Clinton vs. Trump: What do they mean for our climate?

The issue has barely featured in the US presidential election, but Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have very opposing views on climate change and the US’s energy future.

There is a very real chance that Donald Trump could beat Hillary Clinton – the 538 election forecast gives him about a one in three likelihood, based on an aggregation of national and state polls (as of 7 Nov) – and if he wins he will become the only one of 195 world leaders to not believe in climate change. While Clinton recognises the climate threat, Trump has said that it is a hoax perpetrated by China in order to make US manufacturing un-competitive. When it snows in New York, Trump tweets that climate change can’t be real: “It’s snowing & freezing in NYC. What the hell ever happened to global warming?”

Despite increased flooding risks in Florida, wildfires in Southern California, and droughts in the Midwest, nearly half of Americans don’t consider the environment to be a top voting issue. Barack Obama has nevertheless made climate action a priority of his final years as President, bypassing Congress to ratify the UN Paris Agreement on climate by executive order. What are Clinton's plans for carrying Obama's legacy forward, and what will be left of it if Trump wins?

Both candidates see energy as strategically important for the US and want to make the country an energy superpower, but they propose very different ways of going about it.

Trump argues that America is losing out to other nations, particularly China, by making unnecessary regulations and shouldering too much of the burden of climate action. He states this despite the fact that China is heavily cutting back on coal, has signed the Paris Agreement and is surging ahead with sustainable energy production.

He has also said that he would withdraw from the Paris Agreement – which entered into force last week – and remove all constraints on the burning of fossil fuels. Technically no country can leave the deal for four years after it comes into force (i.e. the full term of the next president). But the deal does not include a binding enforcement mechanism, such as financial penalties for not reaching targets, so if Trump were president he could disrupt plans to reduce the US’s emissions without consequences from the UN.

Trump has pledged to “unleash an energy revolution which will bring vast new wealth” to the US. He would give the go-ahead to the Keystone pipeline for transporting oil from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, and would remove restrictions on “beautiful, clean coal”, despite the fact that America has been moving away from coal production for decades and solar is predicted to be cheaper than coal and natural gas by 2030.

Trump is opposed to subsidies for sustainable energy because he believes that it isn’t the government’s place to interfere in the energy market. He wants instead to “level the playing field and let the best or cheapest energy source win out.”

Clinton, on the other hand, envisions the US competing for the $13.5 trillion of global clean energy investment unlocked by the Paris Agreement to become a “clean energy super power” with more than 500 million solar panels installed by 2020 and enough renewable energy to power every home. Some commentators have questioned investing in solar panels given that China is a major exporter of panels and Clinton has pledged to take a tough stance on jobs going from the US to China. Clinton also wants to set up a competitive grant scheme which will award states and cities which lead on sustainable energy.

She opposes Arctic drilling and the Keystone pipeline, and has campaigned against subsidies to big oil. Her past support of fracking is well documented although she has called for greater regulation.

Clinton’s plan for tackling climate change includes adding more power generation capacity to the grid than during any decade in American history including through wind, solar and geothermal energy.

The stakes in this election are extremely high, and not just for the US. Climate has been notably absent in the debate, but the views of the Republican and Democratic candidates have never been more polarised. The situation is a remarkable change since both Barack Obama and John McCain stood on a stance of strong climate action in 2008. As the climate inevitably changes and destructive weather events become more common, will politicians move toward a more unified view or will the debate just become even more polarised?