With the incoming United States administration of Donald Trump threatening to ignore its existing climate change mitigation contributions, as well as potentially “cancel” its engagement with last year’s Paris agreement, international dialogue has at least temporarily shifted back to this critical issue. In the short term, what matters most for the global population is ensuring sustained economic growth, broad-based development, and resolution of existing societal grievances. In the longer term, the extent to which changes in US policy affect these factors—through diverse actions in trade, development, and peacebuilding—will also determine the prevalence and level of entrenchment of global conflict.
At the United Nations climate change conference (COP22) now taking place in Morocco, there is substantial concern about the potential major changes under Trump: First, that the likely absence of US commitments to mitigating climate-altering activities will lead to other countries reducing their own commitments. Second, in the longer term, that a continued lack of global ambition on this front will make it impossible to stay below end-of-century targets of limiting the temperature increase to well below 2C, while urging efforts to limit the increase to 1.5C—widely agreed to be necessary to avoid the most dangerous climate impacts.
In the meantime, the physical basis for global warming is well-understood and greenhouse gas emissions from human activities, namely the burning of fossil fuels, continue. These connections have been repeated and reinforced by evidence in five synthesis reports from the global scientific community through the International Panel for Climate Change. The wide range of physical impacts—increased global and regional temperatures, changes in rainfall patterns, and sea-level rise—projected to occur if global temperatures continue to increase have the potential to affect many aspects of human wellbeing. Ambitious and permanent mitigation efforts are urgently needed to avoid the worst of these impacts, along with scaled-up adaptation efforts to try to manage those effects that can no longer be avoided.
Among the larger concerns is the potential that climate change will lead to increased conflict and security concerns. Leading up the presidential election, US government agencies restated their belief in a substantial threat of this nature. Despite some high profile papers to the contrary, the best evidence from the academic community does not support direct links between changes in climatic conditions, resource scarcity, and conflict. Yet, what is also increasingly clear is that conflict reduces the adaptive capacity and resilience of affected populations to the impacts of climate change, which may then further promote the propensity for conflict. Other US policy decisions are likely to have a much larger effect on conflict and security in the near term. Actions from the incoming US administration that lessen economic growth, such as increased tariffs and reduced trade, as well as reductions in peacekeeping and diplomacy efforts, may be especially detrimental for conflict resolution and peacebuilding. Existing and increasingly entrenched conflicts may in turn further undermine climate mitigation and adaptation efforts, leading to a “conflict-climate” trap.
Despite the shift in tone due to the US elections, the focus of COP22 is still on the implementation on the Paris agreement, which came into force earlier this month. Central to this agreement are nationally defined mitigation contributions with internationally agreed-upon standards for accounting and verification of reductions, as well as substantial financing for adaptation efforts in developing countries. There are some potential red flags for development and security here. Key to attaining those stringent end-of-century temperature targets is the need for a substantial amount of land to be devoted to new biomass to replace fossil fuel burning, and for reforestation to act as a sink for carbon dioxide. Conflict over land appropriation and distribution of revenues from land-based climate mitigation projects are already being documented, although pushes for improved land tenure and indigenous rights could moderate these concerns if realized.
The distribution of impacts of these policies on economic activities should also be watched, including the potential for climate mitigation in the aviation industry to adversely affect developing countries where tourism can represent an important source of livelihood. Finally, following on work related to the “resource curse”, transparency and equity for accessing financial assistance for both mitigation and adaptation will be key to avoiding corruption and resource “rent-seeking” behavior at a national level.
There is another potential post-Trump issue that has received much less attention. This is the concern around isolationism and withdrawal from global governance mechanisms by both the US and others. In terms of climate action, this may be felt most in terms of pursuing geoengineering approaches, specifically the release of sulfate particulates into the atmosphere to produce immediate cooling. As there is substantial inertia in the climate system, by the time the more dramatic and abrupt impacts of current activities are experienced, it will be too late to manage risks through mitigation. While the pursuit of geoengineering is controversial, it is not unimaginable that a country may wish to use this option to reduce immediate impacts. Deployed unilaterally, it may introduce new risks, change the distribution of impacts, and further exacerbate existing international tensions.
Despite the potential shift in US climate policy, the Paris agreement will continue to be in force and other countries, including China, have publicly stated that they will stick to their mitigation pledges. By limiting its involvement, the US will have less say in establishing the rules for how this action proceeds. Additionally, since even the current pledges are insufficient to stay below the 2C temperature target, international engagement and global risk governance are needed to guide future responses to severe impacts.
Elisabeth Gilmore is Assistant Professor of Energy, Security and Environment, School of Public Policy, University of Maryland.