and Environment America Research & Policy Center called America on the Move, we wrote the following: “States have the power to limit carbon dioxide emissions, to regulate electric and natural gas utilities, to adopt standards for the energy performance of buildings and equipment, to regulate land use and transportation policy and, on a limited basis, to establish emission standards for vehicles.” That is a wide and deep field of action. In the same report, we estimated that state climate and clean energy policies and federal policies modeled after those state actions would reduce U.S. carbon dioxide emissions by about 7 percent of 2007 levels by 2020. Arguably, the impact of those policies is even greater as they have helped create the conditions for clean energy technologies – from LED light bulbs to solar panels – to become competitive in the marketplace.

Job Creation – During the presidential campaign, Trump committed to getting the economies of those places that have been left out of the economic recovery of recent years moving again. In places like western Pennsylvania and West Virginia, that commitment was voiced in terms of a return to the postwar U.S. industrial economy of coal mines and steel mills. But if Trump is to be judged on his ability to create jobs and economic progress in the short- to medium-term – and, given the grandiosity of his claims, he should be – he may find that clean energy investments are a quicker path to job growth than lumpy, capital-intensive investments in, say, coal-fired power plants.

Clean energy solutions like solar panels and energy efficiency improvements are often backed by greens but delivered by hard hats. There are currently more Americans employed in the solar energy industry than in oil, gas and coal extraction combined. In short, there are practical reasons consistent with his campaign promises that could – if pragmatism surmounts ideology, which is by no means a given – inhibit Trump from killing the industries that are putting food on the table for people across America, including in many of the communities that supported him for the presidency.

Popularity – Clean energy is wildly popular, its popularity is bipartisan and it has a broad geographic base. Concern about climate change is also widespread and growing. The majority positions on these issues may not be respected in a one-party government, but they still matter and provide a fruitful opportunity for organizing and activism across a wide variety of fields of action.

Technological Advances – The last decade of clean energy progress could turn out to have been decisive in bringing a slew of technologies – from wind turbines to solar panels to LED light bulbs to electric cars – to the point of economic competitiveness with the dirty energy technologies of old. This is a bell that perhaps cannot be unrung. Policy changes under a Trump administration can make the shift to these technologies slower than it might otherwise have been, and keep legacy technologies like coal-fired power plants and internal combustion engine vehicles in place longer than they should be, but in an increasing number of cases, clean energy options are already the economically preferable choice. That is unlikely to change in a Trump administration and, as long as world adoption of those technologies continues to grow, it may even accelerate.

Special Interest Politics – Another change from 10 years ago is that the clean energy industry is a special interest player in its own right. One can deplore special interest politics – and I do – but within our current system it matters. And it matters in Red or Purple states as well as on the coasts.

Moreover, the interests of the fossil fuel corporations most likely to benefit from a Trump presidency – the oil, gas and coal industries – are not always aligned and sometimes conflict. The natural gas industry, for example, competes with coal in electric generation, and policies that privilege one could draw the opposition of the other. The campaign to roll back clean energy policies may, therefore, generate its own headwinds, even within the Trump coalition.

Red State Politics – People in Blue States often have a simplistic view of Red State politics. (And vice versa, actually.) States like Texas have deliberately cultivated clean energy sources like wind power, which is economically important in much of the Midwest and Plains states as well. The fearsome opposition to fossil fuel infrastructure proposals like Keystone XL and the Dakota Access pipeline gets its energy in large part from local people – farmers, ranchers, Native Americans and those who see fossil fuel infrastructure as a direct threat to their life and well-being, regardless of their level of concern about the climate. And these concerns are replicated in states like Pennsylvania that are being ripped apart by fracking and North Carolina, where local residents have had it with coal ash storage that threatens local waterways. Those grassroots movements have not yet gained enough power to upend decision-making at the state level, but they exist and they are growing.

Do not be surprised if the prairie fire kicked up by anti-fossil fuel organizing is inflamed, rather than calmed, by the stiff wind of a Trump presidency. Giving massive fossil fuel companies license to ram pipelines through rural areas against the wishes of local folk has the potential to generate populist opposition not that different from that which powered Trump’s rise on election day.

Cities and Institutions – Federal and state policy are not the only venues for effective climate action. Many leading cities remain committed to aggressive action to reduce carbon pollution and adapt to climate change, while institutions from corporations to universities have plans in place as well.

In short, there is no reason to be optimistic about the chances for real climate progress in a Trump administration. But optimism and hope are not the same thing, and there are some reasons to be hopeful that progress will continue – even as we recognize that such actions are very unlikely to be “enough.” For climate advocates and organizers, it’s time to defend what can be defended and reopen the playbook to explore where new opportunities may arise.


Tony Dutzik

Associate Director and Senior Policy Analyst, Frontier Group

Tony Dutzik is associate director and senior policy analyst with Frontier Group. His research and ideas on climate, energy and transportation policy have helped shape public policy debates across the U.S., and have earned coverage in media outlets from the New York Times to National Public Radio. A former journalist, Tony lives and works in Boston.