Since January 20, 2017, the United States has had a climate change denier occupying the highest office in the land. Donald Trump has proven himself time and again to be at best a science skeptic and at worst actively anti-science, whether he's spouting off nonsense like claiming the sound from wind turbines cause cancer or staring directly into a solar eclipse.
It's one thing for a common Twitter troll, even one with 80 million followers, to make false statements, like claiming that climate change is just a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese in order to harm U.S. manufacturing jobs. It's another thing entirely for a person who believes such disprovable garbage to be making decisions on how the richest and most influential country on the planet responds to climate change.
Four years of Trump's anti-scientific approach has had devastating effects on the country's environmental policies. The President and his cohorts at the Environmental Protection Agency and Interior Department have already started or completed the rollback of more than 100 environmental protections. That includes efforts to weaken clean water requirements, open waterways for toxic waste dumping, undo pollution restrictions for coal plants, give companies permission to ignore methane leaks, and upend restrictions on mercury emissions. The regulatory slashing has happened so haphazardly that even the country's biggest polluters have at times pushed back, claiming that the efforts have gone too far.
On top of undoing many of the domestic policies put in place by administrations that came before, Trump has also undermined the country's position as a leader on the global stage. Upon taking office, Trump announced that the US would withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, an international accord that had the support of 197 countries. He's also signaled at every possible opportunity that he simply does not care about climate change, ignoring United Nations climate summits and skipping out on sessions about the topic during G7 meetings.
It's hard to quantify the exact impact that the first four years of Trump have had on the environment, but we know that the results have been less than stellar. According to a study published last month by the independent energy research firm Rhodium Group, the climate policies of Trump's first term are projected to add 1.8 gigatons, or 1.8 billion metric tons, of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by 2035. That's about one-third of the total emissions produced by the US in 2019. Much of that is the result of Trump's soft spot for fossil fuel. Nearly 600 million metric tons will come from increased oil exploration and methane releases. Another 450 million metric tons will come from personal vehicles, which do not have to meet previously set fuel efficiency standards thanks to Trump's decision to undo those requirements and allow manufacturers to produce more gas-guzzling vehicles.
That's not great. The only thing that could possibly be worse, according to experts, is four more years of similar policies.
Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, tells Mic that a second Trump term could be "game over for the climate."
According to the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, if we are going to stave off the worst impacts of climate change, we have to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions to 45 percent below 2010 levels by 2030. We also need to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 in order to keep the planet from warming by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. Mann knows these benchmarks well. He was one of the lead authors on part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) Third Scientific Assessment Report. Mann knows that we are already way behind on meeting those goals, and warns that Trump has already made the job even harder.
"Two years of inaction on the part of the Trump administration has prevented the US from making the dramatic reductions that were necessary to keep us on that path of halving emissions by 2030," Mann says. In fact, emissions levels have increased during Trump's time in office. While the administration did oversee a slight decline in emissions, attributed largely to the policies of the previous administration, Rhodium Group tracked a 2.7 percent increase in carbon emissions from burning fossil fuel in 2018. A draft report from the EPA found a similar uptick.
According to Mann, the inability of the Trump administration to reduce carbon emissions has upped the difficulty for the US to meet its goals. Instead of having to reduce emissions by five percent each year, we now have to decrease our carbon usage by 7.5 percent for the next decade. "That’s even greater than what we’re likely to see this year from the Covid-19 economic lockdowns," Mann says. Preliminary research suggested that the coronavirus lockdown measures may have dropped greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 17 percent in some places, but emissions have already returned to pre-pandemic levels.
Another four years of Trump would make the annual emissions reduction goals nearly unachievable. Even if emissions remain flat during that time, Mann says that by the end of a second term, we'd need to reduce emissions by 15 percent per year. He warns that just might not be possible. "It just may not be economically or societally viable to fundamentally shift our energy infrastructure so rapidly."
There's evidence to suggest that Trump's presence in the White House for four more years would basically leave us with no shot at combatting the worst of climate change. A study published this year in the journal Environmental Science and Policy attempted to account for all of Trump's environmental policies and quantify what kind of effects his decisions, like pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement, may have on the rest of the world. What it found was that the effect of a second Trump term would leave the planet with basically no viable path toward achieving our emissions goals. After running their model one million times, they found that there is a 0.1 percent chance of keeping the planet from warming by at least two degrees Celsius.
Mann offered a similar warning about what a second Trump term would mean not only for US policy but what it would signal to other countries who need to be working collectively to combat climate change. "If the US fails to provide leadership on climate, as we had under the Obama administration, I fear that the rest of the world will not take seriously enough their obligations to reduce emissions in time to avert the worst impacts of climate change," Mann says. "That’s primarily why I’ve called this a make or break election when it comes to the climate."
Activists who make the environment and climate change their primary issue see things similarly, “A second Trump term would mean more attacks on our air, water, and health with no national leadership on climate change and the cost of inaction continuing to increase," EDF Action Communications Manager Hannah Blatt tells Mic. She warns that a second Trump term would be "another four years of spewing emissions, [putting] us on a dangerous path," and said that would "just be more time wasted making the climate crisis worse."
Voting Trump out of office does not guarantee that we are able to meet our emissions reduction goals or keep global warming below the two-degree threshold. Undoing the damage of the Trump administration, particularly reversing his rollbacks of environmental regulations, will be a challenge. But, Mann says, "a Biden win will stop the hemorrhaging." That's enough to at least give us a shot at meeting our obligations. Another four years of Trump would likely mean waving the white flag when it comes to climate change.