Donald Trump is known for his climate-denying stance. Scientists are fearful that, as president, he will wipe out the progress that has been made to address global warming. But Corinne Le Quéré, a leading climate scientist at the University of East Anglia in England, thinks a Trump presidency does not necessarily have to be bad news for the climate. She says that even if Trump does not believe in human-caused global warming, he still might be convinced that the Paris agreement and clean energy underlie good business strategies.
Scientific American spoke with Le Quéré, a professor of climate change science and policy, and director of the Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research, about a possible way to make progress on global warming under a Trump administration.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
What’s the outlook for climate policies and clean energy initiatives under a Trump presidency?
The statements that Trump has made during his electoral campaign are not very supportive of climate policies and environmental policies in general. So if he sticks to what he’s said, the outlook is not particularly good.
You argue that Trump might be convinced that renewable energy and climate policies can be good for business. Why?
The most important thing is that we move away from fossil fuel energy to carbon-free energy, which means we need to deploy renewable energy at a large scale—including wind energy, solar panels, biofuels. As these deployments take place, there are huge opportunities for businesses, many of which are already jumping on the bandwagon to develop these new energy systems that we see going up around the U.S.
The other big element that could bring a lot of money and jobs is the development of carbon capture. Capturing carbon and storing it underground uses the same skills that the fossil fuel companies already have. These companies have excellent geological knowledge—what happens underground and the permeability of rocks, for example—and these are the skills that you need to take CO2 from the power plant and put it back underground.
What are some specific businesses that could appeal to Trump and also benefit the environment?
The business economy is about wind, solar and biomass energy, and it’s also about using the digital world to reduce energy consumption. I don’t know that this will really appeal to Donald Trump himself, but it could appeal to his wider business connections. He’s very linked to the business community, and a lot of people in the business community are prepared to jump in and develop their own business model on green energy.
What about environmental regulations, which many conservatives have traditionally seen as a burden rather than good for business?
With an industry that pollutes into the atmosphere, there is an additional cost [to the environment and citizens] that you have to cover with some mechanism, such as a price on fossil fuels. [Right now] it’s not the people who produce the fossil fuels who pay the cost. The ones who pay for it are individuals, insurance companies and businesses that are affected by climate change, such as extreme weather events. The link there is more difficult to make—but nevertheless, there is a cost.
But people have made that argument before, and it has not swayed conservatives. Trump may also not even believe in man-made climate change. So is there another argument that might convince him?
The science of extreme events is advancing extremely rapidly. There are now lots of efforts from the U.S.—NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] for example—to develop the capacity to say what the contribution of climate change is to a specific extreme event, like flooding. As the science develops, it will become evident to everyone what the costs of climate change are across society, including for government, businesses and individuals.
But the science community really needs to start using language that helps people across society understand this issue. Also, the businesses that suffer from climate change need to be more vocal and organized in making their voice heard through government.
Scientists need to change the way they communicate, to help people understand climate issues. How might that work with Trump?
Downscaling is really what is needed here—to switch from discussing large-scale patterns to talking instead about what is happening in Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, Texas, all across the country. We need to talk about very specific impacts happening right now. We are in 2016, and some of the impacts of climate change are really obvious. A person like Donald Trump, who’s 70 years old, has already seen a lot of climate change in his lifetime. So we need to make it clear that climate change is not only something that happens to people in developing countries—it is something that happens on American soil. There is, for example, an increase in flooding, wildfires and coastal problems in the U.S., and all of these impacts are happening more often because of climate change. Scientists need to react faster, to be clearer about what is happening, and make it visible. That would be more powerful than the slow response with peer-reviewed papers that we have now, which really doesn’t meet the needs of society in understanding global warming and how to deal with it.
What reactions have you heard from other climate scientists about Trump’s election?
I’ve heard a lot of climate scientists react very negatively. But I think that he could be given a chance. Now that he’s elected, he has big opportunities ahead of him.
It sounds like you’re a bit more optimistic than other climate scientists. Why?
Now that we have the Paris agreement, and China is onboard, what we need is implementation. That needs to be done by people who can bring businesses along, who will see opportunities and try to make money out of it. Trump is actually pretty well placed to do that, in a way that not very many world leaders are.
Among climate policies that Trump declared he would repeal, which would actually make good sense to keep, from a business perspective?
The Paris accord is one. If countries around the world are implementing the agreement, that really opens up a huge market for renewable power. The American market could benefit hugely from selling their own expertise and goods elsewhere.
The worst-case scenario for America would be if it pulls out of the Paris agreement, and the rest of the world implements the agreement. Then America would be on a completely different energy system, and it would be isolated from the international market.
What would be the potential economic consequences if Trump doesn’t implement environmental policies, or if he reversed existing ones?
The risk would be very large for the American people. First, if he destabilized the whole momentum we have internationally to address climate change right now, then we could go back to the very high warming scenarios that we were on track for just 10 years ago. If Donald Trump were to do that and the rest of the world followed his leadership, then the risks to society in all sectors—such as security for water, food production, political stability—would increase dramatically.
What are the chances that Trump will accept the idea that climate policies and clean energy initiatives are good business?
In the immediate future the chances are slim. He hasn’t shown any signs of accepting this idea. But Trump seems to be a clever guy, he’s ambitious, and he has people around him who’re intelligent. When reality hits him in the face, with the knowledge he’ll gain from briefings on climate change, then he may recognize that doing something about global warming will have very tangible benefits for businesses in America.
Of course, he comes from a position where it’s difficult for him to see or do anything about it right now. But I would hate to see people push him in a corner, and say, “Donald Trump said this during his campaign.” If they put him in a box, then he won’t do anything. What I would like to see is people actually making efforts to present their case—make their business case, make their scientific case, make their case about the impacts of climate change—and go at him directly or through his advisors, through whatever route they have. This would be a much more productive way forward. And if he can be made to see positive aspects of dealing with climate change, then he would have a lot of power to bring the changes that are needed.
If it fails, and he doesn’t move out of his current position, then other leaders can take over. Here I’m thinking about mayors and governors. Cities in particular recognize that there’s a big link between emissions and quality of life. The impacts of climate change are very expensive for cities. If Trump does not budge, then other leaders have an opportunity and a responsibility to seriously address climate change during the Trump era.