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With an Enemy Like Trump, Climate Activists Should Look Beyond the Paris Accord

Just one term with a President Trump could cause up to 6 billion additional tons of CO2 to be emitted into the atmosphere.

The first local environmental campaign I ever got involved in was against Donald Trump. I was living in Aberdeen, Scotland, when, in March 2006 Trump announced his plans to convert one of my favorite nature sites north of Aberdeen into a golf course, hotel and housing complex. Menie Estate, which he had acquired, lay at the heart of a landscape and ecosystem unique within Scotland: a large expanse of shifting sand dunes, home to a diverse community of plants found only on acidic, sandy soils, and well known for its birdlife. Residents were horrified by what the new landowner proposed and quickly linked up with environmental campaigners in Aberdeen to fight the plans. Yet, within weeks, the local Trump organization — Trump International Golf Links Scotland — had won over Aberdeen’s local media, the local Chamber of Commerce and the leadership of the newly elected social democratic Scottish National Party (SNP) government. The outgoing Scottish Labour government had already “honored” Trump by declaring him a “GlobalScot” ambassador.

Nonetheless, when the proposal went before the local planning committee, councilors refused to allow Trump to run roughshod over a host of environmental and planning policies. Applying the same rules as for anybody else, they rejected the application. What should have been the end of Trump’s plans to trash a protected nature site in Scotland instead became the beginning of one of the murkiest chapters in Scottish policy-making in the past decade. Elected councilors who had voted against Trump’s plans were subjected to a media witch hunt that led to at least one councilor being assaulted on her doorstep. The Scottish government took the unprecedented step of taking decision-making powers away from the local planning committee, which had already voted on the application. Larger conservation NGOs mobilized efforts to save the sand dune system, but to no avail. In December 2008 Trump’s plans were approved by Scottish ministers, setting a dangerous precedent for allowing developers to destroy protected nature sites. The local community continued to mobilize through its Tripping up Trump group, and successfully fought off his plans to evict several people.

In October 2010 Trump flew into Aberdeen to celebrate the opening of the golf course and to accept an honorary degree from a local university. Predictably, though, he could not prevail over the laws of nature: the now widely reviled Trump International Golf Links Scotland is fighting a losing battle against sea and sand erosion. Approved plans for housing and a hotel have been quietly buried. The Scottish government dropped its support for Trump in 2013, and since the opening of his racist, hateful presidential campaign, he has been stripped of accolades in this country. Scotland’s first minister has refused to join the sad chorus of European politicians declaring their willingness to “cooperate” with President-elect Trump. Nevertheless, due to the Scottish ministers’ earlier cooperation with Trump, an 8,000-year-old precious ecosystem has been destroyed forever.

Trump’s history in Scotland reveals some of his dangerous strengths: He used remarkable manipulator skills to score a major victory against environmental protection and local democracy — and that without holding any position of political power. This is a snapshot of the history of the man who will soon wield the greatest power in the US, and who has already declared a war on the environment, as well as on human rights.

Organizing Against President Trump

What does Trump’s election mean for environmental justice campaigners worldwide, including those campaigning to implement the Paris Agreement on Climate Change? To prevent the worst harm to nature, climate and to people, activists will need to be far stronger, more savvy and better organized than those who opposed the pre-presidential Trump in Scotland.

Already, Trump has appointed a climate change denier, Myron Ebell, to lead the “transition” — aka, destruction of the Environmental Protection Agency. Every single environmental protection rule in the US is under attack — from the Clean Air Act, to the Endangered Species Act, from the Clean Water Act to the National Environmental Policy Act. Given the Republican majority in Congress, no federal institution or federal regulations will stand in the way of new pipelines, fracking and oil wells, coal power stations or coal mines, regardless of their location or impacts. That includes the Dakota Access pipeline — in whose development Trump holds financial stakes — and the Keystone XL pipeline, which Trump is committed to seeing built. At the same time, Trump’s planned assault on human rights will put anybody seeking to defend nature, communities and the climate at risk of violent repression, such as that which the Standing Rock Sioux and other Water Protectors have endured.

It would be facile to say that defending the climate, clean air and water and biodiversity will be more important under a Trump government. Climate scientist David Archer commented about Trump’s election on the Real Climate blog: “If you are in a new-found panic about the future of Earth’s climate, know that what you’re feeling now would still have been almost as appropriate had the election gone the other way. The fight to defend Earth’s climate would still be just beginning.”

