As It Happens

With 'whisk of a pen' Trump could override key climate change initiatives, warns scientist

Scientists are calling for immediate global action on climate change. But the newly elected president of the United States claims it doesn't exist. Sir Robert Watson, a prominent climate scientist, says Trump could steer the world into environmental calamity.
Stunned participants at UN climate talks in Marrakesh insisted that climate change denier Donald Trump cannot derail the global shift to clean energy, although some called his victory in US presidential elections a "disaster". (Fadel Senna/AFP/Getty Images)
For many, climate change is the number one issue facing our world. Others, despite the science, deny it even exists. One of those deniers has just been elected president of the United States.
President-elect Donald Trump has vowed to cancel the Paris Accords climate agreement and to dismantle President Barack Obama's domestic environmental regulations.

Experts have already warned that even if the Paris Accords are fully implemented, the earth is headed for a tipping point that could spell disaster. Sir Robert Watson is a scientist and the former chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). He spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off about why he believes the future of the planet looks bleak under a Trump government. Here is part of their conversation.

Carol Off: Mr. Watson, what was it like for you to see Donald Trump elected president?

Robert Watson: It's very unfortunate. Not only his policies on climate change but his position on women, on minorities, on the environment in general. To be honest, I'm quite disappointed.
Scientist Sir Robert Watson is the former chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. (

CO: We know that the coal industry is very happy with the Trump victory — does the coal industry have reason to be happy?

RW: Yes, unfortunately Donald Trump does not believe in human-induced climate change. It should not be a question of belief. It is a question of hard scientific evidence that the earth is warming and the only explanation for that warming is we human beings are adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. One of the major sources of greenhouse gases is burning fossil fuels — coal, oil and gas. The president-elect has stated he wants to expand coal production. So yes, the coal industry should be very happy. The rest of us should be very sad.

CO: How much of a problem is this for those like yourself — scientists who are working on the climate change file — how big an issue is it to see the president of the United States be a climate change denier?

RW: He is a denier. If only he would open himself up to look at the evidence. He should, if he looks at the evidence, be convinced that the earth is warming and it is due to us humans. Unfortunately, he's said he believes it's a hoax and it goes up and down. He has also stated that he will expand coal. He has also stated that he will effectively stop any financing of international climate initiatives which means it puts the Paris agreement partially in jeopardy as well.
Environmental activists hold a banner during a protest against President-elect Donald Trump at the Climate Conference, known as COP22, in Marrakech, Morocco, Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2016. (Mosa'ab Elshamy/AP)

RW: Donald Trump has stated he will withdraw the US from the Paris agreement. Even if he doesn't withdraw, if he and his administration make no efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from all sources I believe that will send a signal to many other countries around the world — should they treat climate change as a serious issue if the U.S. is not going to treat it as a serious issue?

RW: Also, many of the pledges made under the Paris agreement by developing countries were conditional on receiving financial support. If the US refuses to put any financing into the climate fund this will mean that many developing countries will probably not be able to transition to a low-carbon economy. The bottom line of all of this is the Paris agreement is in danger. What the Paris agreement did, in my opinion, was to get all major countries in the world to recognize climate change is a serious issue and at least make the best effort to minimize human-induced climate change. The position of Donald Trump, unfortunately, threatens that global accord.

CO: We're talking about on an international level, on a national level, the United States is known to be the second largest greenhouse gas producer in the world, after China. President Obama made an initiative to drastically cut those emissions, not as much as perhaps you would like, but at least further. What now happens to those initiatives under a Trump government?
RW: Some of those initiatives were regulatory initiatives and it would take court orders to fold them back. Others were executive orders, which Donald Trump, at the whisk of a pen, could overwrite. The president-elect has stated that he wants to really reduce the effects of the clean air act. It is also consistent with the Republican party platform. So it's not only Donald Trump who basically does not believe in climate change, and does not believe that we should reduce our greenhouse gases but the Republican party, at the convention, also commented on the need to expand our development of the coal industry. This clearly is in totally the wrong direction.

RW: Unfortunately, there is solid evidence there are cost effective solutions by going to a low-carbon economy. In other words, even if you want to take a straight economic argument, it is cheaper to avoid climate change than to have the adverse effects of climate change. There are many approaches to try and reduce our impact on the global climate system. Unfortunately, I am not optimistic our president-elect and the Republican Congress, both House and Senate, will actually move in the right direction.

For more on this story, listen to our full interview with Robert Watson.


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