Donald J. Trump’s positions on climate change amount to a declaration of war on young people like me. But millennials have a stronger position in this fight than it may first appear.
There is no way to sugarcoat the consequences of what happened on Election Day. Mr. Trump is a disaster for the planet. His plan to “cancel” America’s adherence to the Paris climate agreement and accelerate fossil fuel production threatens to destroy global momentum on climate change.
At the international climate talks now taking place in Marrakesh, Morocco, American environmentalists cried upon learning of Mr. Trump’s victory.
“Without U.S. action to reduce emissions and U.S. diplomatic leadership, implementation of Paris will surely slow,” Michael Oppenheimer, a climate scientist at Princeton, told The Associated Press. Keeping the increase in global warming to below two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), which most scientists believe is the tipping point for catastrophic changes to the earth’s natural systems, “would become impossible,” Professor Oppenheimer said.
Mr. Trump, who is 70 years old, probably won’t live to see the deadly consequences of his policies. But if inaction does end up causing a sea level rise of several feet in as early as 50 years as feared by the climate scientist James Hansen and his colleagues in a recent study, many millennials will be forced to experience those consequences.
By the time some of us are Mr. Trump’s age, the study warns, “conflicts arising from forced migrations and economic collapse might make the planet ungovernable, threatening the fabric of civilization.”
I turned 30 a few months ago. I was in Paris last year for the historic climate agreement Mr. Trump now wants to abrogate. As I watched Mr. Trump win the presidency, I was tempted to abandon all the hope I’d felt in France.
He is ready to sacrifice my generation and all the others that will follow it for the limited, short-term economic payoff that comes with burning more fossil fuels.
But I know something Mr. Trump doesn’t, which lets me feel a glimmer of hope: People my age may be able to prevent him from making us pay for his mistakes. We have more power to stall, and perhaps defeat, his climate plan than our elders seem to be aware of.
It’s indisputable that the business case for fossil fuels is shrinking. The bankruptcy filing this year of Peabody Energy, the world’s largest publicly owned coal producer, was but the latest terrible news for an industry whose market, Goldman Sachs says, is in a longterm and irreversible decline.
Oil isn’t doing much better. That industry’s profit margins continue to be squeezed by low global prices. This month, Shell’s chief financial officer predicted that oil demand could peak “between five and 15 years” from now (though other major oil companies say it will be decades later).
A study this year from Bloomberg New Energy Finance argued gas demand could peak in less than a decade.
Mr. Trump’s repeated promises that he will return fossil-fuel workers to their old jobs is at odds with economic reality. It would be more realistic to retrain those workers for renewable energy, which expanded at its fastest-ever rate in 2015, according to the International Energy Agency.
The fossil-fuel lobbyists advising Mr. Trump have no interest in that. But his administration can do only so much to resist these larger economic forces — or the young people who are now accelerating them.
That’s why Mr. Trump’s promise to lift restrictions on oil, gas and coal production within his first 100 days in office may not accomplish much. North America’s oil and gas companies do need people to work for them, but not the aging workers of coal country Mr. Trump made central to his campaign. Those companies need young people.
Many of the industry’s skilled workers are reaching retirement, and millennials have no interest in replacing them. Industry research suggests that less than 20 percent of the workers in the oil and gas industry in the United States are young people.
“It’s regarded as a dirty industry and there are some safety concerns, and it’s just not seen as very sexy,” Pavel Molchanov, an industry analyst, told the website Oilprice. If companies like Exxon can’t reverse this trend, the oil and gas industries may find their $100 billion worth of new petrochemical projects severely threatened, Bloomberg concluded in 2013.
Mr. Trump’s “drill, baby, drill” approach seems unlikely to change young people’s minds. Only 37 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds voted for him, according to exit polls, compared with 55 percent for Hillary Clinton. Millennials know that Mr. Trump’s policies threaten their survival. Climate groups like 350.org, with large followings among young people, are now vowing to “put everything on the line to protect the progress we’ve made and continue to push for bold action.”
This includes an acceleration of fossil-fuel divestment, a campaign that began in 2012 on several dozen college campuses in the United States and has continued to gain steam since. Major financial players are paying attention. The Swiss banking giant UBS calls the movement a “catalyst for change.”
For Mr. Trump to succeed with his destructive environmental policies — and endanger my generation’s future — he will have to reckon with this profound generational shift.
If millennials continue to reject careers in oil and gas, swell the ranks of the divestment movement and do everything we can to keep fossil fuels in the ground, Mr. Trump’s plan to repudiate the Paris agreement and expand drilling in the United States will become unfeasible.
We are entering dark times, but with hope, creativity and effort, we don’t have to let them define us.