Can the atmosphere survive Donald Trump? The United States, whose cars and furnaces and generating stations account for one-seventh of the world's carbon emissions, is now led by an overt climate-change denier. So it's worth asking if the rest of the world can steer around this giant hole in the logic layer and prevent the worst ravages of climate change.
Mr. Trump and his staff are currently deciding whether to keep the United States in the nearly 200-country Paris Agreement, negotiated with U.S. leadership and enormous difficulty in 2015, that pledges to keep the global rise in temperatures below 2 C and eliminate net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
Even if the agreement is left alone, Washington is not going to be part of the solution during the next four years. Mr. Trump has already appointed a climate denier, Scott Pruitt, to run the Environmental Protection Agency, whose powers he has eviscerated. And he has removed restrictions on coal-fired generation – the single largest source of greenhouse gases – and championed the coal industry.
But there are three important reasons why the White House doesn't have to be a major obstacle to the world meeting the Paris goals.
First, because the market is a more powerful force than Donald Trump.
The market has given up interest in coal, and is sending capital flooding into green energy and transportation – not quickly enough, perhaps, but investors are not going to return en masse to coal even if Mr. Trump removes all restrictions.
Listen to Bill Johnson, the head of the Tennessee Valley Authority, one of the largest electrical utilities in the United States, describe his reason for shutting down the utility's 10 coal-fired generating stations by 2020.
"Our statutory duty is to produce electricity at the lowest feasible rate," Mr. Johnson said in an interview with the Associated Press last week. "And when we decided to close the coal plants, that was the math we were doing. We weren't trying to comply with the Clean Power Plan or anything else. What's the cheapest way to serve the customer? It turned out to be retiring those coal plants." Thousands of other companies are making similar decisions: Even without regulation, they'd be moving away from fossil fuels.
There are already five times more jobs in the U.S. clean-energy sector than there are in the coal and gas sectors combined. The President can slow progress, but to do so, he needs to put the state in the way of economic forces – a very un-Republican thing to do.
Second, because the states are often more powerful than Washington.
Look at California, which would be the world's fifth-largest economy if it were a country (an increasingly popular idea lately), and whose green auto-emissions, power-generation and construction standards have set the pace for other North American jurisdictions. It wasn't federal regulations that made buildings energy efficient, but California's green building standards, which have become the model for other states. They're successful enough that California's post-1990 buildings use 75-per-cent less energy than old ones, and have already saved enough energy to eliminate the need for seven 500-megawatt fossil-fuel generating stations.
California's carbon-pricing and trading regime, the Western Climate Initiative, has been in place for a decade and now includes British Columbia, Manitoba, Quebec and Ontario. If Washington is uninterested in raising the price of carbon to the needed $50 a ton, these state, provincial and international pacts will be able to do it.
Third, because the rest of us can take the lead.
The path away from climate catastrophe became clearer last month with the publication of "A roadmap for rapid decarbonisation" in the journal Science – a painstakingly researched study of the policy moves needed to avert a 2-degree warming. It describes a tough but entirely feasible set of decade-by-decade moves.
First, we need to get the Western world mostly off fossil-fuel use in new vehicles and generation by 2030, and get the developing world started on its way. Markets are already moving there; they just need a big policy push.
Canada suddenly looks like a better model: Flawed, polluting, but committed to reductions. If we can raise our standards and agree to start paying the full price for carbon neutrality, our imperfections will become assets: not a perfect solution, but something better than the clouds from the White House.