How can we make progress on climate change in the Trump era?

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President & Executive Director Philip B. Duffy

The incoming administration has pledged to cut funding for global change research and to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, the internationally agreed-upon road map for controlling global climate change. And even without formal withdrawal, it would be easy to halt the measures the US is taking to uphold our commitments under the agreement. Any number of advocacy organizations will be lobbying to change this course, but I doubt they will succeed.

How, then, can we prevent lack of US federal leadership—indeed, lack of participation—from irreversibly hurting efforts to control global climate change? In the realm of policy, a big part of the answer lies in working internationally, particularly in the developing world, which is exactly what WHRC does.

Why international efforts? Most of these do not require the cooperation of the US government, and international policy-makers are more motivated than ever to address climate change.

Why the developing world? Because that is where the effort to control global climate change will succeed or fail. In contrast to GHG emissions from developed countries, which have started to fall, emissions from the developing world are increasing rapidly and have the potential to grow even faster in the near future. These increases, which are driven by rapid growth in both populations and per capita economic activity, could easily swamp any efforts to reduce emissions from the US and the rest of the developed world.

Hence the key to controlling climate change is to control future greenhouse gas emissions from the developing world and to work with international policymakers, who are not constrained by US government policies.

How is WHRC doing this?

First, we work in the developing world to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, to measure progress in reducing those emissions, and to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. More specifically, we:

  • help countries to meet their greenhouse gas emissions reductions commitments (known as “Nationally-Determined Contributions” or NDCs) under the Paris Agreement. We do this by working on the ground to limit deforestation, to reduce unsustainable burning of wood, to build capacity to grow more food on less land, and to promote adoption of renewable energy. We are also engaging governments to help them to develop and implement comprehensive plans that will reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, while increasing economic activity.
  • use data from satellites and other sources to measure progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the forest sector, which for many developing countries is the largest source of emissions. These objective, scientifically advanced measurements are essential in understanding progress towards meeting goals of the Paris agreement.
  • go beyond reducing emissions of GHG to the atmosphere, and work to actually remove carbon from the atmosphere through land management approaches such as scientifically-informed reforestation.

Second, we are expanding our work with international policymakers to control climate change in the Arctic. As those who follow our work know, the potentially disastrous consequences of Arctic melting are a big reason for the urgency in addressing climate change generally. We work with international policymakers and NGOs to promote policies that limit climate change globally and in the Arctic specifically.

As for research, the US government spends more on global change research than any other nation, and as a result our contributions to international scientific syntheses—in particular those of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—far exceed any other nation’s. Critical scientific questions remain unanswered. For example, we desperately need to know what policies will be sufficient to avoid crossing critical arctic thresholds and tipping points. If the US government reduces its investments in global change research, as Trump has threatened to do, private philanthropy and independent centers like WHRC will play even more crucial roles than they do now.

If, as expected, the US government retreats from its efforts to control climate change, WHRC’s international work takes on much greater importance and urgency. If our government steps back, we must step forward. WHRC is able to do that effectively because we are already engaged in key elements of the challenge.