US Climate inaction is bigger than Trump

8 March 2018

The US has committed to withdraw from Paris, abolished domestic climate policies and emissions are set to increase, or at best stablise. Are these actions long-lasting? In new research, Dr Luke Kemp argues that the actions of Trump alone are unlikely to have a large long-term impact on emissions, unless carried on by future administrations. Yet the poor climate policy decisions of the US are deeper and can be attributed to the fossil fuel lobby and Republican Party.

Donald Trump’s announcement on 1st June 2017 to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement gained much attention. But Dr. Luke Kemp, lecturer at the ANU Fenner School of Environment and Society, argues that this decision itself will not have an effect on emissions. In research recently published in Palgrave Communications he outlines what current actions are likely to shape US emissions in the longer-term.

For example, the Dakota and Keystone XL oil pipelines which could each contribute the equivalent of more than 100 mega tonnes of carbon dioxide for the next 50 years are worthy of more attention than withdrawal.

Current actions by the Trump administration will either lock-in place large amounts of emissions over decades, or be shorter lasting and less damaging. That is, some policies will have a long-term ‘lock-in potential’.

Those with a low lock-in potential are short-lived and are easily reversed. An example of a low lock-in potential decision was the withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. If a future US President wishes to re-enter, it could take only a matter of months and would not need the consent of the US Senate.

A high lock-in potential decision is one that is harder to reverse and will result in extensive future emissions, which will be the case for the Dakota and Keystone XL oil pipelines. Another example is the cancelation of international climate financing which may result in other countries choosing cheaper fossil fuel alternatives over renewable energy sources.

So, what are the take home messages? The actions of Trump that could be most damaging are often overlooked for symbolic and short-lasting measures such as withdrawal. That Trump is one manifestation of the deeper problem of the recalcitrance of the US fossil fuel lobby and Republican party. It is these factors that have shaped US climate policy and Trump is but a symptom of this locked-in behaviour.   

Read the full research paper. Kemp, Limiting the climate impact of the Trump Administration, Palgrave Communications 3, Article number: 9 (2017), DOI: 10.1057/s41599-017-0003-6