A second Donald Trump presidential term would lead to acute, irreversible climate damage, according to leading scientists, making the 2020 US election one of the most consequential in history. Another four years of Trump would increase emissions, thrusting our planet above the 1.5ºC warming threshold into dangerously warm territory, thwart cooperative global efforts to combat the climate crisis, jeopardise the health of billions of people worldwide and threaten democratic institutions.

Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 US presidential election shocked the world. Nearly all of the polls during the months and weeks preceding election night showed democratic nominee Hillary Clinton leading Trump by a landslide, with some polls, including one survey by the Princeton Election Consortium, predicting a 99% chance of a Clinton win just three days before the election. Four years later, with less than two weeks until this year’s election, democratic nominee Joe Biden maintains a steady lead in the polls nationally and in most key swing states, but this doesn’t mean Biden is guaranteed the presidency by any measure. 

There is a real possibility that Donald Trump will secure a second presidential term, and based on his current environmental record, the next four years could prove detrimental to the global effort to avert a climate catastrophe, according to leading scientists.

Increased Emissions, Deregulation and Fossil Fuels

To fully conceptualise what another four years of Trump would mean for the climate, it is necessary to begin by considering the impacts of his first term on US climate policy. Since his inauguration, Donald Trump has rolled back more than 100 environmental regulations, repealing or weakening major climate policies that sought to put limits on planet-warming carbon dioxide and methane emissions from power plants, vehicles and oil and gas facilities. In the first presidential debate of 2020, when asked to explain his deregulatory assault on environmental policies, specifically his decision to weaken fuel economy standards that limit vehicle pollution, Trump responded that these kinds of regulations make a “tiny difference.” The data disagrees. According to an analysis from the Rhodium Group, Trump’s rollbacks are expected to result in an additional 1.8 billion metric tons (1.8 gigatons) of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by 2035, more than the combined energy emissions of Germany, Britain and Canada in one year. 

Trump is notorious for his unrelenting mendacity, consistently promoting misleading, unsubstantiated claims, or presenting partial truths without context if they comply with his narrative at a particular moment. One of these semi-truths that has worked its way into Trump’s collection is his claim that under his administration, the US has “the lowest carbon.” It is true that since 2019, emissions have gone down in the US, but not because of policies put forward by the current administration. Despite Trump’s attempts to prop up America’s coal industry, repealing the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, a policy that set limits on carbon emissions from coal-fired plants, market forces have led to a decline in coal generation by 18% in favour of renewable energy and natural gas.

The downfall of the US coal industry, lower transportation emissions during pandemic lockdowns and increased state and local level action to control pollution from power plants have all contributed to a temporary reduction in emissions nationwide by about 2%. In the long term however, because of those 100+ Trump-imposed climate rollbacks, emissions will still be higher than they would have been had those original regulations stayed in place. These repeals are happening at a time when all credible climate models show that emissions need to fall at an average rate of over 7% per year to avoid the most severe consequences of the climate crisis, leaving no room for an influx of 1.8 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide into the system and no spare time for inaction.

At least 32 of Trump’s rollbacks are still in progress, having been delayed or temporarily blocked, and can be prevented if Biden is elected. These include Trump’s proposal to do away with Obama-era requirements mandating that companies monitor and repair methane leaks at oil and gas facilities; his push to open nine million acres of land to oil and gas drilling by weakening habitat protections for imperilled bird species, and his effort to expand on the recent opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, pushing to open nearly all the nation’s coastal waters to oil drilling. The US won’t be able to erase environmental damage caused during the Trump administration, but even completed repeals can be overturned and strengthened, theoretically making up for critical lost time if we act immediately. However, if Donald Trump is re-elected, completed repeals will stay firmly in place, those in progress will have another shot at being put into effect and an unknown number of additional climate rollbacks will most likely follow. 

Climate denialist Scott Pruitt, Trump’s nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler (Pruitt’s second in command), started the process of pushing out science advisors from the EPA and replacing them with fossil fuel interests back in 2017. A second Trump term would provide ample time to effectively eliminate independent scientific review at the agency and open the floodgates to further deregulation efforts. If the Rhodium Group’s analysis is accurate, we can expect hundreds of millions, possibly billions, of tons of planet-warming greenhouse gases added to our atmosphere by 2024, the end of a second Trump term.

The latest report from the United Nations’ International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) shows that in order to avert a climate catastrophe, humanity needs to cut emissions by half by 2030 to stay below 1.5ºC warming by 2100. Michael Mann, one of the world’s leading climate scientists, said in an interview with the Guardian, “Another four years of what we’ve seen under Trump, which is to outsource environmental and energy policy to the polluters and dismantle protections put in place by previous administrations… would make that essentially impossible.” Each year of inaction, or worse, back-pedalling, is lost time, and makes staying within that threshold even less realistic. 

Impediments to International Progress

The IPCC Report is the basis for the Paris Agreement, the only comprehensive international plan to tackle the climate crisis, signed by almost every country in the world. Early on in his presidency, Trump initiated a formal request to withdraw the US from the agreement, which will go into effect November 4 2020, the day after the presidential election. In doing this, Trump has set the stage for an official, relatively permanent loss of US leadership on the issue, setting a precedent that the nation is uninterested in global cooperation and will not be part of the solution, despite the US’s disproportionate contribution to the crisis as the second highest emitter in the world.

