Seeing the future of climate policy under the next president

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A view of the Blomstrand Glacier, Thursday, June 16, 2016, in Ny-Alesund, Norway. US Secretary of State John Kerry and Norwegian Foreign Minister Borge Brende toured the glacier, and made remarks about climate change. REUTERS/Evan Vucci/Pool - RTX2GN6B

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JUDY WOODRUFF: And next, we turn now to our periodic look at the major issues facing the country, and where the presidential candidates stand on them.

Tonight, the focus is climate change. It is a subject that has gotten very little attention so far during the campaign, even as it highlights one of the starkest differences between the candidates.

William Brangham has our report.

READ MORE: Where do the presidential candidates stand on climate change?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: This past weekend, the U.S. and China officially ratified the so-called Paris climate accords. They are the most substantial move by the world’s nations to put some limits on the greenhouse gas emissions that are driving global temperatures upwards.

And upwards, they keep going. 2016 is on pace to be the hottest year in recorded history, breaking the record set by 2015, and 2014 before that. As many climate models predicted, a warming planet has coincided with increased heat waves and droughts, as well as more intense storms. Glaciers and ice sheets continue to shrink, sending sea levels upwards and threatening coastal communities all over the world with potentially catastrophic, costly flooding.

Michael Oppenheimer is a climate scientist at Princeton University.

MICHAEL OPPENHEIMER, Princeton University: If we don’t start with rapid emissions reductions and substantial emissions reductions, that we will pass a danger point, beyond which the consequences for many people and countries on Earth will simply become unacceptable and eventually disastrous.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: But the Paris accords only set voluntary caps on carbon emissions. So how seriously the United States follows through on these commitments, as well as its other efforts to curtail carbon, will fall largely on the next president.

And while there are plenty of policies where Clinton and Trump have different views, there’s probably no greater divergence between them than on the issue of climate change. One thinks it is real and poses a grave threat; the other thinks it’s a fantasy.

DONALD TRUMP (R), Presidential Nominee: I think it’s a big scam for a lot of people to make a lot of money.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Donald Trump has repeatedly called climate change a hoax. He claims the planet is freezing, and that scientists are — quote — “stuck in ice.”

Trump argues that environmental regulation is an enormous anti-competitive tax on U.S. industry which also threatens American jobs, especially in the coal industry.

DONALD TRUMP: The federal government, the regulations that they have, they put the coal miners out of business. The coal mines are shut.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: He says a Trump administration will undo as many regulations as possible, starting with President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which has put limits on coal emissions. Trump has also promised to rip up or cancel the Paris accords, and block any funding for international climate change efforts.

He supports the expansion of coal and oil and natural gas as main energy sources for the United States.

HILLARY CLINTON (D), Presidential Nominee: Climate change is such a consequential crisis to everybody in the world.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, has repeatedly called climate change an urgent threat, and one that is driven in large part by human activity, namely the burning of fossil fuels. Clinton supports cutting carbon emissions, supports the goals of the Paris accords, as well as President Obama’s clean energy plan.

Clinton acknowledges these plans will cost coal industry jobs, and she has proposed a multibillion-dollar renewable energy plan that she says will attempt to replace some of those lost jobs.

To help understand what a Clinton or Trump administration might mean with regards to climate change, I’m joined now by Coral Davenport, who is an environmental reporter for The New York Times, and Chris Mooney, who covers science and the environment for The Washington Post.

Thank you both very much for being here.

Chris, I would like to start with you.

Before we get to the candidates, let’s talk for a moment about, what does the current science tell us about the current impacts of climate change?

CHRIS MOONEY, The Washington Post: Well, 2016 is a very, very hot year. We’re probably going to have three hottest year records in a row, 2014, 2015, 2016 topping them all.

And we have seen some really striking climate-related effects on the world, most starkly this year, I think, the bleaching of coral reefs, big disaster at the Great Barrier Reef. This is something that climate scientists have been predicting for a long time, and now it’s happening.

But there’s all kinds of impacts all around the world. We are losing more and more ice from the polar regions. Seas are rising. Of course, temperature records are being broken.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Anything you would add to that, Coral?

CORAL DAVENPORT, The New York Times: I would just say, the specific sort of marker that a lot of scientists and scientific institutions have put forth is the warming of the atmosphere beyond 3.7 degrees Fahrenheit, on average.

That’s kind of the point at which a lot of scientists say we will be irrevocably locked into a future of these climate impacts, and we’re at the point right now where scientists say a lot of that is already baked in. There was a point…

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: There’s no way we’re going to stop hitting that mark.

CORAL DAVENPORT: Right.

There was a point in the climate debate where it was about, how do we keep from getting there? At this point, in terms of the emissions that are already in the atmosphere and the rate of emissions now being produced today, scientists are saying, we’re probably set to go past that tipping point.

