What a shock. 47% of the country is ecstatic, and expecting great things, although we are still not sure what. But for the 53% of the country that did not vote for Donald Trump, we have a lot to be afraid of. Mass deportations, erosion of religious freedom, the growth of an overbearing security state, the loss of health insurance for 20 million people, trade wars, misogyny writ large—these are the demons driving most liberals’ anguish since yesterday morning.
But the biggest threat, the one that sent me into a serious depression this morning, is the one no one is talking about–and it could end up being the greatest consequence of this election: if a President Trump follows through with his pledges on climate change regulation, it could lock the planet into runaway global warming that threatens civilization and the planet for thousands of years.
There’s no way around it, stopping climate change is the great issue of our time. Aside from the (still remote) possibility of the use of nuclear weapons, the rapid deterioration of the climate that has made civilization possible is the only existential-level threat facing humanity today. And scientists have warned us that the next four years are crucial: if the planet heats up much more, irreversible feedback loops like melting permafrost will kick in, locking us in to a self-reinforcing cycle of warming: the hotter the planet gets, the more CO2 is released, which in turn heats up the earth even more, releasing more CO2, and so on. By the end of the century, the earth’s temperature could be as far above the average for the last 10,000 years as the last ice age was below it, and it will be too late to do anything to stop it. Collapsing agricultural systems, devastated ecosystems, and rising sea levels would threaten the livelihoods and lives of hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people around the world. Compared to that, all the other things that could happen in the next 4 years are small potatoes (though of course still devastating to the individuals affected).
President Obama had secured multiple policies which together were perhaps the planet’s last, best hope for staving off climate change’s worst effects: the Paris climate agreement, his Clean Power Plan that limited CO2 emissions from power plants, and big funding for renewable energy research that promised breakthrough technologies to wean us off fossil fuels. All we’d had to do was to make sure that the next President does not undo those things, and we might have a fighting chance.
But President-Elect Trump has vowed not only to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement and scrap the Clean Power Plan, he’s even promised to eliminate all federal funding for renewable energy and basic climate research. In other words, all the hard work of the past 8 years is at risk of being undone and worse.
This looks pretty grim. As Brad Plumber writes at Vox:
These are decisions that will reverberate for thousands of years and affect hundreds of millions of people. We can’t easily undo the effects of all that extra carbon dioxide we keep putting into the air. Without drastic reductions in emissions (or possibly risky geoengineering), global temperatures will keep rising. The ice caps in Greenland and Antarctica will keep melting. Once that process gets underway, we can’t reverse it. The seas will rise. South Florida will eventually vanish beneath the oceans. Megadroughts will become more likely in the Southwest. For generations and generations.
This is the future of humanity. We’re at risk of departing from the stable climatic conditions that sustained civilization for thousands of years and lurching into the unknown. The world’s poorest countries, in particular, are ill-equipped to handle this disruption.
So if you care about this issue as deeply as I do, what next?
Well, there’s always the possibility that Trump might moderate on the issue, or we might be able to convince him – and certainly we should try. But I’m not hopeful that we’ll find solutions from our government during the next 2-4 years.
Barring a miracle, the private sector will need to step up to fill the gap. Private companies and investors of course can’t force coal-fired power plants to meet emissions standards, but they can help to develop and scale up the technologies to replace fossil fuels. In the long-run, this could even prove faster than regulation at reducing carbon emissions (as we’ve seen from relatively clean natural gas displacing coal as gas has become cheaper). Once solar and wind reach grid parity, renewables will just be common sense, and utilities could make the transition relatively quickly. Renewables are already cheaper than fossil fuels in many developing countries that don’t have significant existing grid infrastructure and can therefore electrify more cheaply by leapfrogging straight to solar.
What’s needed is sustained funding and investment from commercial investors, impact investors, and private foundations like Gates, Chan-Zuckerberg, and Buffett, who should now make climate and energy their #1 priority. This means:
- Funding research and development into renewable energy—both advanced research into “moonshots” as well as more mundane efforts to make existing technologies cheaper—to speed the achievement of grid parity for renewables. Again, if renewables are cheaper than fossil fuels, regulation becomes unnecessary.
- Investing in the scaling up of existing renewable energy technologies—both in developed countries where they’ll replace existing fossil fuels, as well as developing countries where they’ll prevent fossil fuels from ever being used in the first place. Because renewables are cheaper than building new grid infrastructure in these environments, these are profitable investments with relatively short paybacks of 18-36 months.
The funding need is not even that great—after all, total federal spending on renewable energy research is only about $5 billion per year.
None of this is to diminish the huge blow this election has dealt to efforts to stave off climate disaster. If Paris and the Clean Power Plan are scrapped, we’re putting ourselves in existential danger. But hope is not all lost. And we have to move forward – the stakes are too high just to give up. And with government not likely to carry its weight, the best remaining way I see to get carbon emissions under control is deploying the huge amounts of private money that is available to develop climate solutions.
Simply put, if you have money and you care about this issue, it’s time to start putting your money where your heart is, because the government probably won’t be carrying its load. Donate to League of Conservation Voters or WWF. Invest in renewable energy research. Get a job with a renewable energy company.
And for those of us already working in the industry (as I am), we’ll need to work harder than ever.