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Dark clouds

18 November 2016

EVEN the President-elect, a climate scientist said last week, “doesn’t have the power to change the laws of physics”. He does, though, have the power to ignore them. After all, there will soon be plenty more sand in which to bury one’s head. During the campaign, Donald Trump tweeted: “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” As he appoints his cabinet, the people he puts in charge of energy, the environment, and the interior will be key indicators whether he plans to continue this dismissive tone. Harold Hamm, an oil and gas billionaire, has been touted as a potential Energy Secretary. In this new world of implausibility, Sarah Palin’s name is being mentioned in relation to the post of Interior Secretary, in charge of the vast national parks. Mrs Palin has described fossil fuels as “things that God has dumped on this part of the earth for mankind’s use”. And the transition team — a fact-finding team to prepare policy for the new administration — going into the Environmental Protection Agency will be led by Myron Ebell, director of a climate-change denial advocacy group. He was quoted two months ago, saying: “Congress should prohibit any funding for the Paris Climate Agreement.”

In the light of this talk, admittedly mostly speculative, it was optimistic of the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, to announce at the climate summit in Marrakesh on Tuesday that he was “sure” that Mr Trump would “make a quick, wise decision” to drop his threat to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. “What was once unthinkable has become unstoppable,” he said, referring to the fact that the agreement has been ratified by more than 100 nations, including the US. Market forces were pushing business towards cleaner fuel, a move acknowledged by many top US companies. As if to back him up, the World Meteorological Organisation reported that 2016 is set to break temperature records for the third year running. Overall, they are likely to be 0.1° above last year’s average, but there are alarming variations. The Northern Hemisphere has been more than one degree above the 30-year norm; the Russian Arctic six or seven degrees above. The accompanying increase in chaotic events has been just what the derided climate scientists predicted: droughts in East Africa and Eastern Australia; flooding in Paris and elsewhere; and the deadliest Atlantic hurricane for 11 years. It has been an El Niño year; none the less, the year has provided evidence linking human activity and global warming which most would regard as incontrovertible.

In the absence of pressure from the Christian leaders who backed his campaign, not all of whom seem to take the biblical stewardship of the earth seriously, Ban Ki Moon’s appeal to Mr Trump as a businessman was his best move. Climate disasters such as Hurricane Matthew cause the US billions of dollars’ worth of damage. As President, Mr Trump will be expected to foot much of the bill. And the assumed conflict between climate control and the desire to revive the country’s industrial base will dissolve if oil prices stay high. The magnates will be mollified, and fuel efficiency will make sense. Romanticising the old dirty industries worked during the election campaign; but as the US refocuses, the cost of a worsening climate might just change Mr Trump’s mind. Or, if not his, then the minds of his influential children.

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