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Ideas | Jacob Haqq-Misra

Trump and climate change — a vicious circle

Melting glacial ice floats in Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina. The majority of the almost 50 large glaciers in the park have been retreating during the past fifty years due to warming temperatures, according to the European Space Agency. Mario Tama/Getty Images/Getty

In late May, just as Donald Trump was clinching his party’s presidential nomination, he promised a crowd at a petroleum conference in North Dakota that he would “cancel the Paris climate agreement and stop all payments of the United States tax dollars to UN global warming programs.” In other words, he wouldn’t act to limit the US contribution to global change.

At that same moment, a record-setting heat wave was scorching India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. It affected over 300 million people, exacerbated an ongoing drought, and added to the pressure on residents of vulnerable areas to emigrate in search of cooler climes.


It’ll be highly ironic if, instead of curbing the flow of immigrants from poor countries to rich ones, Donald Trump’s presidency ends up accelerating it.

While the president-elect’s hard line on immigration is his signature stance, he’s also brushed off efforts to combat global warming. Beyond his vow to withhold the remainder of the Obama administration’s $3 billion pledge to the UN Green Climate Fund and reevaluating the commitment to reduce emission levels by up to 28 percent by 2025, he’s nominated Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, who has fought clean-energy initiatives and sided with fossil-fuel interests, to lead the Environmental Protection Agency.

Yet a lack of action on climate change will drive deeper political destabilization in already fragile regions around the world. According to United Nations’ estimates, climate- and weather-related causes have prompted the migration of over 20 million people since 2008. As more and more migrants continue to seek refuge in affluent nations in temperate areas, isolationism may become even more popular in the United States, Britain, and elsewhere.

This will lead to the election of more officials with isolationist tendencies to reject immigrants and limit participation in global problems such as climate change. There’s a vicious circle of climate denial, immigration, and Trump-style isolationism — which perpetuate one another in a climatological feedback loop, that will likely intensify at the expense of a growing population of migrants and a warming planet.


This cycle is already in motion, as conservative antiglobalists vie for power around the developed world. Key figures in the Brexit movement have also decried climate change as a hoax and embraced isolationist policies that invest in national, rather than global, infrastructure. National Front Party President Marine Le Pen advocates for anti-immigration policies in France while simultaneously opposing international cooperation on climate change. Polish President Andrzej Duda was also elected in part as a response to the rise in Islamic immigration across Europe; Duda likewise has threatened to abandon EU climate goals to favor Poland’s coal industry.

Climate change denial is a natural complement to isolationism because both define national interests in sharp opposition to global concerns. Ecologists describe climate change as a “problem of the commons” that requires multiple parties to agree upon terms of use for the shared global atmosphere. Economists describe this as a “market externality” that hides the actual social costs of carbon emissions. Keeping the climate problem unaddressed allows business as usual to continue without the need for meticulous international negotiation on emissions regulation.

Denying the need for climate action has a short term benefit for specific interest groups — namely, for well-heeled fossil-fuel investors, and for coal miners and oil-rig roughnecks who fear for their jobs. But the rest of the Trump and Brexit coalitions fall in line. The phenomenon of “cultural cognition” describes the predisposition for people to choose group values when assessing issues of risk — rather than making personal judgments based on the hard evidence at hand.


Scientific studies continue to confirm the rapid rate of warming in recent decades, with human activity as the primary driver of this unprecedented change. Air bubbles trapped deep in the ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland hold a record of Earth’s past atmosphere, and many ice cores have been analyzed to study how temperature and carbon dioxide have varied with time.

These effects have consequences for people in vulnerable areas: A drought across Syria from 2006 to 2011 contributed to the displacement of over 2 million people, while the steady onset of droughts in Somalia, South Sudan, and other parts of sub-Saharan Africa are expected to further intensify with a warming climate. Arguably, militant groups like ISIS exist partly due to political destabilization in the Middle East that climate change has aggravated.

Meanwhile, coastal regions in Southeast Asia as well as low-lying island nations, such as Tuvalu and the Maldives, are also starting to see the loss of real estate to climate-induced sea level rise.

Climate-change deniers can also insist, at least for a time, on anti-immigration policies that attempt to shield rich nations from the consequences. But such policies can only delay the inevitable pressure that our borders will face in the coming decades, and the lack of a coherent climate plan will only make the immigration problem worse.


The time is ripe for isolationist elected officials to take action on climate change. Trump and his supporters aren’t free-market purists. Even before his inauguration, he’s made a show of intervening with companies to prevent the outsourcing of jobs. The Trump administration, and the Brexit movement, would be wise to accept the need for collective action against climate change, too — if only as a way of upholding the national immigration limits that they seek.

Jacob Haqq-Misra is a research scientist with the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science. Follow him on Twitter @haqqmisra.