Who (you might ask) is David Brearley?
Brearley plays a critical, and entirely accidental, role in climate change because of his position as the chair of the Committee on Postponed Parts within the Constitutional Convention of 1787. While drafting the U.S. Constitution, the convention left several “sticky questions” to Brearley’s Committee, such as the manner by which U.S. presidents would be elected. Brearley and the Committee were stuck between two difficult choices: election by the U.S. Congress or election by the voting public. The committee opted for a middle ground solution – an electoral college that would vote on behalf of the citizens, but which would be populated based on the number of congressional seats assigned to each State in the Union.
It is this solution, brilliant at the time, that leads us to Brearley’s legacy on climate change. Because over the course of the last 200 plus years, the electoral college, which provides for stronger voting power per person in more rural and less populated states, has elected four U.S. presidents who clearly lost the popular vote (1876, 1888, 2000 and 2016). Two of those elections have occurred during the period in which we have known about the causes and impacts of carbon dioxide emissions and climate change and in both cases, the impacts of those elections have very likely had profound impacts on our actions to address the challenge.
In 2000, George W. Bush was elected U.S. president despite losing the popular vote to Al Gore. In 2008, the Bush administration released a document on his legacy claiming sweeping protections for the environment while in office.
Yet there was little progress on climate change because the administration resisted it. Under the Bush administration, the U.S. exited the Kyoto agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions, declined to regulate carbon dioxide emissions for coal fired power plants under the U.S. Clean Air Act, and worked to limit the authority of regulatory agencies to prevent climate change impacts.
In contrast, Al Gore went on to fame and a Nobel Peace Prize for his work to raise awareness of climate change. We cannot, of course, rewrite history to see how a Gore presidency would have helped to curb our current climate crisis. It is possible that President Gore would have struggled to pass meaningful initiatives against a reluctant Congress for example, but it seems safe to assume that a Gore administration would have constituted a stronger response to the threat of climate change.
At the very least, the impact of the 2000 electoral college vote was a delay of four years in addressing climate change (and it is arguable that even though Bush won his second term with the popular vote, that scenario would have been far less likely were he not the incumbent thanks to the 2000 vote). In atmospheric carbon dioxide terms, the eight years of the Bush administration represent the rise from 370 parts per million to 385 parts per million as result of global emissions (about 13 percent of the rise in carbon dioxide since the days of Brearley and about 0.15oC average global rise in temperature).
Not only did those eight years contribute to the issue, they represent a missed opportunity to address the challenge that is now upon us. The administration could have moved on climate change to not only reduce U.S. emissions, but to engage and lead the global community to slow emissions from China (which has now become the largest emitter), India, the European Union and elsewhere.
The Obama administration did not solve climate change, but it did make significant strides both domestically and in international agreements. Obama signed the Paris Climate Accord of 2015 and his EPA finalized the Clean Power Plan in the United States. Perhaps more significantly, President Obama opened the doors of politics to embrace what is a known fact in the scientific community, thereby allowing climate change to be mainstreamed for a wider swath of the country.
Which brings us to November, 2016. Once again, the electoral college system has elected a U.S. president in opposition to the popular vote in the form of Donald Trump. Hindsight in four years will tell us of the legacy of the Trump administration on climate change, but, despite a recent pledge to keep an “open mind” on the subject, the statements and commitments from the administration to date provide strong reasons for anticipating which way he’ll go.
Trump has previously committed to remove the United States from the greenhouse gas emissions and climate change adaptation commitments forged in Paris last year. The president-elect has pointed to climate change as a hoax invented by the Chinese (a claim that has been widely ridiculed by scientists and the Chinese government itself). Most recently Trump nominated Scott Pruitt, a vocal proponent of the fossil fuel industry and climate change doubter, to run the agency that is responsible for regulating greenhouse gas emissions. Trump himself echoed this climate change doubt recently in an interview with Fox News.
The Trump transition website spells out the administration’s preferences when it comes to low and high carbon fuels: “Rather than continuing the current path to undermine and block America’s fossil fuel producers, the Trump Administration will encourage the production of these resources by opening onshore and offshore leasing on federal lands and waters…We will end the war on coal…and conduct a top-down review of all anti-coal regulations issued by the Obama Administration.” It seems safe to assume that the next four years, and possibly well beyond, will constitute another regression in our ability to address climate change, at least at the federal level and perhaps when it comes to the U.S.’s engagement with the world.
Fortunately, there is now potentially enough momentum in addressing climate change to overcome a lack of action by the U.S. federal government. States and municipalities, including large cities, are now acting to reduce emissions and prepare for climate impacts. The European Union continues to lead the world in efforts to reduce global emissions. China has implemented some of the most far-reaching commitments to reduce carbon emissions. Companies themselves have re-iterated their commitments to tackle climate change, including a recent letter to President-Elect Trump calling on him to keep the U.S. committed to addressing climate change.
Trump backing away from climate change action will not be the end of the world. We focus today on the role of the U.S. president to lead on global issues and so we are anxious when that leadership disappears. In the case of climate change, it will be the rest of the world, and millions of leaders, that will move us forward.
That said, the electoral college will have a lasting legacy on all of our lives through climate change. The combination of two administrations headed by presidents who lost the popular vote has and will slow our progress down, and that delay contributes to an ever worsening global climate problem.
Todd Cort is a lecturer in sustainability at the Yale School of Management and faculty co-director of the Yale Center for Business and the Environment.
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