Archer estimates that a one-term president Trump could cause up to 4-6 billion extra tons of CO2 to be emitted. That’s up to 1.5 billion “Trump” tons of CO2 a year. However, the current global emission of 36 billion tons of CO2 is already enough to make warming of more than 2C all but inevitable within the next 20 years. Struggles against pipelines, oil and gas drilling, coal mines and power stations have long been vital for trying to avert the worst impacts of climate change. Under Trump, there will be far more fossil fuel developments to fight, under worse conditions for activists. Much the same holds true for defending biodiversity, clean air and water and soils.

There is no blueprint for how to win vital campaigns under Trump, though it might be a good idea to learn from the historical and recent experiences of communities and activists who have succeeded in defending lands, forests and waterways under repressive regimes, in some cases with the help of international solidarity. But one thing is certain, environmental justice campaigners, whether in the US or elsewhere, cannot afford to divert time and energy to symbolic causes that offer no tangible benefits.

The Paris Agreement

Trump’s announcement that he intends to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement has galvanized outrage worldwide. A petition against a US withdrawal from the climate agreement is on course to attracting at least 1 million signatures.

Yet, when the Paris Agreement was signed, James Hansen, one of the most prominent climate scientists, described it as “a fraud,” commenting, “It’s just worthless words. There is no action, just promises. As long as fossil fuels appear to be the cheapest fuels out there, they will be continued to be burned.”

Many applaud the reference to 1.5C in the Paris Agreement text, yet it is couched in UN terms that are the legal equivalent of a New Year’s resolution. Even that was only achieved by virtue of the small island nations, many of which will disappear or become uninhabitable above 1.5C, having been forced to give up on any possible compensation claims under the Paris Agreement against those most responsible for the catastrophe.

At the same time, the mention of a 1.5C nonbinding target has proved a huge boon to academics and companies promoting false “carbon-negative climate solutions” that are unlikely to become technically or economically viable; and “afforestation” — a rebranding of industrial plantations. Industrial tree plantations are linked to large-scale destruction of forest and grassland ecosystems, to land grabbing, loss of food and water sovereignty, particularly in the Global South, and soil and water depletion and pollution. Given that the trees are invariably cut down to make paper or other products, or even to be burned as bioenergy, carbon sequestration claims are spurious.

Like its predecessor, the Kyoto Protocol, the Paris Agreement relies heavily on carbon trading — the idea that polluters can offset continued or increased CO2 emissions by purchasing credits for “emissions reduction” or, increasingly, “carbon sequestration” in forests or agricultural soils. In reality, the purchased “emissions reductions” often benefit other polluters, usually in the Global South, which profit from minor technical adjustments, e.g. methane capture from palm oil mills associated with large-scale deforestation and land-grabbing, or biogas made from manure on large factory farms that are responsible for local pollution.

Moreover, the Paris Agreement for the first time allows unlimited carbon credits from “sinks,” i.e. soils and forests, to be traded within the UN framework. Previously, only a very small number of carbon credits from tree plantation projects were traded. As a result, working out new complex rules and interactions between different carbon-trading schemes will occupy climate negotiations for years to come.

Even “emissions reductions” claimed by high-polluting countries are often nothing of the sort. A significant share of “emissions reductions” claimed by the US government between 2005 and 2013 is due to companies switching from coal to gas, and to the rise in fracking. Yet, studies suggest that fracked gas in particular may be just as bad for the climate as coal, once methane leakages are accounted for. In the EU, many emissions reductions are attributed to renewable energy, yet two-thirds of “renewable energy” there comes from bioenergy and, to a smaller extent, waste incineration. Those are low or zero carbon only on paper, because the CO2 emitted from burning biomass and waste is ignored, as are most life-cycle emissions. Studies show that bioenergy’s climate impact is generally no less harmful than that of coal or oil.

After 24 years, UN climate negotiations have not managed to set the world on a path to phase out fossil fuel use and protect ecosystems. The ineffective Kyoto Protocol has been replaced with the even more flawed Paris Agreement. Trump’s election serves as an urgent reminder that climate justice campaigners cannot afford to squander more time and energy on an international process that has been going from bad to worse for almost a quarter of a century.