Ken Caldeira, a climate scientist at the Carnegie Institution explains that the US’ official withdrawal is going to “send a signal to the rest of the world that ‘Look, it’s each nation for themselves, so let’s just go for the cheapest development trajectory and screw everyone else.’” It’s true, leaders of other major countries, like Australia’s Scott Morrison and Brazil’s Jair Bolsanaro (otherwise known as the “tropical Trump”) seem inspired by President Trump’s reckless abandon, openly dismissing climate science and working to undo environmental regulations in their own nations. At a critical moment when humanity needs to unify and mobilise, Trump plans to spend 8 years promoting an “America First” agenda that puts US economic interests before the health of the planet and success of the human race. It’s a mantra that is seductive to members of his base in rural middle America and prominent world leaders alike.

Undermining Science, Misleading the Public

Trump’s contempt for environmental regulation is matched in intensity only by his very vocal distrust in established science. Over the course of his presidency, the former reality TV star has made outlandish claims, including that global warming is a “hoax” invented by China, that his Democratic opponents want to “take away cars,” and that windmills cause cancer, sowing seeds of doubt about the climate crisis among his supporters and undermining scientists. 

Last month, speaking with California Natural Resource Secretary Wade Crowfoot about the deadly wildfires raging on the West Coast, Trump said “I don’t think science knows” about global warming and claimed, “It’ll start getting cooler, you just watch.” Statements like these encourage a dangerous culture of skepticism and conspiracy that has broad, long term implications even beyond the climate crisis. In recent months, Trump has consistently undermined medical professionals, ignored public health guidelines and declared that the pandemic, which has killed over 225 000 people in the US, will simply disappear, telling Americans, “don’t be afraid of it.” Trump’s words are as powerful as his inaction. 

While 97% of climate scientists agree that human-caused global warming is occurring, only half (49%) of voters who supported Donald Trump in the 2016 believe in it, according to a survey conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. The remaining 51% do not believe global warming is happening at all, or are unsure. Another four years of misinformation and delegitimisation of the scientific establishment will have grave consequences in terms of public health and safety, especially as the effects of the climate crisis become more severe. Frequent and extreme climate events are already occurring across the nation, and will only intensify with continued inaction, according to The Fourth National Climate Assessment, a report published in 2018 by officials in Trump’s own administration. Refusing to provide the public with accurate information about climate change, and doubting its existence for political reasons, impedes the nation’s ability to prepare for it and will make the future transition to a more climate resilient society much less feasible.

Democracy in Jeopardy

Over the months and weeks leading up to the 2020 election, Trump has suggested that he will refuse to relinquish power after Election Day, making fraudulent claims about the election process and according to some sources in the Republican party, his administration is actively discussing contingency plans to bypass election results and appoint loyal electors in battleground states. When pressed to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if Biden wins the election, Trump said, “we’ll have to see what happens,” before asserting, “there won’t be a transfer frankly.” On multiple occasions, Trump has suggested that he is “entitled” to and will “negotiate” a third term, a proposal that is banned by the Constitution. His former longtime personal attorney, Michael Cohen, told CNN in September, “Donald Trump believes that he should be the ruler– the dictator of the United States of America. He is actually looking to change the Constitution. When Donald Trump “jokes” about 12 more years… he is not joking.” A Donald Trump victory could mean the end of democracy in the United States and would result in years of catastrophic, irreversible climate damage. We may be able to make up four years of lost time, but eight? Less likely. Twelve? Absolutely not. 

As indicated in the IPCC report, staying within that 1.5ºC warming threshold means the entire world must cut emissions by 50% in ten years, which would require immediate industrial mobilisation and unprecedented international collaboration. Meeting this goal would be almost unattainable even if the US immediately rejoined the Paris Agreement, adopted an ambitious climate action plan like the Green New Deal, and all the nations of the world began working together to dramatically reduce emissions. Under a second Trump term (and a third, if he were to get his way), even staying below 2ºC warming would almost definitely be out of the question. If Trump wins the election on November 3, or refuses to accept the results of the election, whatever that will look like, the climate suffers. Democracy suffers. Humankind suffers. 

According to Michael Mann, the only way to stop this nightmarish scenario from becoming reality is to vote on November 3 for a candidate who will deploy critical environmental regulations and support the necessary transition away from fossil fuels as rapidly as possible. There is no more important way for US citizens to exercise agency than to vote, he explained, adding that “the future of this planet is now in the hands of American citizens.”

Dr. Bruce Monger, Senior Lecturer and Researcher in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Cornell University, was “sickened” the morning Trump was first elected back in 2016, “because I knew it meant four years of inaction on climate change- and I knew we did not have that much time to avoid 1.5ºC or 2ºC warming.” He is hopeful that Trump can be removed from office this November and says, “I will breathe a big sigh of relief if/when I hear Biden is elected.” However, stopping Trump from securing another term is only the beginning, he warns.  “When Obama was first elected, I recall having a lot of hope for change,” but the powerful words of late historian Howard Zinn replayed in Monger’s mind: “Obama does not represent any fundamental change, he creates an opening for the possibility of change. Obama will not fulfil that potential for change unless he is enveloped by a social movement which is angry enough, powerful enough, insistent enough, that he fills his abstract phrases about change with real, solid content.” The same will be true for Joe Biden.

Removing Donald Trump from office is the only way to avoid a complete disaster, but doing so won’t save us from the climate crisis. In Dr. Monger’s words, if Biden is elected, we cannot “sit back quietly and expect him to do all the work on his own.” Americans and people everywhere will need to stay engaged and continue to push “loudly” for rapid climate action. “Nothing socially just ever came about from the top-down, but rather from the bottom-up with citizens’ demands.”