The past year brought profound setbacks and unexpected silver linings in the world's quest to curb climate change.
The U.S. presidential election significantly altered the fight to keep Earth's temperature rise to less than 2 degrees Celsius. Donald Trump entered the White House promising to "undo" both the U.S. and the world's climate action plans, embodied in the 2015 Paris Agreement. Since then, a singular challenge has been to help key actors see the remarkable opportunities that have arisen to go far beyond simply defending what would have been the status quo under Hillary Clinton's leadership.
The events that followed President Trump's inauguration have been extraordinary because, if anything, his actions to unravel the world's commitment to stemming climate change so far have done just the opposite.
On the campaign trail, Trump promised to take the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement and bring coal back from its decades-long decline. The world expressed shock when he announced that he would withdraw the country from the Paris Agreement unless he could negotiate a "better deal." The world was less shocked when Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt announced repeal of the Clean Power Plan, the core of the U.S. pledge to limit carbon emissions under the Agreement.
In just nine months in office, the Administration rescinded, delayed, or attempted to delay Obama-era measures to limit methane emissions from oil and gas production, stem water pollution from coal mines, reduce fossil fuel extraction from federal lands and waters, and consider climate change in federally-funded building projects. While Trump failed to deliver major legislation on other topics, there have been multiple "wins" dismantling environmental protections for America's air, land, and water.
The Trump Administration's attack on the environment—coupled with real-time evidence that the climate has already taken a dangerous turn—was disheartening for us at MacArthur, as well as our grantees and many around the world. However, the silver lining came in reaction to Trump's actions. From small-town American mayors to leaders of the world's most powerful countries to multinational corporate giants, the world pushed back.
Trump's mandates against climate action drove the world to redouble its commitment to the Paris Agreement—leaving the Trump Administration as the lone dissenter. China partnered with the European Union to rally the rest of the world to stick with the Paris Agreement. China stepped up closures of coal mines and coal-fired power plants, while committing to the world's largest investment in expanding renewable energy. France, the United Kingdom, India, and China announced their intentions to phase out automobiles powered by fossil fuels in the next two to three decades. The world's largest automakers announced major shifts toward manufacturing electric vehicles.
President Trump's moves also prompted U.S. governors and mayors to form alliances promising to do all they could to implement the Paris Agreement. The governor of California, the world's sixth largest economy—larger than France and Brazil—went to Beijing to forge bilateral agreements to address climate change. U.S. governors, mayors, corporate leaders, and philanthropists attended November's U.N. climate summit in force to reiterate their collective commitment to meeting the U.S. pledge under the Paris Agreement.
In the end, Trump's efforts may actually accelerate the decline of coal. According to the Sierra Club, by scrapping the Clean Power Plan, the Trump administration left major utilities, which plan on 20- to 30-year horizons, open to discussing cuts far beyond the Plan's 30 percent.
Defense of climate action will continue to be of critical importance and ambitions must increase....
A week after EPA chief Scott Pruitt announced "the end of the war on coal" via repeal of the Clean Power Plan, CoalSwarm and Greenpeace published research that showed 25 percent of the 1,675 companies worldwide that owned or developed coal-fired power since 2010 had left the industry with no plans to return. Around the same time, S&P Global Ratings warned that coal mines and coal-fired power plants would be "vastly impaired" assets going forward.
As the Beyond Coal campaign works to eliminate U.S. coal power by 2030, China appears locked into radically cutting coal consumption, spurred by choking smog that plagues the country's influential urban areas. In India, solar energy is fighting coal power for supremacy.
Today, the Trump administration's efforts to "undo" climate action at home and abroad have been dramatic in their intent but not in their effect. In fact, they appear to have galvanized a critical mass of leaders in government and industry—across the U.S. and around the world—to commit more adamantly to a low-carbon future. Defense of climate action will continue to be of critical importance and ambitions must increase, but powerful new alliances spurred by a changing world order seem to be emboldened.