And the debate is really about, how do you keep it from getting far, far worse? How do you keep the planet inhabitable by humans?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: OK, staying with you, I’m going to put the crystal ball in your hands now.

It’s January 2017. Donald Trump is inaugurated president. What does U.S. energy policy and climate change policy look like?

CORAL DAVENPORT: Oh, well, the most significant climate policy that Donald Trump has talked about is, he calls it canceling the Paris agreement.

The Paris agreement was a landmark accord reached last year in Paris which for the first time joined almost every country on Earth, over 195 countries, into committing to taking actions to reducing their carbon emissions. It was key for the U.S. to be a centerpiece of that.

The U.S. and China are the world’s two largest emitters of carbon emissions, the U.S. historically the largest. If the U.S. actually were to pull out of the Paris agreement, the deal could potentially unravel.

And so the question now is, what would happen in a Trump administration? And the rest of the world, led by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, is trying to kind of figure out, well, how do we keep the Paris accord intact if there were to be a President Trump?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Well, Chris, take on that question. Does a president have the ability, do they have the levers to rip up the Paris accords?

CHRIS MOONEY: It depends what happens during this administration before the next president comes in.

There is a sort of rapid push right now by the Obama administration and many nations of the world to bring it into force. And once it actually enters into force, then — you have to have 55 countries representing 55 percent of the global emissions in order to achieve that. Once that happens, there is language in the agreement saying you need three years before you can withdraw again.

And then there’s a year waiting period. So it sounds like, from that language, the hands of the next president could be tied if this thing enters into force. And we’re going to have to see. Right now, only about 40 percent of global emissions, 39 percent have signed on, and that’s because U.S. and China just did.

So, you need India, you need Canada, you need Great Britain. You can do the math, right, but you have to get to 55, and you have to do it this year. Then it would be more difficult to withdraw.

But a President Trump, if he didn’t want to comply, but couldn’t make it go away, could just not cooperate. And it’s not clear what would happen then.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: All right, crystal ball is in your hands now.

January 2017, Hillary Clinton is inaugurated. What does energy policy look like?

CHRIS MOONEY: I think it looks like a pretty strong continuation of Obama climate policy. I think absolutely you would be fulfilling the Paris climate agreement and trying to reduce U.S. emissions. And the goal is to get them 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.

And then there’s going to be a process where we ratchet up and try to make it even more ambitious. I’m sure President Clinton would be very much on board with that. I think, domestically, one of the most interesting things that you would see under President Clinton is going to be the big energy infrastructure transition.

How much solar can we install? How do we integrate it onto the grid? How much of a role is natural gas still playing as coal dwindles? Those are going to be the kind of real issues during the Clinton years that are going to determine how much the United States puts into the atmosphere.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Coral, I know you have been following this somewhat. Hillary Clinton got into some trouble when he said, as we make this push to renewables, coal jobs are going to be lost.

Now, she has put out a big proposal to say, I’m going to beef up renewables, we’re going to try to save some of those jobs. How realistic is that?

CORAL DAVENPORT: It’s interesting to see Hillary Clinton, even if it didn’t come out quite the way she meant it to, openly acknowledge that climate policy really does direct take aim at coal.

Burning coal for electricity is the largest source of planet-warming emissions in the U.S. So if you’re trying on stop global warming, you’re going to take aim at coal. That means eventually the coal community, coal miners, the coal-fired power plants, are going to get hurt.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Chris, last question to you.

The ability of a president to really make meaningful contributions to this debate, if you were to go forward 50, 100, 150 years, would we be able to tell the difference between a Clinton administration and a Trump administration, meaning, how much influence do presidents really have on this policy when we’re talking about a global problem?

CHRIS MOONEY: Some significant influence, but I agree with you that there are so many other things going on.

For instance, one of the reasons the United States has actually been reducing its emissions in recent years is actually that there’s been a boom in natural gas. It’s displacing coal. It emits less carbon dioxide when you burn it. This is not really an Obama policy. It’s just something that happened because of technology and the free market.

And, globally, you’re seeing a big, big trend towards large installations of renewable energies across the world. You are going to see huge installations of wind and solar in places like Africa. These things are going to happen no matter what. They’re going to happen for largely non-policy free market reasons even in the United States.

So, I think that there are forces moving that are not really at the presidential level. But, at the same time, the Obama administration kind of shows how you can use diplomacy to bring the most important countries together and get the whole world on board.

So I wouldn’t discount that either. So I think that the world will continue trying to grapple with the climate problem, no matter who is U.S. president. But I think that, depending on who that president is, it can have a significant influence on the trajectory.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: All right, Chris Mooney, Coral Davenport, thank you both very much.

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