MARRAKECH, Morocco – The election of a U.S. president who has called global warming a “hoax” alarmed environmentalists and climate scientists and raised questions Wednesday about whether America, once again, would pull out of an international climate deal.
Many people at U.N. climate talks in Morocco said it’s now up to the rest of the world to lead efforts to rein in greenhouse gas emissions. Others held out hope that Trump would change his stance and honor U.S. commitments under the Paris Agreement.
“Now that the election campaign has passed and the realities of leadership settle in, I expect he will realize that climate change is a threat to his people and to whole countries which share seas with the U.S., including my own,” Marshall Islands President Hilda Heine said in a statement. Small island nations fear they will be swallowed by rising seas.
More than 100 countries, including the U.S., have formally joined the agreement, which seeks to reduce emissions and help vulnerable countries adapt to rising seas, intensifying heat waves, the spreading of deserts and other changes from man-made warming.
“I’m sure that the rest of the world will continue to work on it,” Moroccan chief negotiator Aziz Mekouar said at the climate talks.
Others weren’t so sure, with scientists and environmental activists calling Trump’s election a planetary disaster.
“The Paris Agreement and any U.S. leadership in international climate progress is dead,” said Dana Fisher, director of the Program for Society and the Environment at the University of Maryland, said in an email. However, the transition toward cleaner energy is so entrenched in the U.S. it would continue without federal money, she added.
The U.S., under the Bush administration, declined to join the previous climate deal, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which greatly reduced the accord’s impact. But President Barack Obama made climate change a priority and was instrumental in making the Paris accord come together.
The goal is to keep the rise in global temperature below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), compared with preindustrial times. Temperatures, though, have already gone up by half that amount.
Trump pledged in May to “cancel” the Paris deal.
“Without U.S. action to reduce emissions and U.S. diplomatic leadership, implementation of Paris will surely slow and avoiding a 2 degree warming, the benchmark of danger, would become impossible,” said Princeton University climate scientist Michael Oppenheimer via email.
About 21 percent of the accord’s expected reductions in heat-trapping gases through 2030 were to come from the United States, according to Drew Jones, co-director of Climate Interactive , a group of researchers who model climate emissions and temperatures.
Trump has called for stripping regulations to allow unfettered production of coal, oil and natural gas — a key source of emissions — and rescinding the Clean Power Plan , an Obama administration strategy to fight climate change.
Trump told an oil and gas conference in North Dakota he would “save the coal industry” and stop using tax dollars for global warming programs.
But it’s unlikely that Trump’s actions would reopen coal mines or coal-fired power plants. What really killed coal in the United States is much cheaper natural gas from hydraulic fracturing or fracking, said former astronaut Jay Apt, now co-director of the Carnegie Mellon Electricity Industry Center. In a phone interview from Pittsburgh, Apt said it is likely the nation will use even less coal if Trump opens up more drilling and the price of natural gas drops.
The pro-fossil fuels American Energy Alliance said Trump’s victory presents a chance to reset “harmful energy policies” in the U.S.
While shell-shocked American climate activists in Marrakech cried and embraced, U.S. negotiators declined to speak to reporters about the election outcome. Before the two-week conference, U.S. officials said they expect other countries to stay the course no matter what Washington decides.
Li Shuo, a climate policy expert at Greenpeace in China, said his nation — the world’s top polluter — would continue to work on climate change “out of its own very genuine concern.”
Any U.S. withdrawal would take four years — an entire presidential term — under the terms of the agreement. However, Trump could also decide to simply ignore the U.S. pledge to reduce emissions by 26-28 percent from 2005 levels by 2025. There is no punishment for countries that miss their targets.
“If the U.S. drags its feet on climate in the next four years, then there is nothing stopping the rest of the world doing an awful lot,” scientist Glen Peters of the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo, Norway, said in an email.
Trump’s win sparked hopes among the minority of researchers who disagree with the overwhelming scientific consensus that global warming is a major threat.
“Expect some long awaited, rigorous examination of the theory/models,” John Christy of the University of Alabama, Huntsville, said in an email. “The danger just isn’t there.”