Why Even a Donald Trump Presidency Couldn't Scale Back Climate Action

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From Left: Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, French Foreign Affairs Minister Laurent Fabius, President-designate of COP21 and French President Francois Hollande react during the final plenary session at the World Climate Change Conference 2015 (COP21) at Le Bourget, near Paris, France, December 12. Stephane Mahe/Reuters

A Donald Trump presidency might seem like a disaster for global climate change negotiations, but even the Republican candidate can't change what is looking like a bright future for renewable energy.

A former airport in northern Paris was the unlikely venue in December 2015 for a key moment in the history of humanity. For 190 countries to agree on anything is remarkable. For 190 countries to agree effectively to phase out fossil fuels within a matter of decades to limit the worst excesses of human-caused climate change was extraordinary.

But history tells us that change never happens in a linear way. Every action provokes an opposite reaction.

And so it is that as we've started to make some progress on tackling climate change, a class of dinosaur politicians have reared up in an attempt to block progress on this and many other issues. These are the politicians that are not the slightest bit interested in science. For them, ideology trumps facts and evidence every time. Say it loud enough, assert it often enough, and people will believe it. It is these tactics that are being deployed on steroids by Trump in his attempt to become president of the United States.

With political surprises across the globe happening more frequently, suddenly a Trump presidency seems possible. So what would it mean for action on our climate?

Well, in one sense, it would be a disaster. Trump has described climate change as a "hoax," stating categorically that he doesn't believe in human-caused climate change and that he would cancel the Paris climate agreement if in power. The Paris deal has yet to be delivered and any backsliding by the U.S. could provide cover for other countries, who have made pledges but don't really want to deliver, to renege on their promises too. And we don't have time to delay. Any pause in action means we will miss an important window to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

Just as worryingly, the current global pledges are far from what is needed to avoid 2 degrees Celsius of global warming, let alone the agreed aspiration to keep temperature increases closer to 1.5 degrees. A U.S. president hostile to climate change would make ratcheting up these targets more difficult, especially as the U.S. is still one of the biggest per capita emitters. When a small country elects a climate denier the global community can step up and cover the failure—when it's a big country with big emissions, this can only be nigh on impossible.

But there are two reasons not to be overly fearful just yet. Firstly, Obama is planning to ratify the Paris treaty in the U.S. soon, along with his counterpart in China, President Xi Jinping. The accord will be legally binding once it is ratified by at least 55 countries that contribute 55 percent of global emissions—and that would be two of the world's biggest emitters signed-up. If ratification happens by January, whoever the next U.S. president is, he or she will have to wait four years to withdraw from the deal. Trump might still un-do home grown initiatives to meet U.S. climate targets, such as Obama's Clean Power Plan, which would delay America's progress in cutting emissions. But, a legally binding deal may just force his hand into continuing these policies, or similar ones, in order to fulfil international obligations.

Secondly, there has been so much progress on clean technology and renewable energy, in the United States in particular, that Trump isn't likely to go against the raw economics of a booming American industry.

In 2015, the number of jobs in solar energy in the U.S. overtook those in oil and gas, and employment in the solar sector grew 12 times faster than overall job creation. In California, a series of ambitious climate change policies—now aiming for a 40 percent cut in emissions below 1990 levels – have shown that it is possible for cuts in emissions to go hand-in-hand with economic growth. And, every month this year, U.S. renewable electricity generation has broken records, demonstrating that renewable electricity in the U.S. is flourishing.

As renewable energy gets cheaper, and energy security becomes of ever-increasing importance, the move away from fossil fuels is going to be one of economic pragmatism.

The march of history towards a cleaner, fossil-fuel free future won't be stopped. A Trump presidency could threaten to slow down our progress to a better, safer world, and so make life worse for hundreds of millions of people in the decades ahead, but ultimately even he can't change the course of history.

Craig Bennett is CEO of Friends of the Earth. Follow him on Twitter @CraigBennett3.