SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 206 March 2017

Trumping the climate

The first thing Donald Trump did on becoming US president was to remove any mention of climate change from the White House website. This was not surprising since he had already called global warming ‘a hoax’ and ‘bullshit’. In the two months before his inauguration, he had assembled a team of climate change deniers and climate change effects deniers who would be given responsibility for environmental policy and key jobs in his administration.

Myron Ebell was put in charge of the transition team for the environment. He has a record going back decades attacking climate science, as a head of the big oil funded Competitive Enterprise Institute. Ebell has always maintained, without a shred of evidence, that the climate science consensus supporting the idea of fossil fuel driven global warming is the result of a conspiracy of scientists who are feathering their own nests. He sent two of his associates to the UN climate conference last November to stage a stunt to ridicule it, which resulted in them being kicked out. Over the years, however, even he has been gradually forced to retreat in the face of the overwhelming evidence – from outright climate change denial to denying that the effects of climate change will be serious.

Ebell no doubt feels he has more wiggle room taking this position, since predicting the effects of global warming into the future inevitably entails a degree of uncertainty. For example, it is not yet possible to prove definitively that current extreme weather events are linked to global warming. Nevertheless, the evidence is growing every year and is becoming compelling. Ebell’s change in tone was reflected in Trump’s comment, moving away from his hoax and bullshit rhetoric to admitting that there was ‘some’ connection between burning fossil fuels and climate change.

Myron Ebell is setting his sights, in particular, on the Chinese renewable energy industry which he considers to be a threat to ‘freedom’. The threat he has in mind is to the profits of big oil and the frackers, who face competition from the Chinese solar cell and wind power firms dominating the world market. He says that China’s domination of the renewables sector will force up energy prices, implying that Chinese manufacturers are dumping their subsidised products on the energy market, forcing low-cost fossil fuel out of business.

The clear hint is that there should be retaliation by the Trump administration, forming part of a future trade war with China. It is true that the Chinese renewable industry has received hidden government subsidies, allowing it to dominate the market. And subsidies, without being an answer to global warming in a capitalist context, can have a small but significant effect on the uptake of renewable technology. A trade war would put this into reverse.

Trump and Ebell’s purely cosmetic PR shift away from outright climate change denial, however, has not got through to the president’s pick for head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Scott Pruitt. Since becoming Oklahoma State Attorney General in 2011, Pruitt has launched relentless attacks on the EPA. He has sued it 14 times, opposing environmental protection laws against the effects of mercury, arsenic and other toxic chemical emissions from power stations, and laws against smog and smoke pollution.

Pruitt sued the EPA to reduce the scope of a law to prevent contamination of streams and wetlands. He has also brought a lawsuit against EPA regarding its action to cut ozone levels in the atmosphere. The depletion of the ozone layer due to aerosol use is a cause of skin cancer, and could kill hundreds of thousands in the coming decades. Reducing ozone was the aim of one of the few successful international environmental agreements, at Montreal in the 1980s, probably the reason Pruitt has targeted it.

In 2014 he formed a secret alliance between the Republican Attorney General and big energy companies to attack the EPA, which included sending a letter in his name to the EPA on behalf of energy company lawyers. The alliance has the aim of removing nearly all environmental protections, and it collaborated with corporations and lobbyists to take out lawsuits against Federal regulations on fracking and air pollution.

In the teeth of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Pruitt claims that scientists ‘continue to disagree’ about the science of climate change, and that the science behind human induced global warming is ‘far from settled’. He has never acknowledged any link with fossil fuels, and has even raised the possibility that climate ‘alarmists’ could be prosecuted for fraud.

One of the insiders in Pruitt’s unholy alliance was Harold Hamm, Trump’s energy advisor and CEO of the USA’s largest fracking company. Hamm was the chair of Pruitt’s re-election campaign in 2013, and was the strongest advocate of the Dakota Access Pipeline which Trump intends to build. His company’s oil will flow through the pipeline if it is built.

Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of oil multinational ExxonMobil, is now the US Secretary of State and will play a key role in international negotiations on the environment. Reflecting the chaos in the Trump camp, he has contradicted his president on the Paris climate agreement adopted in December 2015 by saying that the US should "keep its seat at the table". In his confirmation hearings, however, he wrote: "I do not believe that the scientific consensus supports their [greenhouse gases] characterisation as the ‘key’ factor [in rising temperatures]". The overwhelming scientific consensus is that it does.

At the time of writing it has not been announced that the US will pull out of the Paris climate agreement. Trump may be waiting until Pruitt is confirmed by the US Senate as head of the EPA. He has made it clear that he intends to withdraw, although the Paris deal was set up to make it bureaucratically difficult and time consuming to formally do so. In reality, Trump does not need to pull out to free the hands of the oil companies, because it was set up to be completely voluntary. There will be no sanction against the USA if Trump simply chooses to ignore it.

It is completely false to imply, as some anti-Trump liberals are doing, that before he came along things were moving in the right direction on global warming. In the highly unlikely event that all the promises made at the Paris climate conference were honoured, climate science is predicting that global temperatures would probably still rise by 3°C above pre-industrial levels.

Any rise in temperature above 2°C could cause the release of methane gas from the permafrost – methane is many times more dangerous than carbon dioxide, the main driver of climate change at present. It is true that US greenhouse gas emissions seem to have plateaued in recent years, but this has been a feature of all western industrialised countries as they off-shored their pollution to China. On a world scale, carbon dioxide emissions have risen massively over the past 25 years.

For decades, the US capitalist class has been making it clear that it would not give a free ride to competitors, in particular China, on measures to address global warming. This was true for all administrations, from Bill Clinton’s Democratic administration onwards. Trump is just saying openly and crudely that he intends to continue with this policy. Nonetheless, his proposed dismantling of nearly all environmental laws and the climate science infrastructure does pose a threat unlike that of any previous president. A decisive break with the capitalist system in the USA and internationally remains the only road to address the threat of global warming.

Pete Dickenson

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