With less than nine months to go until the US chooses its 58th president, the contest is now in full swing. The early primary elections and caucuses offer little clue as to who might step into the White House by the end of the year, with the Democrats still to decide between former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and liberal leftie Bernie Sanders, and the Republicans unsure about stumping for billionaire reality TV star Donald Trump.
As the debates play out ahead of polling day in America, immigration, gun control and economic security will dominate the airwaves, but the issue of global warming will feature at some point too. A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll suggests that more than 63 per cent of Americans believe climate change is a “serious problem”. Couple that with the fact the same poll suggests 36 per cent of people believe climate change is “not a serious problem at all” and it makes for a contentious debating point among the US electorate.
What a change in leadership of the free world will mean for America’s renewed interest in dealing with climate is anybody’s guess. According to Trump, “people in the 1920s thought the Earth was cooling, now it's global warming,” implying that all subsequent climate science is nonsense. Back in 2012, he tweeted that the concept of global warming was “created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive”.
What we do know is that the US position on effectively dealing with greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) is stronger than it’s ever been. No better is this point illustrated than by the level of funding each of the political parties receives from the fossil fuel industry, said to be responsible for much of the world’s pollution. In 1990, traditional energy firms gave almost as much to Democrats as they did to the Republicans. In 2014, the sector gave more than three times as much to the Republicans.
President Barack Obama has faced fierce opposition to his stance on tackling the climate issue, yet he has made significant progress. Central to his climate legacy is likely to be the ambitious Clean Power Plan (CPP), a policy which aims to set in motion new laws to limit the amount of carbon pollution produced by the country’s power plants by around 32 per cent within the next 15 years. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the drop in GHGs brought about by the plan would lead to net climate and health benefits of up to $45 billion a year by 2030 thanks to the avoidance of 150,000 asthma attacks among children, 6,600 premature deaths, and savings of $85 a year on the average American family’s energy bill.
Obama’s involvement in the UN climate talks last December – and his bilateral agreement with China – supported the development of a historic global agreement by the 185 countries accountable for more than 95 per cent of global GHGs - something all previous US leaders had seriously shied away from.
And earlier this month, Obama set a bold example for the required long-term thinking for dealing with climate change when he announced how he plans to use his final budget as President. He will double spending on clean energy research by 2020 and aims to boost investment in electric vehicles by introducing a $10 per barrel fee on oil paid by oil companies.
Yes, the next US president could simply walk away from the non-legally binding COP21 agreement. The fact that the Supreme Court has put the CPP on hold only reinforces the vulnerability of Obama’s climate laws.
But the tide has certainly turned in a nation responsible for almost 16 percent of the world’s total GHG pollution. The EPA had projected that coal’s share of America’s power mix would shrink to 27 per cent in 2030 thanks to the CPP. It had already reached 29 per cent in November, as cheap natural gas and renewables stole market share to force coal plants into retirement.
And Obama is confident that the Republicans will ultimately decide that railing against his climate agenda is unwise. “Do I actually think that three years from now, even Republican members of Congress are going to say that’s a smart thing to do? I don’t think they will,” he says. “Keep in mind that right now the American Republican party is the only major party I can think of in the advanced world that effectively denies climate change. It’s an outlier.”
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