Professor Peter Smith said President-Elect Trump’s plans to withdraw the US from internationally agreed environment targets will accelerate global warming, result in rising sea levels and threaten the supply of food.
Smith, a member of the scientific panel which provided the evidence for the UN’s Paris climate change objectives, described Trump’s election as a “punch in the stomach” for those working to protect the environment.
Speaking before he heads to Marrakech for the ongoing UN Climate Change Conference, Smith said there was a “severe risk” that the worldwide targets negotiated in Paris last year after two decades of work will now be missed.
“If we exceed the targets we could be getting the worst of the worst impacts of climate change – not just for us but for our children and their children,” said Smith. “It is a disaster. It has taken us 20 years to get here with the climate negotiations and he can break all that within the next two years. I’m gutted about it.”
Smith, a Professor of Climate Change at Aberdeen University, is a lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – the international body for assessing science relating to climate change.
Evidence assessed by the Nobel Prize-winning IPCC underpinned last year’s UN Paris Agreement, negotiated by 195 countries, which sets out the emissions reductions required to keep the global temperature rise at below 2 degrees Celsuis and trending towards 1.5 degrees.
Smith revealed that scientists are set to revise their calculations and models to factor in Trump’s leadership of one of the world’s largest economies and his pledge to “cancel” the Paris Agreement and its efforts to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions.
Trump has claimed climate change is a “hoax”, dreamed up by the Chinese. One of his first acts as president-elect was to appoint the climate change sceptic Myron Ebell to overhaul the US Environment Protection Agency.
The president-elect’s attitude towards the environment means he is likely to dismantle one of President Barack Obama’s key legacies. Obama has spoken of his pride in trying to transform the world’s second largest greenhouse gas polluter, after China, as a global leader when it comes to protecting the environment.
“It is already a significant task to meet the Paris climate change target of 2 degrees or the aspirational target of 1.5 degrees,” said Smith.
“That’s difficult enough with America. If we’ve not got the US on board that’s going to make things extraordinarily difficult.
“We have to start modelling without that mitigation in the USA. There is so little headroom in what we are doing that it is going to be extraordinarily challenging. It affects what we do and that sort of ambition that we need to show in climate change in mitigation and in removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.
“The rest of the world has to take on that challenge of reducing their emissions even more aggressively to make up for the fact that the USA is not going to be pulling its weight. So yes it has a significant impact on the level of ambition that we need to show to compensate for this – hopefully temporary – break in common sense.”
To compensate for Trump’s attitude, Smith said other countries would have to redouble their efforts to decarbonise their economies.
That would involve shifting away from fossil fuels towards renewables and embracing green technology such as hydrogen fuelled and electric vehicles.
“We need to decarbonise faster, basically removing fossil fuels from the mix,” said Smith. “Our reliance on oil and gas is what’s driving our emissions. We need to move away from fossil fuel intensive energy sources to other energy sources.”
Smith warned that America’s absence from the international effort to tackle global warming would have catastrophic consequences.
“Global warming is leading to sea level rise. A number of our major cities are on the coast and they would be threatened by the sea level rise. There would be a massive loss of biodiversity both in the Arctic and also through ocean acidification. We will lose our coral reefs, the Great Barrier Reef will be under threat.
“There will be significant human issues. The threat to food security. Africa already finds itself in severe difficulty when it comes to feeding itself. If we superimpose on top of that climate change and climate extremes then that’s going to put more pressure on that system. What are those people going to do? The population is set to increase, so that could increase migration pressures as well. The consequences are dire.”
The UN conference in Marrakech is the next crucial stage in the adoption of the Paris Agreement negotiated last December. Trump’s elevation to the White House is likely to dominate the agenda as the conference continues this week.
Before leaving for Marrakech, Smith said: “This meeting is to work out how to implement climate change targets and then this Trump election comes along.
“It has been a punch in the stomach for people after the elation of Paris. We finally got there, but now we have got this looming over us.”
Richard Dixon, director of Friends of the Earth Scotland, said: “The US is signed up to the agreement for the next four years, but of course he’ll ignore it. There are no financial penalties for leaving. At a federal level he can wreak havoc, because he has control of the House and the Senate. The danger is that he has promised lots of things, some of which he just can’t deliver. He can’t stop all Muslims from entering the US. He can’t build a wall on the Mexican border. But he can ignore climate change and concentrate on dirty energy. Pete Smith is quite right. These are very difficult times.”